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Sibling rivalry fuels drama in Fat Girl

Catherine Breillat's 'Fat Girl' starts the new year with a bang.

This acutely personal drama of adolescent turmoil centers on a pair of sisters on a summer holiday with their oblivious parents. Fifteen-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is beautiful and all too aware of it, while 12-year-old Ana•s (Ana•s Reboux), the fat girl of the title, is pudgy and sullen.

After meeting Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), an Italian law student, Elena deals with the anxiety-ridden question of shedding her virginity while Ana•s looks on gloomily and practices kissing inanimate objects. Their father (Romain Goupil) would rather be back at work, and their mother (ArsinŽe Khanjian) barely seems there at all.

The sisters' complex love-hate relationship reaches a festering peak during this anything-but-relaxing vacation. A kind of wrenchingly unpleasant perfection is achieved during the two nights that Fernando spends in Elena's bed while Ana•s pretends to sleep in her bed across the room.

It's a terrible and crucial point in the girls' already torturous kinship, which Breillat shoots with a bleak intimacy typical of the film's unsparing vision.

The business of Elena's surrender (and it is a business, filled with subtle negotiations and give-and-take) is treated at length and with a fully realized sense of discomfort appropriate to the moment.

The sandy abrasiveness of the sisters' relationship is relieved just enough by traces of love and dependence to make it even more painful. The naturalism of the performances Ñ especially the emotional weight of Reboux's grimly honest work Ñ is startling.

As Elena reveals her alternating fear and anticipation of her 'first time,' Fernando goes through empty motions of romantic devotion. Both seem devoted only to the process itself and the alternating currents of power involved.

The real emotion here is Ana•s' abject sadness, which we are allowed to share through long takes of Elena and Fernando. The infrequent cutaways to remind us of Ana•s' presence are excruciating, embarrassing enough to us that we can only imagine the feelings of the real observer.

Although the long bedroom sequence is the film's centerpiece, Breillat is equally unflinching the rest of the time. This vacation is no day at the beach. The community feels dreary and vacant, the summer days blanched.

Paired with the unexplained seaside disappearance of a man in the recent French drama 'Under the Sand,' 'Fat Girl' will hardly do wonders for France's coastal tourism.

And we haven't even gotten to the girls' angry drive home with their mother yet. Breillat's shooting and cutting, combined with the mood the characters bring to the trip, invest the sequence with a sense of apprehension to which many traditional suspense films can only aspire.

We haven't mentioned the rest stop yet, either. And we won't, except to say it brings this already sobering trip to a conclusion so jolting that you won't shake it off for days.

So here's the skinny: 'Fat Girl' is a quietly relentless drama of adolescent desolation that shows no mercy.

Cinema 21, 7 p.m. through Thurs-day Jan. 10