Let’s face it: Sex makes Americans squeamish, especially when it’s detached from love and marriage. In fact, that squeamishness may be a defining characteristic of contemporary American culture. A case in point might be Hollywood’s recent treatment of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s long-suffering Puritan pariah, Hester Prynne. In Roland Joffe’s 1995 adaptation of Hawthorne’s parable, the director cast hard-bodied, husky-voiced Demi Moore as the letter-wearing adulteress and improvised a “love conquers all” happy ending, illustrating just how clueless mainstream filmmakers can be.

And they seem to be getting worse, especially when it comes to the sexual rite of passage film, perhaps the only genre whose masterpieces came out of the 1980s. Just compare Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) or Risky Business (1983) to the singularly awful American Pie (1999). It’s ironic that the former two films, flavored with the last morsels of the permissive ’70s, warned that even youthful and exuberant sex has a whole host of consequences, while films in the “family values” era of the 1990s treat adolescent sex obsession as slapstick.

This is why we desperately need more filmmakers like veteran French director Catherine Breillat. Fat Girl, her latest film, is a painful, engrossing and austere coming-of-age story. It’s a shame that the film’s English title may mistakenly elicit comparisons to films like Shallow Hal or Muriel’s Wedding. The French title, À ma soeur! (To My Sister), appropriately conveys the film’s emphasis on sisterly dynamics, as well as its deadpan tone. That tone is the film’s refreshing contribution to the contemporary coming-of-age saga: In staging scenes of adolescent sexual experimentation, Breillat refuses to pander either to Harlequin romanticism’s gauzy tableaux of tender defloration or to the conventional teen flick’s giggly immaturity.

The film presents 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and 13-year-old Anäis (Anäis Reboux) as bratty but appealing sisters left to their own devices on a family holiday at a sterile but upscale ocean resort in France. Elena is a sullen beauty who revels cynically in the knowledge that her attractiveness is her cultural capital, but she also believes that sex is connected to love. The younger Anäis, whose ample body offends everyone except her, is an unwilling witness to Elena’s heartbreaking “romance” with an older Italian law student Fernando (Libero De Rienzo). Fernando’s mother confronts Elena’s mother (the exquisite Arsinée Khanjian) about the details of their involvement, causing great embarrassment, so the girls’ mother cuts the holiday short and takes them home.

Breillat builds the nearly wordless scenes of the angry drive home into the most tension-filled motorway ride since Duel. Throughout the film, Anäis rebukes the mythology of romance that defines her sister’s and her mother’s identities and, in a breathtaking moment at the film’s conclusion that is as powerful as it is problematic, Anäis defines her sexuality for herself.

Anäis is a heroine in the making–a distant cousin of Ghost World‘s Enid (Thora Birch)–who actually has ideas of her own about sexuality and enough sassiness to be convincing. Virtually unflappable, Anäis laughs and bickers with Elena, suffers her insults, but never once seems to envy her sister. She asserts her desire for sexual independence by declaring that the first person she will have sex with will be “a nobody”–rejecting the idea that sexual initiation must change her identity. Anäis’ precocity has everything to do with her recognition of the cultural significance of female beauty, just as Elena’s humiliation is the inevitable result of willful ignorance. This intimate and wrenching film about sexuality, intimacy and sisterhood could not have been made in a culture whose official stance on adolescent sexuality is the abstinence-only curriculum. The same culture that represses intellectual discussions of sexuality thrives on a popular culture industry whose message is the misguided notion that women realize their destiny only when they learn to manipulate the sexual power they supposedly wield over men.

Raging male hormones may be dismissed as a culinary gross-out joke in American Pie, but, as Breillat’s film reminds us, nearly a decade of “girl power” seems to have intensified rather than alleviated the sexual stakes for girls. Parents may preach to their daughters about Britney Spears’ much-vaunted virginity while watching her hips rotate out of the corners of their eyes, but girls aren’t stupid. They recognize the source of Britney-power in the mixed message of yes and no, in the vulnerability of the child bride. Spears’ act recycles the pelvic exuberance of ’70s choreography (the decade that spawned both Bob Fosse and the Solid Gold dancers) and Madonna’s good girl-bad girl persona. Madonna sang that she was “like” a virgin, a claim Spears riffs on when she warbles that she’s “not that innocent.” As Breillat’s film makes clear, our misguided notions about what is important about sex keep young women ignorant in the name of innocence and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.

Fat Girl‘s unblinking demystification of sex in excruciating scenes of Fernando and Elena’s encounters is explosive, particularly because the audience shares Anäis’s position of accomplice and reluctant voyeur. As in her earlier film Romance (1999), Breillat marshals the visual rhetoric of pornography to combat eroticism rather than to arouse. In both films, sex for women characters is more likely to produce discomfort, if not displeasure. Viewers who are accustomed to the conventions of sex in mainstream cinema will be disappointed, even offended, especially if they prefer characters to communicate wordlessly, and that penises be kept off-screen.

Breillat’s ability to sustain Anäis’ perspective without relying on point-of-view shots pays homage to the cinematic restraint of Ingmar Bergman, whose 1962 Nattvardsgaesterna (The Winter Light) inspired Breillat to become a filmmaker. A direct visual reference to Bergman’s Persona shapes a rare scene of sisterly congress, when Anäis and Elena stand temple to temple before a mirror. Unlike Persona, in which two women’s identities merge as they are thrown into close contact, this scene makes clear that Elena and Anäis are not the same woman, partly because of their physical differences, but, more importantly, because their physical differences shape their ideas about who they are. In presenting the girls’ occasional camaraderie, their undeniable intimacy, and their differences, Fat Girl overturns conventional ideas about women’s suffocating closeness and secretive modes of destructive competition.

The film’s truly shocking final moments can be read as Anäis’ violent revenge fantasy, but, frankly, it’s almost a relief to bid farewell to characters so unwilling to relinquish their illusions. Fat Girl is an undeniably harsh commentary on a subject that cries out for demystification. Still, there’s solace in the fact that, in adopting Anäis’ teenage existentialist perspective, the film opens up an entirely new angle of vision. EndBlock