Director: Marie Lormeau
Writer: Marie Lormeau
Cast: Alexia Fleres, Frauke Wonnink, Johnny van Denhurk, Reebal Rafeh
Running time: 11mins
The ideological paradoxes of superficial, consumption-driven society sadly manifest themselves in a diverse range of cruel and malignant diseases of the bodies and minds of millions of individuals around the world. Depending on just which part of the global capitalist meat-grinder has set up shop in your neck of the woods these are extremely variable, but in the world’s largest economies, the conflicting expectations of the crumbling socio-economic system is arguably best embodied by eating disorders.
Simultaneously, people are expected to consume constantly, but also to maintain themselves to the standards of an idealised consumable. They must gorge themselves from a never-ending banquet of fetishised food, while having to account and compensate for their ballooning calorie content, lest it compromise their body’s conventional attractiveness to mates, or its exploitability to bosses. And above all, in an atomised and individualistic world where anyone can supposedly thrive by their own determination and ingenuity – despite being deprived of all agency beyond the right to fill another plate at the buffet table, while having to keep yourself in suitable shape for society’s elite to also feast on you – you must always be in control.
In a world where we are told perpetually that if we are unfulfilled by our lot as pigs at the trough being prepared for slaughtered, there must be something wrong with us, it is small wonder that estimates believe only 9% of the worldwide population have eating disorders. When you are essentially programmed to expect choice as an inextricable part of life, and you find that is almost utterly false, where is there to go? On some level, to many sufferers of conditions like anorexia, orthorexia and bulimia, the way in which they ingest food is the last vestige of control they have in their lives – with every other aspect of it strictly policed by their economic station, or the normative expectations of those around them.
Les Yeux Plus Gros que le Ventre (which loosely translated means The Eyes are Bigger than the Belly) is a film which valiantly, if imperfectly, attempts to address eating disorders – and particularly bulimia – through this lens. While it certainly won’t please everyone in the way it approaches an extremely grave subject, the abstract and creative methods it deploys towards its end goal are commendable.
Rather than falling into the all-too-familiar trappings of melodrama – as many other films focused on this subject favour – Alexia (Alexia Fleres) is never presented as a caricature vessel for our pity. She is a well-rounded and believable human being – she retains a close relationship with her family; she has an active social life and lives with her boyfriend in a seemingly happy relationship; and while she does not seem to love her work, she doesn’t seem to be under any overt pressures from it. However, her perceived ‘normality’ is a mask – as it is for so many people either with eating disorders or other mental illnesses. The film’s seemingly upbeat tone serves are consistent with this too – ultimately serving as a warning not to take anyone’s welfare for granted, no matter how positively they might present themselves publicly.
Fleres is well cast as the lead, and her performance is not so much presenting us a duality of “two sides” of a young woman in trouble, as highlighting the ambiguity of a real person’s physical and mental state to an outside observer. Unless they offer up insider information, there is often no easy way of knowing who is well, or who is not. Occasionally then, we see her mind wander from her perspective, as she begins to fixate on the prospect of her next binge, only for her to immediately return to the conversation to offer up a quip in response to someone else’s small-talk.
The rest of the cast are less successful in their performances – perhaps because they are all being directed entirely in their second language. The Limburg based production features mostly Dutch and French speakers, with the majority of the film subsequently taking place in English to bridge between them. Unfortunately, there are more than a few takes where the intonation is a little ‘off’ to the English ear – and while I would be utterly hopeless at delivering dialogue in any other language, it might have served writer-director Marie Lormeau better to coach her actors more closely through her dialogue. Certainly, she would have been well advised to get more takes of each performer delivering their lines in different ways. As it is, however, actors who nail other lines suddenly blurt out “ISEVERYTHINGALRIGHTYOUCANTELLMEYOUKNOW” in the otherworldly mono-cadence of Tommy Wiseau – somewhat detracting from the gravity of the scene at hand.
Inexplicably, the film’s dedication to English goes beyond conversational conventions, too. Alexia’s inner monologue takes place not only in a different language, but a different voice, from her native one. Having seen her imagine a conversation in French with herself in the mirror, it makes little sense to have the narrator living in her head speaking English in what appears to be an English accent – and whatever the reason for it, it becomes a distracting detail which again undermines the broader themes of Lormeau’s film.
In the end, these strange details are what costs Les Yeux Plus Gros que le Ventre a higher score. There will be many who find its tone a little too jaunty for the subject it addresses – something which in a feature, there might be more time to overcome, as seen in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting – a work which this feels to be a spiritual successor of – but in a short, every second and every detail counts. Those momentary lapses of judgement will leave critics much less amenable to giving the film’s ambiguous ending a pass – or to overlook its apparent lack of consequence for the characters resulting from the very serious issues the story handles – and may see the film unfairly written off as mishandling a modern crisis in mental health.
Overall, Les Yeux Plus Gros que le Ventre is an engaging film with a unique approach to a deadly serious condition. Unfortunately, it is still characterised by a number of strange directorial decisions, which may distract viewers from its attempts at social commentary. With that being said, I feel there is something here which needs following up on and elaborating – and I don’t doubt for one second that were she given the time, space and resources to convert this into something bigger, Lormeau would do an excellent job of telling this story as a feature film.