(CN: Eating disorders, suicide)
Fatness exists on a spectrum that is important to look at (but difficult to do in a way that isn’t objectifying or disrespectful). Chubby’s protagonist, Kevin (David Thielemans), is on different place on this spectrum than many fat characters we’re used to seeing in film, especially fat children. Gerry from Heavyweights is fat, but not to the same degree that Kevin is. Both characters, roughly the same age, are weighed in their respective films; Kevin has 100 lbs on Gerry. But it’s more than a number: after an opening shot of his doctor (Stefan Liberski) measuring him with a caliper and making a noise of disgust, the title card puts the word CHUBBY in bold letters over a closeup of his torso. The outline of his nipples and bellybutton can frequently be seen through the fabric of his shirts. A few scenes of him on a bicycle feature the sound of his heavy breathing. Watching as someone from the United States, Kevin appears to have stepped out of a newsmagazine piece worrying over The Health of Our Children. Kevin’s body is depicted in a confrontational manner.
A significant portion of the film is spent on the medical panic over Kevin’s body. The opening scene of his physical exam culminates with his doctor telling him that his heart is like a vespa engine trying to power a truck, accompanied by the sound effect of a struggling motor over a closeup of Kevin’s chest. This threat of cardiac trouble hangs over Kevin for the rest of the film and is fueled by other characters, like when his sister Océane (Themis Pauwels) says that he’s “committing suicide with creme brulee.” His aquafit instructor (Francoise Bolliat) parallels his doctor, lecturing her class of overweight kids on the potential for overweight children to suffer heart attacks. She also introduces an assistant instructor (Mehdi Douib), an amputee who is meant to “inspire” the children to lose weight by being athletic despite his disability.
Kevin doesn’t respond directly to these barbs; rather, we see their effect more dramatically on his aquafit classmate, Alice (Lisa Harder). Although not as fat as Kevin, she seems to have absorbed more of the devaluing messages levied at her. She shows Kevin how to self-induce vomiting after their class, revealing that her mother taught her how. She also brings Kevin up to the top of a tall building and tries to convince him to jump off with her. Kevin is resistant to both the purging and suicide, which Alice sees as ways to solve her problems. She tells him that she wants to kill herself because she believes that the afterlife has to be an improvement over her life. Alice wants out of her body. Indeed, she disappears for a significant portion of the film, only to reappear late in the third act with bandages on her wrists, which she wordlessly displays for Kevin’s benefit. Her self-destructive behavior does seem like an attempt to get a response from him, but given how her body has been culturally framed both as something that is destroying her and should be destroyed for her own benefit, it’s not surprising that she would use self-harm to broadcast her presence, to try to inspire feelings of care in others. Although Kevin does not attempt to harm himself, he does absorb the view of his body as in danger of being destroyed, when he assumes that an episode of hyperventilation during a stressful event is a heart attack.
Kevin’s personal development over the course of Chubby occurs at the intersection of fatness and masculinity, at turns both liberatory and problematic. Kevin’s size is initially shown both as emasculating– his aquafit class shows him surrounded by girls, two bullies make comments about his breasts– and as a symptom of emasculation. His father is absent, he lives with his two sisters and mother (Julie Ferrier), who is characterized as overbearing, if well-meaning. (Moms are the worst, aren’t they? In, like, every film, book, and tv show ever?) She calls him “my little chick” and– in one creepy moment that I sincerely hope is just an innocent cultural norm that didn’t translate well– gropes his breast while cuddling him. His doctor straight up tells his mother than Kevin needs a male role model in his life.
Kevin finds this role model in Patrick (Swann Arlaud), a gruff security guard and military commando. Patrick is humorless and intense, reminiscent of Dwight Schrute from the Office, and rigidly conforms to a hyper-masculine ideal. His trained attack dog is named for porn star Rocco Siffredi, and his life revolves around living up to his military ideal. Kevin reveres him, following him around and becoming similarly obsessed with the commando lifestyle. He exercises more vigorously under Patrick’s training than in his doctor-mandated aquafit class (and, to the delight of his doctor, loses 4 kilos) and finds the confidence to stand up to his bullies. Patrick introduces Kevin to the Chief (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), an older fat man who owns the security company Patrick works for. Chief coaches Kevin on how to take pride in his fat body, telling him that fat men inspire a sense of comfort in other people and that he should never let anyone make fun of his breasts. He tells Kevin to eat salmon, as the omega 3 will protect his heart. He also shows Kevin some fighting tactics that rely on having a fat body. It always makes me happy when a fat film character shows a competence or skill unique to the experience of having a fat body, but this feeling was subverted to a degree by the cartoonish nature of Chief’s moves, specifically when he sits on Patrick’s face and farts.
Although their example gives Kevin an identity to try on besides fat kid, neither Patrick nor Chief are well suited to being role models. Kevin starts drinking beer and joins his two heroes in some petty burglary. Late in the film, Chief shatters Kevin’s perception of Patrick by revealing that he was never in the military, citing his slight build and uneven legs as the reason why. Indeed, Patrick visibly reacts whenever Chief makes a comment about his slight build. Like Kevin, Patrick has been deemed inappropriate by a social institution because of his body. He deals with that designation by clinging to military life and culture, and also by trying to assert his control over subjects more vulnerable to domination than himself. Patrick doesn’t seem to like Kevin as much as he likes how Kevin idolizes him, and even seems jealous of the connection that Kevin and Chief share over being fat. He tries to seduce Jennifer (Amelie Peterli), Kevin’s older sister, in an overly assertive manner, publicly giving her the third place medal that he and Rocco win in an obedience competition and asking her to “do the bitch.” (That’s what the subtitles said. I don’t know what “do the bitch” means, but it upsets Jennifer greatly.) He recruits Kevin’s friend Mouk (Dodi Mbemba), a petite African kid whom Patrick refers to as a “terrorist,” into a training exercise for Rocco in which the dog is commanded to track and attack him. Patrick’s treatment of Rocco is the most illustrative of his character, as he uses the dog as an accessory for his masculinity. He doesn’t mistreat Rocco, but has no affection for him. He trains the dog using German commands; for the first few scenes, both Kevin and I thought the dog’s name was “zurück,” the command Patrick uses to call Rocco to his side. Patrick uses Rocco to show his own power, his ability to hurt and dominate someone else through his control of a potentially dangerous animal. When Patrick needs to leave town or face arrest, he plans to sell Rocco to fund his escape.
Kevin’s heart, chest, and breasts are a recurring image in Chubby, symbolic of his physical health, but also his emotional wellbeing. He spends much of the film believing that his heart is sick, and likewise idolizing Patrick, who suppresses his emotions and focuses on his ability to be a dominant masculine figure. A more balanced paternal figure is conspicuously absent, as Kevin’s mother and father are newly separated. Although he learns to be assertive and finds power in his fat body from his time with Patrick and Chief, the spiritual change doesn’t come for Kevin until the two men suddenly leave his life. Passing out due to what he thinks is a heart attack, Kevin has a dream in which the doctors safe him via a transplant of Rocco’s heart, “a champion’s heart,” into his chest. He wakes to find his father (Jean-Benoit Ugeux) by his bedside, a gentler (if flawed) paternal figure better suited for his needs a child. His father gently corrects his assumptions about having a heart attack, telling his son that he has “the heart of a champion.” After spending the film being impassive and making selfish choices, Kevin shows an emotional side, more oriented towards the needs of others. He breaks down crying at the thought of Rocco being left to fend for himself. He begs Mouk to forgive him. He finds and adopts Rocco. The final scene, like the beginning, finds Kevin sitting shirtless, but accompanied by Rocco and Alice instead of his doctor and mother, the sound of a human heart beating instead of an engine. He is neither the failing vehicle his doctor describes, nor the heartless commando Patrick longs to be. He is a human being, both capable and deserving of love.