Anatomy of Hell has been reviled as misogynist, homophobic, sadistic (as opposed to Sadean), pretentious, embarrassing, and just plain yucky. Business as usual—by her enemies ye shall know her. In her latest feature, sexual provocatrix Catherine Breillat turns a philosophical speculum on gender relations to perverse (and perversely elegant) effect.
Somewhere on the outskirts of an abstract universe, a moody young woman in a white satin dress (Amira Casar) drifts into a gay disco. Invisible to the guys gyrating to a pounding porno beat, she tragically wanders into the toilet to slash her wrists—because, as she tells the man who disdainfully saves her life (the Italian fuck-film veteran Rocco Siffredi), she’s a woman. And just like a woman, Casar hires her diffident savior to watch her where she is, as translated from the French, “unwatchable.” Less narrative than moral tale, more meta than hardcore, Anatomy of Hell is a movie about watching that watching.
Svelte, assured filmmaking that successfully blurs the border between the ridiculous and the sublime, Breillat’s treatise has an odd 18th-century quality. The dialogue is high-flown. The seaside villa where Siffredi passes four evenings in Casar’s company is redolent of Sade (as well as gothic novels and Radley Metzger). Siffredi more than once complains that Casar talks too much, and Anatomy of Hell is certainly loquacious. As in many of Breillat’s films, sex is a function of negotiation. But with whom is Casar bargaining?
Siffredi is called upon to sing several arias of sexual disgust. (He compares her labia to a frog, “which at least has the decency to be green.”) Meanwhile, the roiling ocean outside is described as “a bitch in heat.” Given Breillat’s primal insistence on bodily fluids, you might well imagine that someone is going to be engulfed in those maternal waves. The Casar character is not an object—but with her worn panties and heavy-duty brassiere, she is abjectified. (On the second night, she greets her spectator in a crinoline party dress.) Casar’s features are conventionally beautiful, but her most striking feature is her opalescent skin—she’s lit to glow softly in the dark. That her body is soft and untoned, and often shaped by gravity, adds to Siffredi’s revulsion. She’s able to accommodate the hardness of his gaze, among other things.
The title Anatomy of Hell has a double meaning, suggesting both the female body and the cultural space to which that body is consigned. But the linguistic play is largely a factor of Breillat’s direction and editing. Fashionably unshaven and beautifully turned out in a white linen suit, impassive Rocco maintains a brooding mien, even when pondering a gob of vaginal secretion. It’s as though he were straining to think and the effort were irksome. (Some of this may be due to his discomfort with the French dialogue.) For much of the movie, Breillat “thinks” for him—providing his thoughts with her own voice-over.
In a manner I haven’t seen since the ambitious 1982 philoso-porn Café Flesh, Anatomy of Hell is blatantly self-reflexive. Unlike the average spectator, Siffredi is paid to watch. The actor’s expression of irritated concentration is repeatedly intercut with close-ups of the female genitalia. These reaction shots illustrate the so-called Kuleshov effect, while the various insertions that we see are inserts into the body of the film—as immediately established by the perhaps misleading disclaimer that Casar’s intimate parts belong to a body double. Curious in spite of himself, the Siffredi character wants to penetrate Casar’s constructed secret, whether with his nose or a handy garden implement. The threat of violence is constant. “Last night you wanted to kill me,” she says with a smile, insolently adding that it’s an urge all men have and daring the male spectator to take it seriously.
“There is no masculine psychology in my cinema,” Breillat told one interviewer. “There is only the resentments and desires of women.” Given the total otherness of the other, it’s remarkable that Anatomy of Hell even offers the possibility of Mars-Venus communion (most outrageously in the sacramental chalice of menstrual blood that Casar and Siffredi share, under the sign of the cross). But in the final analysis, the movie’s view of gender relations is deeply pessimistic—and, despite the used tampon as a tea bag, essentially philosophical.
The most original and perhaps the most disturbing thing about Breillat’s poetic treatise on gynephobia is its unique juxtaposition of the cerebral and the visceral. This is a most radical exercise in erotic body horror—and, pace David Cronenberg, it may be the mode’s ultimate example.