A ma soeur! Review
Elena (Roxane Mesquida), fifteen, and her twelve-year-old sister Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), are on holiday with their parents by the sea. Anaïs, who is overweight and prone to comfort eating, is frequently on the receiving end of her more conventionally good-looking older sister. Then Elena begins seeing Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), an Italian law student staying nearby.
(Please note that this review contains several spoilers. If you wish to avoid them, please go straight to the section “The DVD” below.)
Catherine Breillat has worked as an actress (including a small role in Last Tango in Paris) but began her career as a writer, both as a novelist and on screen, with credits on such wide-ranging films as Bilitis, And the Ship Sails On and Police. Her second feature 36 fillette (named after the largest French child’s dress size, the last one before going on to adult sizes, retitled far more directly Virgin in the UK) was her second feature as director, and only one of two prior to 1999’s Romance to get distribution here. Based on Breillat’s own novel, it established her prevailing interest in female sexuality, unafraid to delve into its darker and murkier areas, and unflinching in detail. A ma soeur! (released in some English-speaking territories as Fat Girl) continues this theme. It’s less physically explicit than Romance, though we do get to see Fernando putting a condom on to his own erect penis. However, psychologically it’s just as unsparing. Breillat’s style is often elliptical, leaving out certain plot points that we can work out for ourselves, devoting her fairly short running time to the scenes she is more interested in. The centrepiece is Leonardo’s seduction of the virginal Elena, played out in real time. Elena is caught between an instilled urge to please him, while not wholly going along with what he wants, and is finally cajoled into anal sex because if no vaginal penetration takes place “it doesn’t count”. We don’t see the final consummation, only hear it, including Elena’s gasps of pain. Instead as we see Anaïs’s face, supposedly asleep, as she witnesses her sister’s defloration.
The relationship between the two sisters was inspired by Breillat’s own with her older, more glamorous sister (the actress Marie-Hélène Breillat). The depiction of the bond between Elena and Anaïs is the best part of the film: alternating between mutual dislike (they realise that they have been raised to compete with each other) to moments of protectiveness and tenderness. Listen carefully to the early scene where they discuss how they’d like their first time to be: Elena wants it to be an act of love, while Anaïs would prefer her first time to be an anonymous act with a nobody. As the film progresses, both sisters get their wish, after a fashion.
And then there’s the ending. Not so much a twist, more a sharp narrative left turn. If you don’t know what’s coming, it’s a huge jolt, and incredibly disturbing.
Breillat gets extraordinary performances from her young principals in their emotionally demanding roles, in particular Anaïs Reboux, the same age as her character, making her screen debut. The adults have less screen time, but Arsinée Khanjian (an Atom Egoyan regular, and married to him) has her moments as the girls’ mother.
After taking legal advice that satisfied them that the film didn’t violate the Child Protection Act, the BBFC passed A ma soeur! uncut for cinema release. However, when it came to classifying the film for film viewing, they ordered cuts totalling one minute and 28 seconds. (You can read the press releases on the BBFC website: about the uncut cinema release in 2001 and the cutting of the video release in 2002.) Tartan include a notice detailing this in the inside of the DVD case – though be advised that it contains a major spoiler. More than probably any other non-porno distributor, Tartan release titles which test the limits of BBFC acceptability, and have always been upfront about those titles which have had to be cut. Much has been said about the poor quality of some of their DVD releases, but for such openness (including telling us from which countries we can obtain uncut copies of this film) can only be commended. Anyone who wishes to avoid major spoilers should not read the following paragraph, which discusses the cuts, before seeing the film.
The cuts are all in the final sequence, and remove in its entirety the rape of Anaïs. We see her rapist push her to the ground, then we cut to the morning after. The BBFC, after taking professional advice, were concerned that a scene like this: not especially explicit, but even so depicting the rape of an underage girl, could be used by paedophiles to “groom” their victims. The scene as it plays on screen is ambiguous: it could be seen as Anaïs’s vain attempt to offer herself in place of her mother. Alternatively, considering the earlier conversation referred to above, it could be seen as the dark fulfilment of Anaïs’s wishes. Given this reading, it’s a mark of Breillat’s forthrightness that she is prepared to tackle the murky subject of rape fantasies, even to acknowledge their existence in these PC times. At the same time, she doesn’t spare us the sight of Anaïs urinating in fear (an image which the BBFC has not cut): a pleasant wished-for experience this is not. Cut to the morning, with police on the scene: Anaïs is brought out of the woods, denying that she has been raped. Breillat doesn’t let us off the hook: the final words are the highly equivocal “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to”, and she closes on a freeze-frame of Anaïs’s face. A fitting end to a film which raises more questions than answers, and which does survive its unfortunate censorship.
Much has been said of Tartan’s earlier DVDs, which often recycled cinema prints. The problems this causes include excessive contrast and too-small burned-in subtitles. This isn’t the case with their edition of A ma soeur!: the fact that the English subtitles are optional is a giveaway. The transfer is anamorphic, in the ratio of 1.85:1. The Greek cinematographer Yorgos Arvanatis (who photographed Romance and is Theo Angelopoulos’ regular DP) goes for a low-key natural-light look. Certain key scenes take place at night, but blacks are solid and shadow details are fine. Don’t worry about the shot over which the opening credits play (a close-up of Anaïs’s face on a black background) – it’s meant to look dark and grainy! There are sixteen chapter stops.
A ma soeur! played with a Dolby Digital soundtrack in the cinema, but Tartan’s DVD has a Dolby Surround track instead. To be honest, the lack of a 5.1 mix won’t make a great amount of difference, considering that much of the film takes place indoors and many scenes are driven by dialogue. The surround is used for the sparse music score and ambient effects such as the sea and, towards the end of the film, traffic noise.
The main extra is the theatrical trailer, in 1.85:1 anamorphic and running 1:14. As is often the case, it contains its share of shots that would be spoilers if you knew their context. The other extra is Tartan’s customary notes by a critic, in this case Tom Dawson, presented as eight text pages. These do a commendable job of addressing the issues the film raises, but as before, read it after seeing the film. A commentary or interview with Breillat (who does speak good English) would have been welcome, but at least the basics are covered here. Finally, there are six trailers for other Tartan world cinema releases, namely The Lovers of the Arctic Circle, The Red Squirrel, Turkish Delight, Tesis, Dead or Alive and Freezer.
A ma soeur! is a typically provocative and uncomfortable look by Breillat into sexuality, and sexual awakening in particular. Whatever you may make of it, it’s without a doubt a serious film made for adult audiences, and it’s a pity that British adults can’t see it on DVD or video in the form its director intended. In all other respects, this is a decent release from Tartan of a worthwhile film.