The ever-provocative Catherine Breillat comes up with another intimate and occasionally graphic study of female sexuality with "A Ma Soeur!," which translates as "To My Sister!," but which is currently saddled with the uninviting English title "Fat Girl." Whereas the writer-director's last film, "Romance," dealt with the frustrations of an unfulfilled woman, the new one, like her breakthrough "36 Fillettes," tackles the even trickier subject of underage sex and the loss of virginity. Likely to spark censorship debates in some territories, pic, like its predecessor, will also attract strong pro and con reactions from reviewers and audiences alike, but it stands a good chance to achieve a success de scandale in arthouse cinemas the world over.

The ever-provocative Catherine Breillat comes up with another intimate and occasionally graphic study of female sexuality with “A Ma Soeur!,” which translates as “To My Sister!,” but which is currently saddled with the uninviting English title “Fat Girl.” Whereas the writer-director’s last film, “Romance,” dealt with the frustrations of an unfulfilled woman, the new one, like her breakthrough “36 Fillettes,” tackles the even trickier subject of underage sex and the loss of virginity. Likely to spark censorship debates in some territories, pic, like its predecessor, will also attract strong pro and con reactions from reviewers and audiences alike, but it stands a good chance to achieve a success de scandale in arthouse cinemas the world over.

Throughout her career, Breillat has probed the problems of heterosexual women with unflinching candor, and this has made her as many enemies as friends. This new film is arguably her most successful exploration of the subject, at least until the savage conclusion.

Like “36 Fillettes,” the story unfolds with its youthful female characters on summer vacation. Beautiful Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is 15; her plump sister, Anais (Anais Reboux) is just 12. Their parents (Arsinee Khanjian, Romain Goupil) have rented accommodation in an estate near the sea; the sisters share a room, and are forever squabbling, with Elena cruelly hurling epithets like “fat slob” at her sibling, who evidently suffers from a glandular condition she compounds by constantly overeating.

Anais attacks her sister’s “loose morals,” but secretly yearns for romance. It’s clear that though at times the sisters loathe one another, they also have a very close relationship.

Before long, Elena meets worldly Italian law student Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), and they’re soon petting heavily while Anais looks on. The next night, Elena invites Fernando to her room. There follows a typically extended sequence in which Breillat — always excellent when observing the sexual activities of her characters — depicts Fernando’s gradual seduction of the excited but fearful Elena, while Anais — awake and listening — lies in the next bed. In fact, all Elena will permit Fernando is anal intercourse, though in the morning she promises him “the real thing” next time.

The frankness of this sequence is exceeded on the following night when Elena allows the student to deflower her. As she did in “Romance,” Breillat here includes a shot of an erect penis as Fernando puts on a condom. Given that Elena is only supposed to be 15, the nudity and sexual activity in this scene may disturb some viewers and alarm some censors.

All the same, the film cannot be called strictly prurient because the director is so sensitive to the feelings of her female characters, and so successful in honestly portraying the step-by-step path to the loss of Elena’s virginity.

Last third of the film is on another level altogether. When, in the father’s absence, the truth comes out about Elena, it’s left to the mother — who hates driving on highways — to take the girls home. There follows a very tense sequence as the mother inexpertly drives at the speed limit alongside fast-moving trucks and other traffic. The viewer is prepared for some kind of tragedy, but when it occurs it comes entirely out of left field and will have audiences gasping.

Despite the power of these scenes, however, they have an arbitrary feel to them, and the film ends, with a telling freeze-frame, as if the director had reached an impasse and employed an abrupt deus ex machina as a solution. Despite this disappointing conclusion, it’s hard not to be affected by the film, because of the director’s frank approach to her subject and the sheer skill with which she tells her story.

The young cast members are more effective than the adults. Mesquida gives a radiant and bold performance as the precocious Elena. In the generally reactive role of her sister, Reboux is touching and comes into her own in the final scenes. De Rienzo brings exactly the right levels of eagerness, tenderness, charm and naked lust to Fernando. On the other hand, Khanjian and Goupil make surprisingly little of the parents, and Laura Betti, who has one scene as Fernando’s furious mother, overplays embarrassingly.

“Fat Girl” is beautifully photographed and framed by Greek lenser Yorgos Arvanitis and, sensibly, eschews a music track in favor of natural sounds. During the ominous freeway sequence, the car radio blares out David Bowie’s significantly titled “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.”

Fest catalog and press book list pic’s running time as 95 and 93 minutes, respectively, but the version screened in Berlin clocked in at only 86 minutes.

Fat Girl

France - Italy

Production

A Flach Pyramide Intl. release of a Flach Film-CB Films-Arte France Cinema (Paris)-Immagine and Cinema-Urania Pictures (Rome) co-production, with the participation of Canal Plus. (International sales: Flach Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Jean-Francois Lepetit. Executive producer, Fredy Lagrost. Directed, written by Catherine Breillat.

Crew

Camera (color) Yorgos Arvanitis; editor, Pascale Chavance; production designer, Francois Renaud Labarthe; costume designer, Anne Dunsford Varenne; sound (Dolby digital), Jean Minondo; assistant director/casting, Michael Weill. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 10, 2001. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Anais - Anais Reboux Elena - Roxane Mesquida Fernando - Libero de Rienzo Mother - Arsinee Khanjian Father - Romain Goupil Fernando's Mother - Laura Betti The Killer - Albert Goldberg
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more