The traditional french seaside during the traditional French summer vacation has long been an inspiration to native filmmakers. But what it has inspired has darkened since Eric Rohmer treated summer love with such sunlit, talky rue nearly 20 years ago in Pauline at the Beach. Four years ago in ”See the Sea,” François Ozon gazed out at dunes and waves and demonstrated, with creepy efficiency, how dangerous paradise could be to mothers and babies. This summer in ”Under the Sand,” the same director explained, with lulling persuasiveness, that married couples shouldn’t get too comfortable either. Now, with the pitiless, devastating Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat puts men and women, boys and girls on notice: When fantasy, hypocrisy, and manipulation mix in a wet, sandy place, you dive into sex at your own risk.
Certainly everyone in this unsparing psychosexual dissection lives dangerously, hurting one another regularly, almost reflexively, even while merely drinking morning coffee. Father (Romain Goupil) is emotionally absent even when present. Mother (Arsinée Khanjian) is tense and dissatisfied, embittered by her own waning erotic power. Older sister Elena (Roxane Mesquida), a beauty at 15, is haughty, sadistic, restless with her own blooming sexual potency. And pudgy, dour, 12-year-old Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux, in a heartbreakingly honest performance), the fat girl through whose eyes this face slapper of a drama unfolds, is heavy with her own hungers and bitterly jealous of her older sister’s recklessness. Theirs is a relationship of love and hate that builds to exquisite misery during a night in their shared holiday-cottage bedroom when Elena — a virgin whose swagger is only a costume — allows herself to be seduced by an older Italian law student (Libero de Rienzo) while Anaïs pretends to sleep.
The extended scene is brutal, all the more because of Breillat’s dry-eyed dissection of sexual warfare — a specialty from the director of the controversial 1999 film ”Romance.” But there’s more. For all her equal-opportunity mercilessness — both sexes are charged with war crimes — Breillat also locates small skirmishes of love, particularly in the symbiosis of need that binds the two sisters. And the director also proves herself a master of suspense. Nothing in ”Joy Ride” or any other on-wheels thriller I can think of is as unnerving as the ”ordinary” car trip during which the steaming mother drives her two furious daughters home from the family’s miserable holiday. Highway traffic has never felt so terrifying.
As for the shocker ending — let’s say it’s a good thing we’ve got a year until summertime lures us to the dangers of the idyllic again.