The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Reflections, Spectatorship, and Creation:Female Authorship in A Ma Soeur and Sex is Comedy

Reflections, Spectatorship, and Creation:Female Authorship in A Ma Soeur and Sex is Comedy

Charlotte Anderson

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What I argue, here, is that Breillat’s films, particularly A Ma Soeur (Fat Girl) and Sex is Comedy, portray a distinctly female experience which is all too often forgotten in the conventional cannon. Essentially, this is about representations (and realities) of female authorship beyond the scopophilic. It is a reconsideration of what makes up the social ‘I.’

Women are supposed to be the view and when the view talks back, it is uncomfortable

— Jane Campion

I know why I make films—partly because I want to describe female shame—but beyond that, cinema is a mode of expression that allows you to express all the nuances of a thing while including its opposites. These are things that can’t be quantified mentally; yet they can exist and be juxtaposed. That may seem very contradictory. Cinema allows you to film these contradictions

— Catherine Breillat, “A Woman’s Vision”


There is a project in feminist literary theory to create a distinctly female Symbolic (if we are to, perhaps, misuse these words) that would transcend the patriarchal and reductive language we utilize today, and pay homage to human “contradictions.” It would be a sort of language—a means of representation—that delves into the sensual, the complicated, and (in extremely reductive terms) the feminine. A quote from Cixous’, “Laugh of Medusa,” comes to mind: “I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs” (Cixous, 876). This is a language of the body and precisely the aim of Catherine Breillat’s cinema: to articulate “unheard-of songs”—to construct a new language of contradiction. Her films frequently addresses issues of female subjectivity, production (as opposed to re-production), and sexuality. But these themes are especially evident in A Ma Souer (which translates to “for my sister,” but was marketed as Fat Girl in English speaking countries) and Sex is Comedy. Within both of these works, Breillat’s heroines and Breillat, herself, mercilessly “talk back.” Through her art she provides a distinctly female perspective—a poetic and sensual vocabulary in the tradition of Kristeva and Cixous that would normally never appear on screen. Her films have often been vilified as pornographic and grotesque. But this is precisely the space that femininity in western society (and, by extension, female subjectivity) occupies—that dark chasm between object and abject. Time and time again, Breillat explores issues of female authorship—the handicap of being a female artist within a primarily masculine milieu—and how this ties into the grotesque. Indeed, through her body of work, Breillat has succeeded in formulating a sort of Feminine Symbolic.

In the west, female sexuality is very much tied to a lack (this idea of a hole needing to be filled), a passiveness (a fundamental incompleteness), to being the inactive object of spectatorship and worship. In her film, A Ma Soeur (Fat Girl), Breillat finally brings to light the experience of female subjectivity within this system; she perfectly exemplifies what it is like to exist within this tension of being at once the object of desire, on the one hand, and demonic (speaking) on the other. In this story, the protagonist is actually two. It is the story of two sisters who represent opposing forces of femininity—namely, the image and the image that talks back. The older sister, Elena, is strikingly beautiful: she embodies the perfect vision of femininity. She is slim, reserved, and chaste (but not too much so); she seems to have no desires of her own. She is a vessel for the sexual impulses of the men around her. The younger sister, on the other hand, Anais, is obese and sensual; she occupies her days by languishing in the pool, exhibiting her bloated flesh, and feeding herself constantly. She is the perfect exemplification of the uncontrolled, sensual, and bodily woman, which incites disgust from the people around her. Tragically limited by her youth and large frame, Anais has no outlet through which to exert her sexual desires. Instead she is forced to stand by as her sister (who is very pretty, slim, and two years her senior) gallivants off with a charming, Italian college student named Fernando. It is Elena, and not Anais, who is the truly tragic figure in this film.

Elena’s character is representative of ‘object-ness.’ She is beautiful, aloof, and very, very young. She is a child in a woman’s body, so to speak, with only a vague awareness of her sexuality in that she is aware of her own beauty, but unaware of her own physical wants. Indeed, Elena is far more interested in sentimentality—in the idea of love—than actual, carnal desire. In bed, half naked but coyly draped in a transparent dress, she lies with an Italian man several years her senior and insists on maintaining her virginity. In a moment that belies her absolute naivety she asks Fernando, “You’ve loved a lot of girls before?….I’m just asking if you’ve had lots and lots of girls” (Breillat, 2001). Elena is so young she cannot differentiate desire from love; she conflates the two. A viewer might be compelled to pity her, but Elena is merely the product of an oft-propagated narrative. In fact, her character perfectly exemplifies the feminine figure that Irigary outlines in her essay, The Sex Which is Not One. She writes:

Woman, in  this sexual imaginary [which governs western sexuality], is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies…Not knowing what she wants, ready for anything, even asking for more, so long as he will ‘take’ her as his ‘object’ when he seeks his own pleasure. Thus she will not say what she herself wants; moreover, she does not know, or no longer knows, what she wants.  (Irigary 25)

Elena’s only art is the perfect mask of femininity, which is not agent. She is not creative; she is not productive; she is naïve. Without desires or wants of her own, she is an “obliging prop.” Elena is the most beautiful character in A Ma Soeur, but also the least complete. She has no authority—no agency—because she is a thing to be looked at and not to speak. Elena is tragic because she cannot genuinely create—she has no real desire. Her only art is the construction of herself—or more, the construction of herself in response to the wants of another—the mask of her femininity. Indeed, her much older ‘lover’ (and I use that term loosely), Fernando, continuously and relentlessly pressures her into sex, which is obviously un-enjoyable, and even painful, for Elena. And she, with little resistance, complies. So, here the idea of romance becomes just as pernicious and exploitative as outright objectification. As film critic Anne Gillain writes:

The two extremes of the deformation of the feminine in film are pornography, on the one hand, and Hollywood, on the other—ass and romance. Each in its own way caricatures, fetishizes and exploits women. Myths of Hollywood-style, soulful love relationships, wherein the woman either loses out or is submissive, are no less pernicious than the obscene close-up shots of X-rated films. Reaching a universal public and molding the collective imaginary, these myths actually become an ideological shackle that advertising and social mores adopt in an endless game of mirrors.  (Gillain 204)

This is precisely the phenomenon—this game of mirrors— that Breillat explores and then defies in A ma Soeur—a sexuality dependent upon men—steeped in a mythology of virginity and whoredom, in which the woman is either defiled or worshiped. So lost in the sentimentality of love—so unaware that she is perceived as merely an object of desire—Elena does not foresee Fernando’s betrayal: his promises of love and devotion are weak and false. By the end of the film, Elena is emotionally shattered. She has become a ‘woman’ in the sense that she has lost her virginity, but not in the sense of becoming an autonomous individual.

Where Elena is the object of desire, her sister Anais is the object of disgust. But it is her abjectness—her otherness, her complete failure in the production of femininity—that frees Anais from this worship, defiling dichotomy. As Gillain perceptively points out in her profile on Catherine Breillat:

In [her] films the woman does not give herself, does not abandon herself, she is not captive of, let alone honored by, the male’s sex. The traditional terminology is tantamount to admitting to vassalage in the sexual act. This type of sexuality can only be, in Breillat’s view, a fool’s deal. Monique Wittig’s provocative phrase may come to mind here: ‘a lesbian is not a woman,’ which means that the lesbian breaks all traditional codes of sexual behavior as defined by heterosexuality. Breillat achieves the same thing within the heterosexual framework.  (Gillain, 206)

Alongside her svelte sister, Anais seems swollen—she exerts herself upon her environment. She is not frail or shy, but direct and scathingly observant.  Her fatness is almost a way of taking possession of the space around her. Unlike her sister, Anais’s sexuality is highly auto-erotic; she is deeply sensual and consumptive. She has a multitude of desires. Anais, the fat girl, the namesake of the film, is agent and sexual. Talking about losing her virginity, she states early in the film, “the first time should be with nobody. I don’t want a guy bragging he had me first.” (Breillat, 2001). Here, we see irrefutable evidence of Breillat’s aim: to create a character whose sexuality is entirely self-sufficient—one who will come into herself, becoming an ‘I’ as opposed to an object.

Anais is a character who is continuously self pleasuring. She feeds herself over and over again, a figure of unabashed consumption. In one particular scene, while laying at the poolside, she empties an entire can of sunscreen onto her thighs, smearing it all over her body. Anais is without a doubt the most sensual, and perhaps free, character in this film. For much of it she languishes in her bathing suit, creating imaginary sexual scenarios in her backyard pool. But, Anais cannot exert her sexual desires. She is limited by the state of her body. In one perfectly beautiful and sad scene, she lies fully clothed on the beach, allowing the ocean water to swell around her, to cover her with bits of sand and filth. Meanwhile, her sister and Fernando are off making love (Breillat, 2001). Anais is unable to use her body the way she wants; because of her appearance she is denied. But this is in actuality a boon. Anais is not a vision—she is not the image that people seek—so she is free to turn her watchful eye on the events occurring around her. She bears witness to her sister’s entire affair and sees it for what it really is: sad. Because Anais is not the object of desire—because she does not successfully replicate femininity (not from a lack of trying, it must be understood)—she is in fact unrestricted and free to produce. As an independent subject (rather than an object) who can speak for herself, Anais is able to create her own sexual world. Her obvious youth, looks and weight protect her from the trap her sister has fallen into—she is allowed to form a subjectivity precisely because society finds her abhorrent. And this is the sense of female authorship that Breillat explores in A Ma Soeur. She rejects the notion of a woman defined by her spectator and heralds the woman as spectator—as an analyst and creator. As filmmaker, Agnes Varda, once stated, “The first feminist gesture is to say, well, okay, they may be looking at me, but I’m looking too. The act of deciding to look and deciding that the world is not defined by how they look at me but how I look at them” (Mandy, 2000).

It is because of this agency—this active watching—that Anais ultimately comes out of the film victorious, having (unlike her sister) satisfied her sexuality on completely autonomous terms. Indeed, the explosive ending to A ma Soeur solidifies Anais as a self-defined being—an observer free from the constraints of being the object of observation. At the end of the film, Anais, Elena, and their mother drive home along a busy, terrifying highway. Semi-trucks zoom past their tiny car and the viewer is certain that death is imminent. It is. Eventually they pause at a rest stop to sleep a bit before moving on. There, a truck driver breaks into their car, bashes Elena over the head with an axe, strangles the mother, and rapes Anais. However, this is in fact a triumphant moment for Anais. She takes pleasure in the rape, which is in actuality not a rape at all. This is exactly the sort of anonymous scenario Anais had wanted for the loss of her virginity. In this way, there is “no man bragging that he had had [her] first” (Breillat, 2001). Gillain notes,

The silent rape scene reveals her sexual pleasure. In the last take, she tells the police, gazing all the while at the audience: ‘I was not raped. If you don’t believe me, don’t believe me.’ This ending…undeniably reflects in metaphoric terms a sort of fulfillment for the female character. The rapist has transformed her into a woman in the sort of anonymity she has wished for previously. He has also eliminated the two crushing figures of femininity, her mother and her sister, that had trapped her in a space of overeating and obesity. Births are ugly. She is born amidst the ugliness of rape. Breillat’s women get what they want at the end of her films and emerge victorious in her stories. They find their sexual identity without having to admit defeat in the usual way.   (Gillain 210)

So, unlike Elena who derived no sexual pleasure from her “deflowering” amidst a false narrative of eternal love, Anais finds satisfaction in an anonymous and violent encounter. The brutal killing of her sister and mother symbolizes liberation from an oppressive conception of femininity—she is free to exist on her own. This sense of violent becoming is echoed in Kristeva’s, “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,” in which she writes, “I am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During the course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit” (Kristeva, 3). It is in this way that Anais becomes a subject—is born as an ‘I.’ Through the other and through abjection she can formulate herself in a way that is completely separate from the male symbolic. These oppressive definitions, though violently, are expelled.

Elena and Anais actually represent two components of the feminine experience as perceived by Breillat. They are one soul in separate bodies—two components of the same feminine personality: the object of desire—the performance of femininity— on the one hand, and the abject—the sensual, autoerotic, and desirous being, which western culture tends to flinch at—on the other. In one of the most tender moments in A Ma Soeur, both sisters gaze into the mirror. Anais says affectionately to her sister, “We really have nothing in common. Look at you. You have small, hard, eyes, while mine are hazy. But when I look deep into your eyes, it makes me feel like I belong, as if they were my eyes” (a ma soeur, 2001). Indeed, where Elena is the picture of western femininity— mysterious, her eyes “hazy” and unseeing—her sister is the exact opposite: sharp, perceptive, consumptive, imposing and agent. But, in actuality, they are the same. “While her body finds itself …eroticized, and called to a double movement of exhibitionism and of chaste retreat in order to stimulate the drives of the ‘subject,’ her sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see. A defect in this systematics of representation and desire. A ‘hole’ in its scoptophilic lens” (Irigary 26) Through these two characters, Breillat successfully replicates a female subjectivity, which is the contradiction of being, at once subject and object, and punctures a “hole” in the Symbolic.

This trouble with finding words haunts Breillat’s other film Sex is Comedy. Here, she explores women’s artistic expression by turning the camera back onto her own work. Sex is Comedy is actually about a female director (who is undoubtedly a representation of Breillat, herself) creating a film that is analogous to A Ma Soeur. In fact the two films (the real one and the fictional one) share identical scenes. Sex Is Comedy explores the ways in which a pure, productive, female creation comes about—the trouble of seeing one’s self. In her essay, Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator, Mary Anne Doane addresses the trouble of female creation and analysis in a linguistic sense. Discussing a lecture Freud once gave on femininity (in which he evicted a female audience member), she writes:

The woman, the enigma, the hieroglyphic, the picture, the image… she is the problem…The woman [like the hieroglyphic], harbors a mystery, an inaccessible though desirable otherness. On the other hand, the hieroglyphic is the most readable of languages. Its immediacy, its accessibility are functions of its status as a pictoral language, a writing in images. For the image is theorized in terms of a certain closeness, the lack of a distance or gap between sign and referent…the intimacy of signifier and signified in the iconic sign negates the distance which defines phonetic language. And it is the absence of this crucial distance or gap which also, simultaneously, specifies both the hieroglyphic and the female. This is precisely why Freud evicted the woman from his lecture on femininity. Too close to herself, entangled in her own enigma, she could not step back, could not achieve the necessary distance of a second look.  (Doane, 18)

Here, using Strauss-ian vocabulary, Doane outlines the fundamental problem of the representation of women and by women in art. If woman is the image, she is the thing to be seen—to be viewed from a distance. If she is the hieroglyph—the “pictoral language,” lacking a distance between her self and her persona, she cannot see but only be seen. Her status as spectator is negated. As an object, she is too close to herself—“entangled in her own enigma.” She is the unreadable object —unconscionable within a patriarchal symbolic, unless only through objectification—an oppressive simplification.

Breillat points to this handicap in Sex Is Comedy. In fact, this impediment to female creation appears in the form of a broken foot in Sex Is Comedy. The injury is undoubtedly a nod to the Oedipal wound—in the Lacanian sense, an irreversible maiming by the Symbolic. The director, Jeanne, is the one who bears this unexplained injury. Katherine Ince writes of the scene:

Jeanne is limping around the set due to a foot injury that has put her foot in plaster. The inquiry is shrouded in mystery and apparently symbolic of Oedipally disadvantaged femininity, since when asked, Jeane says it is not she that has broken her ankle, but her ankle ‘that broke itself, It’s a metaphor for the film…Jeanne’s foot injury symbolizes the disadvantage Breillat sees women directors as suffering by virtue of their sex.   (Ince 162)

Thus, we as viewers are made explicitly aware of the issues Breillat is dealing with . The female artist is represented here as disadvantaged by this subject/ object duality that exists within the patriarchal Symbolic, and by extension within herself. She does not have the language to articulate her subjectivity, because it does not (yet) exist.

            But this difficulty is perfectly subverted within the realm of film making. Indeed cinema is the perfect arena within which to enact this oedipal drama—to play with the conventions of language, authorship, and spectatorship. Film, itself, replicates the subject object dilemma. Mary Doane writes in her essay, “Film and the Masquerade:”

Historically, there has always been a certain imbrication of the cinematic image and the representation of women…As Noel Burch points out, the early silent cinema, through its insistent inscription of scenarios of voyeurism, conceives of its spectators viewing pleasure in terms of that of the peeping Tom, behind the screen, reduplicating the spectator’s position in relation to the woman as screen. Spectatorial desire, in contemporary film theory, is generally delineated as either voyeurism or fetishism, as precisely a pleasure in seeing what is prohibited in relation to the female body.  (Doane, 20)

Perhaps it is for this reason that Cixoux once said, ““if I were asked: is there a social space in this country where the disease (misogyny) is not at home? What would I say? …Except the theatre…it is there that the incidence of misogyny will be the lowest, or else nonexistent” (Cixous, Unmasked!,159). Indeed, anyone appearing on the screen will undergo this process of objectification—the construction of a mask—male or female. Theatre, itself, reproduces over and over again the male gaze. Like Anais in A Ma Soeur, Jeanne plays with this sexual economy. She completely reverses this idea of the passive, victimized woman. She is a pure, creative force, and iron-willed in the execution of her artistic vision. In Sex is Comedy, she plays the simultaneous spectator, architect, sex object and sexual predator as she resolutely directs her project and manages unruly actors.

Throughout the film, Jeanne cultivates an incredibly intimate relationship with her male actor, but almost none at all with her actress. Indeed, the actress already knows how to simulate love with her male partner (despite hating him). The male actor, on the other hand, is temperamental, whiny and unable to fake any attraction. This, after all makes sense, the female actress is accustomed to the pretense of romance and has played this same role all her life. At one point Jeanne states, “I’m talking about actors, not actresses. With them I get along even when we don’t like each other. The violence, the power trip is masculine. But its when you put them down that they’re dazzling, as if they needed it. Because an actor is female. He has to be, to be an actor” (Breillat , 2002). In the moments of dialogue between Jeanne and her actor, a new sexual economy is revealed. She is aggressive toward the male artist who attempts to impose himself onto her work—she forces him into the role she wants him to play. And in this way, he becomes the object of her desire. In Sex is Comedy, the female artist finally achieves her vision. She, alone, produces her art—sets every frame—controls and decides upon every detail.

But most fascinating about this film, is the insight it offers into A Ma Soeur. Much of this film explicates the previous one. It is only by watching Sex is Comedy that we better understand the character of Elena and realize that, perhaps, she is not as tragic as we had previously assumed. The scene that Jeanne and her assistant stage together perfectly replicates Elena’s first sexual experience with Fernando in A Ma Soeur. Jeanne explains, “It’s the conflict between her desire. She wants him…And her view of her own dignity. Is getting laid by a boy good for her self-image? Sex is what people do most and admit least” (Breillat, 2002). Yes, there is tragedy in this scene. But it is not that Elena is being pressured into sex: it is her own internal struggle between her sexual desires and societal conceptions of dignity and self-worth, which she cannot reconcile. This is what makes the scene so painfully sad. Breillat uses Sex is Comedy to push this message even further—to discount the fallacy of the power of the phallus. In her analysis of the film Ince writes,

Sex is Comedy, and especially the scene of the ‘deflowering’ of the Actress (Roxane Mesquida) by the Actor (Gegoire Colin), appears to deal in fixed sexual identities. But the fact that a prosthetic and not a real penis is worn by the Actor for this scene is the clue to the fact that something quite different is going on—that the phallic mastery that would deflower the Actress is a masquerade  (Ince, 159)

Ultimately, “phallic mastery…is a masquerade.“ It is language and representation that bind us—our own self-made prisons. As Jeanne perceptively points out while setting the ‘deflowering’ scene, “girls let boys do things because it forces boys to do them” (Breillat, 2002).

Catherine Breillat is a fascinating artist because she works so strenuously to accurately portray female subjectivity, adolescent sexuality, and the troubles of representation. It is completely evident that she is preoccupied with language and its limitations, as well as its relationship to the development of the social subject. She does not flinch away from attempting to portray a distinctly female art—a distinctly female symbolic.  To many, this may seem a counterproductive project. As Gillain eloquently puts it, “when a woman director was asked to define the difference between her work and the work of a male director, she would most often reply, ‘there is none.’ That was deceiving and, of course, erroneous. Are we to believe that women—finally permitted self-expression after centuries of artistic silence—have nothing new to say when their experience has so little in common with that of men? “ (Gillian, 202) It is understandable: the taboo of differentiating male artistry from  the female. However one does not discount the other. Men have dominated the art world, and this is a historical fact. Women as a group have something new to say, and perhaps also new ways in which to speak—a language that comes from the body, a language of eroticism, a language that dwells in the margins—the seams.  There is a unique perspective to be had.

Charlotte Anderson is an academic without the worst of it. She likes thinking about things, and speaks the language of pompous university goers who will probably never leave the Shire. Badly. But she also maintains a healthy skepticism toward herself, along side everything else. She’s curious about assumptions. She is curious about limitations. She wonders about forgetting. Born in Seattle, Washington, but raised in a tiny Idahoan community on the edge of the mountains, Charlotte misses pine trees and empty space above all else.

Works Cited

A Ma Soeur. Dir. Catherine Breillat. Perf. Anaïs Reboux and Roxane Mesquida. Code Red Films, 2001. Download.

Cixous, Helene. “Laugh of Medusa.” Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-93. JSTOR. Web. 23 Mar. 2011.

Cixous, Helene. “Unmasked.” Beyond French Feminisms. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 156-60. Print.

Doane, Mary. “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator.” 17-32. Print.

Gillain, Anne. “Profile of a Filmmaker: Catherine Breillat.” Beyond French Feminisms. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 201-11. Print.

Ince, Katherine. “Is Sex Comedy or Tragedy? Directing Desire and Female Auteurship in the Cinema of Catherine Breillat.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64 (2006): 157-64. JSTOR. Web. 03 May 2011.

Irigaray, Luce. “This Sex Which Is Not One.” 23-32. Print.

Sex Is Comedy. Dir. Catherine Breillat. Perf. Anne Parillaud, Grégoire Colin and Roxane

Mesquida. Netflix. Rezo Films. Web. < Sex_Is_Comedy/60027731trkid=2430625#height1611>.

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