Like Catherine Breillat's previous films, A Ma Soeur (For My Sister) carries more than its share of baggage. In 2001, the BBFC granted an uncut 18 certificate for cinema, following advice from a leading QC who stated this film could not be deemed obscene, and did not controvene the 1977 Protection Of Children act. A few months later, A Ma Soeur fared less well when it was submitted to the board for home video classification. After close examination by clinical psychologists, the BBFC decided to remove one scene in its entirety, which depicted the rape of an underage girl. A statement from the board explained video/DVD technology could be used by paedophiles as a tool for grooming potential victims after (re)viewing scenes of this nature.
Catherine Breillat's film is an emotive study of the relationship between two sisters - 15 year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and 12 year-old Anais (Anais Reboux); the former initially coming over as a selfish, sneering bitch who uses and abuses her overweight sibling. Elena wastes no time in playing fast-and loose with slightly older suitors, and has her first taste of sex with an Italian student while on holiday ("Girls take it from behind. That way, it doesn't count".); her sister feigning sleep while watching every move from her nearby bed.
On the surface, this may sound like a depressingly familiar tale of sibling rivalry but look closer and you'll discover an articulate film that's head and shoulders above the usual teenage angst fare. There's also a wide range of emotions on display than is usually the case for this controversial director, who tends to add a lot more ice to her celluloid cocktails. As the film progresses, Anais ("I'm sick of being your ball and chain") and Elena show their relationship is built on acceptance, truth and love, with jealousy taking a back seat when they need to be there for each other.
Given its short 82 minute running time, A Ma Soeur is remarkable in terms of characterisation, offering more light and shade than many other films running at twice the length. While Romain Goupil (the girls' father), Libero De Rienzo (Fernando, Elena's boyfriend) and Laura Betti (Fernando's mother) all make contributions of varying significance, this is essentially a three-hander: the excellent Arsinee Khanjian struggling to keep a grip on her wayward daughters; Roxane Mesquida flitting from black to white and doing it beautifully, and Anais Reboux whose performance is one of maturity and extreme courage. Anais' character turns self-perceived negatives into tools of self-help, and benefits the most from Breillat's haunting imagery; one scene at the beach is straight out of Von Trier's Breaking The Waves, showing Anais at her most vulnerable. In comparison to Breillat's previous films, A Ma Soeur is yet another censors nightmare though one feels bound to question the decision to cut an entire scene. From one viewpoint, it makes for an ambiguous ending, though the final line of dialogue ("Don't believe me if you don't want to") could well have been written in anticipation of censorship problems.
A long car journey from their holiday location, fraught with menace from motorway juggernauts, suggests that outside forces will soon break up this family and a particularly savage scene confirms out worst fears. This would be enough for most directors, but Breillat shot the notorious rape scene almost as an afterthought, attracting much criticism from those who felt she'd gone too far. While I feel A Ma Soeur does work without this controversial footage (which lasts for 78 seconds), it seems wrong to censor the directors choices. Yes, the scene is most unpleasant to view but so is Salo, which will forever be the albatross round the collective necks of the BBFC.
While A Ma Soeur will almost certainly be bettered by this talented, uncompromising director, it is a powerful film, possessing a good deal more emotion and warmth than most critics will admit. Those wishing to view the uncut version are directed to various online retailers who will supply an excellent quality disc on either Region 2 or Region 4; a state of affairs that makes one wonder just how long the BBFC can continue.