“I can’t diet; I’m hungry.”
You hear this phrase twice within the first 30 minutes of “J’ai faim !!!,” a grossly underrated French comedy written and directed by Florence Quentin, and starring Catherine Jacob as Lily. The reason those words are uttered at all is because people all around Lily keep insisting she needs to lose a few pounds. The kicker? Lily is actually thin.
“I can’t diet; I’m hungry” is a perfectly sensible thing to say when someone pressures you to diet, but Lily stops making any sense as soon as her terrible boyfriend Barnabé leaves her. When her best friend Arlette reveals he left her for Anaïs, the tall, slender art director who just started working at his office, Lily throws herself into an extreme diet called the Montalembert.
The fictional Montalembert diet forces you to eat just one type of food per week (e.g. cucumbers). You can eat as much of it as you want (so many cucumbers), but that’s the only food you get to eat (ugh, cucumbers again?). It requires you to consult Dr. Montalembert in the flesh, buy his book, buy his sister’s companion cookbook, go to aquafit classes, and get painful artichoke extract treatments. It’s a crazy-expensive investment, but, as Arlette puts it, “Since you don’t eat anything anymore, it evens out.” The kicker? Dr. Montalembert is actually fat.
If you think the Montalembert is too crazy even for fiction, consider that more than two decades after Oprah infamously lost a tremendous amount of weight with what turned out to be a dangerously unhealthy liquid diet; a renowned personal-trainer-to-the-stars is, as we speak, hawking a diet that requires feasting on nothing but smoothies for at least a week.
“J’ai faim !!!” recognizes the insanity of dieting, and it doesn’t give us any room to see it any other way. So when Lily says she’s hungry, her own mother advises her to drink a bowl of hot water and it’ll pass. When the Montalembert diet causes a hairdresser faint three times, he recovers by switching to “protein packets.” When Lily refuses a glass of champagne, she explains, “I have to avoid nutritional anarchy; my body can only receive one message, and this week, that message is yogurt.” People don’t behave like this ... unless they’re starving.
The movie also contrasts how women and men interact with food. So while the leading women in “J’ai faim !!!” don’t let themselves enjoy eating, the men get to dine and dash, indulge in delicious stuffed tomatoes, share recipes, and order baguette sandwiches with extra pickles.
Most notably, the film demonstrates that diets and beauty standards are effective tools in subjugating women, then pitting them against one another. Lily doesn’t just put herself through the impossible Montalembert diet; she also gangs up with her friends against Anaïs to make her life absolutely miserable. They prank-call her, vandalize her home, destroy her cherished agenda, and eventually, Lily beats her up. The kicker? Barnabé didn’t actually leave Lily for Anaïs.
The only light in all this is the physiotherapist, who revels in Lily’s chaos, and—wait for it—invites her out to dinner ... Like, specifically to eat food ...Then marvels at her healthy appetite!
Even though Lily and her physiotherapist don’t completely hook up in the movie, you know that’s where it’s headed. But what Quentin is really suggesting here is that the person who truly loves you doesn’t just let you eat; they make you want to let yourself eat.
There are very few moments in “J’ai faim !!!” that women won’t be able to relate to. For instance, you know who makes the biggest deal out of Lily’s weight? Her own mother. Boutiques never seem to have Lily’s size, and clerks find her difficult for insisting on wearing whatever the fuck she wants. Arlette is obsessed with weight loss and is shocked at how painful her (completely unnecessary) liposuction turns out to be. Thing is, all this shit is fairly common.
You don’t sympathize with Lily just because she’s the protagonist; you root for her because the world she lives in won’t stop punishing her for liking food, which, from this side of the screen, is clearly ridiculous. And the most radical thing you can do to resist that much absurdity is to have dinner at a fancy restaurant with your sexy physiotherapist.