Anatomy of Hell
Details: (R18+), 77 mins, France, English
Synopsis: The Girl (Amira Casar) meets The Guy (Rocco Siffredi) at a gay nightclub and invites him to her apartment. He refuses until she agrees to pay him, and she makes him watch her in various sexual scenarios over several nights. The intensity of her sexuality draws out of him a new self awareness about women and he becomes more than a detached observer. With tragic results.
A largely allegorical scenario.
Catherine Breillat's films have been called everything from 'arthouse smut' and 'unwatchable' to 'original' and 'emotionally powerful'. There is no doubt however that the French filmmaker is an intellectually rigorous and uncompromising artist. She has made a career out of investigating sex – its politics and aesthetics – through film and writing, with an emphasis on female sexuality and the feminine body.
Breillat's latest film Anatomy of Hell is as you might expect no exception. This movie is a kind of sexual laboratory experiment laced with, among other things, fantasy, feminist philosophy, religious symbolism and garden tools. According to Breillat, Anatomy of Hell is a sequel to Romance (1999), Breillat's essay on the meaninglessness of sex, and one that she felt compelled to make. Romance is very present in this film; you can feel it, its style, its detachment, its intellectual didacticism. And so Anatomy of Hell revisits an unhappy shell of a woman desperately in search of something to relieve the monotony of her existence. The Woman (played by actress Amira Casar) invites a 'mortal enemy' into her home, a misogynist gay man. She pays him, dares him even, to confront his repulsion with women by investigating the insides of her body.
As with Romance, Breillat chooses to use the (very) recently-retired Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi in this pivotal role. Befitting his porn status Rocco gives a robot-like performance as a man who tries to exorcise the hatred he carries for women and their bodies. Casar in turn, is her character motivated too by a similar desire. To overcome her hatred of herself for being the one thing men resent most in the world. (The Adam and Eve scenario this evokes in her lonely room is about as subtle as a sledgehammer but provides the one and only laugh of the proceedings.)
There is no denying that Catherin Breillat is a serious artist and that her films possess serious intentions. This is not part social dialogue, part exploitation like Baise-Moi; this is all dialogue and all art. Anatomy of Hell is the third Catherine Breillat film I have seen. I found Romance to be laboured, monotonous and ultimately banal, while A Ma Soeur courageous, emotionally powerful and deeply engaging. To watch Anatomy of Hell was as alienating an experience for me as Romance, yet I found myself still prepared to discuss the ideas underneath it after the ordeal was over, in spite of its didacticism and dreary ideology. Perhaps Anatomy of Hell would have been a story that was more interesting to read than watch as a movie, as Susanna Moore's novel In The Cut certainly was over Jane Campion's recent, nervy film adaptation. (Anatomy of Hell was based on Breillat's own novel Pornocratie).
However, the sex scenes that are causing the current threat to Anatomy of Hell's release this week, while they may be distasteful to some, you could hardly call them erotic, transgressive or particularly disturbing. While they are graphic, they are also depicted within the specific context of Breillat's 'thesis'. As a result they come off as slightly absurd and detached. They are also infrequent. This is very much a film that examines ideas about a woman's body through the medium of film. Its point is just that, nothing more.
Cinema is the collectively sanctioned space where we have conversations with ourselves. And arthouse cinema – like the one inhabited by Breillat's films – is the space where these sorts of cultural conversations – about anything and everything – must occur. Anatomy of Hell might be a dull conversation, but it deserves to be heard by any consenting adult who chooses to participate in it. That's what the 'R' rating is for.
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