I could lie and claim that I understood everything controversial French director Catherine Breillat intended to relay in her bizarre 2004 film Anatomy Of Hell the first time I watched it. But I won't. To a lot of viewers it may seem like just another twisted and pretentious "art-house" quasi-porn flick; which, in a way, I suppose it is. However, after watching this film twice, and watching the lengthy interview with the director on Tartan's DVD extras and reading a number of other interviews, I have a new appreciation, not only for this film, but for Catherine Breillat in general. She is an extremely intelligent lady. Saying this, I'll add that I've literally seen thousands of horror films and none surpass Anatomy Of Hell as far as being weird, disturbing or perverse. Breillat explores female sexuality and men's darkest fears about women's sexual power in this startling explicit and clinical film. The story centers on a woman (former model Amira Casar-The Last Mistress with Asia Argento) who pays a gay man (porn star Rocco Siffredi-Romance, Joe D'Amato's Tarzan-X: Shame of Jane) to accompany her home and watch her most private activities for four nights. To "watch her when she is unwatchable". He accepts her solicitation and is initially repulsed by the obscenity of the female body (???). Eventually, however, the two develop an intimate relationship, which threatens the man's identity.
Though I'd heard of her of course, I've only just recently delved into the film's of Breillat. The first one, 1999's Romance, was impressive and thought provoking in a cold, clinical sort of way. I keep using the word "clinical", but really that is the best way to describe her films. As I mentioned in an earlier post on Romance here at horrorman Blogs, Breillat's films are usually grim and humorless and explore female sexuality in a stark and unflinching style, including scenes which border on the hardcore. I've heard it said that with her detached analytical approach, Breillat "takes the fun out of sex", which is true enough. With Anatomy Of Hell, the director brings to the forefront how men, perhaps unconsciously or very consciously, fear women and are perhaps even repulsed by them. Early on in the movie, when Casar's character slits her wrist in the bathroom of a gay nightclub, Rocco Siffredi's character rushes in to rescue her, "Why did you do that?" he inquires. "Because I'm a woman," Casar says. The Man, being gay, isn't that crazy about women either. Later on, back at The Woman's seaside chateau, he stands over her as she lies nude on her bed and proclaims, “I bless the day I was born immune to you and all of your kind. The elastic resistance of a boy's anus doesn't lie about the tightness of his lower intestine. The lie about the softness of women is hateful…the malevolent triviality that turns them into a trap.” Even as a little girl, The Woman was viewed as an oddity by her young male playmates, who, after growing tired of pushing her and asserting their male dominance, coerce her into playing "doctor". Of course, when she lays in the bushes and removes her panties, the three boys giggle and point and prod her vagina with the stems of their eyeglasses.
"Essentially, she's paying him to watch her where she can't be watched," Breillat said in a 2004 interview with Kevin Murphy. "It's like the theory of Pythagoras, which postulates that you can't watch what is not watchable. We are constantly watching ourselves and aware of the fact that society is always watching us, but the difficulty lies in the attempt to see ourselves in a different way than we are envisaged by society. If you can't love yourself, you can't love anybody else. This woman is paying this man to be the first guy on the earth to look at her. They recreate the first night and the first woman, like Adam and Eve." Again, at first The Man is repulsed by The Woman. At one point, even outlining her naughty bits with lipstick to further highlight their obscenity. In another scene, he takes a rake from the garden and inserts it into her vagina while she is sleeping (obviously, she is a very sound sleeper). On the third and fourth nights, however, he gradually becomes enthralled by The Woman's biology when she starts her menstrual cycle. Roger Ebert said in his review of the film, "There are scenes here where Breillat deliberately disgusts us, not because we are disgusted by the natural life functions of women, as she implies, but simply because The Woman does things that would make any reasonable Man, or Woman, for that matter, throw up." Uh... Like what, Roger? Squeeze a stone dildo out her vagina? Drink menstrual tea? (Okay, granted, that was kind of messed up). To me, the most disgusting thing about the film was that Breillat intentionally found the hairiest women she could find for Amira Casar's body double (the movie makes a disclaimer at the beginning, saying that a body double was used for Casar's "most intimate scenes" and that this should be viewed as an extension of her character). I mean, haven't the French ever heard of Lady Schick?
Based on Breillat's novel Pornocratie, Anatomy Of Hell waste little time before offering up its often shocking images. Homophobes beware, the very first scene is of two gay men in an alleyway, one zealously giving the other a blowjob. Except for the hairy underarms, Amira Casar is lovely, and spends 99.9 % of the film nude. If you're curious as to "just how hardcore" some of the scenes are, there are at least two close-up scenes where Rocco inserts his fingers into The Woman's vagina (again, that of a body double). The second time, The Woman has just started her period and Rocco's fingers come out wet with blood. For a gay man who was supposedly sickened by the biology of a woman just two days earlier, he does a surprising thing and licks the blood off. The scene where The Man outlines The Woman's naughty bits with lipstick is as about as up-close and in your face as it can get. There is a scene where Rocco's character is lying with his head between The Woman's legs and she pushes out a huge stone dildo she'd been "hiding" (again...all that hair! Jeez!). And though Breillat claims that she found it impossible to find a single actress that would actually have intercourse with Siffredi, there is one "penetration" shot, albeit a very bloody one (quick! someone give that girl a transfusion). Rocco, being the studly porn star he is, had no qualms about showing off his manly attributes a time or two. Still, if you're merely looking for smut and good wholesome titillation, I'd suggest looking elsewhere. Breillat's films are not about pleasure or arousal.
I was surprised by the acting in Anatomy Of Hell. Not from Casar, who is a talented and excellent award winning actress, but from Rocco Siffredi. I guess European porn stars are better actors than those here in the U.S. (though, that's not saying much). I'd only seen Siffredi in Breillat's film Romance, in which he had a small, minor role. His part in this film is much meatier (no pun intended), and he actually displays a wide range of emotions. In short, I can understand the critics who bash this movie. It is quite pretentious. I think Breillat went out of her way to shock, offend and disgust. The dialogue was unrealistic and ostentatious, and believe it or not, for once, I agree with Mr. Ebert: as a man, I'm not disgusted by the natural biological functions of women (even the excessively hairy ones), though I have met a few of whom I'm afraid. But, damn it, I just can't help but liking Breillat's films. Shock away.
UPDATE 10-18-08 - Just watched Breillat's debut film A Real Young Girl and didn't really like it.
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