Anatomy Of Hell


Reviewed by: Chris

Anatomy Of Hell

This is not a film that everyone will enjoy - it is intellectually taxing, fairly low on plot and deliberately contains sexual scenes that many people will find offensive or upsetting. In Britain and America, we assume films are made for entertainment, but tolerantly accept those that are patently art for art's sake, for the dissemination of ideas or the questioning of commonly held views. I imagined being at the same premiere in France or Latin America - the heated debates that would follow over the gender politics, the validity of the symbolism, whether the underlying concepts were valid. In Britain, even at a film festival, we had the same old stuff about the genesis of the film, working with the actors etc. (all valid enough) then a sharp split between people who obviously had brains in their heads and the men - and women - who just felt it was pretentious to waffle on when you could be making comments about the erect penis of porn star Rocco Siffredi. But before dealing with the knobs question, a brief synopsis...

A woman walks through a gay nightclub. She is obviously alienated - it is not clear from what. She goes to the toilets and tries to slit her wrists. A man rescues her. After a short interlude she arranges to pay this (gay) man, for four nights, to watch her, to tell her what it is that disgusts him about women. The nights and acts that fill them are accompanied by soliloquies by both the man and the woman as each states their primal sexual understanding of the other.

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The dialogue is fairly heavy - it could be put alongside works of philosopher Jacques Derrida (it follows on quite nicely from his deconstructionist theories) or the more extreme ideas of Shere Hite. Much of it has great poetic beauty - aided by the fact that the two characters are purely symbolic (this according to Breillat herself) - they represent a primal man and woman, not in the context of any religious genesis, but the two first adults dealing with their sexual reactions to each other.

Breillat describes herself as a 'purist' (and also heterosexual) and says she finds many of the images disturbing and that is exactly why she wished to portray them - to ask why we find images (such as a used tampon) so disgusting when they are everyday things and have no inherent 'awfulness' or reason why they should be considered shameful. But she does not just ask the question or try to shock - she counters the emotion that has been evoked, explains it (the explanation may not be to everyone's liking but it is internally consistent and academically arguable) and uses the example as one of the stepping-stones to communicate some of her ideas about sexuality.

One of the main ideas Breillat seeks to get across in this film is that although a person 'has' an undeniable physical sex, their actual sexuality - their body and everything that makes them sexually attractive - is heavily involved with the meanings, ideas, fantasies or other things we attach to that body. We find a person 'sexy' because of what we think about them, what they mean to us, our understanding of them, how they make us feel, and this is projected onto the 'nice bum' aspect.

Breillat says this is what distinguishes us from animals - our ability to attach meaning to sex (I hope I have quoted her accurately - not easy when working through a translator and writing the notes up some hours afterwards). We do this by means of desire, which means we project outwards what is inside. It is not automatic 'sex for reproduction and continuation of the species' - human beings have sex to satisfy their desires. The woman's body is seen in the film in ways that are normally 'unsexy' - it is the context and meaning subsequently applied which make it sexy - this is highlighted by the gay man's attitude (and meanings) that he attaches to all women.

The sex between the man and the woman in the film is not tender or loving in any usual sense of the word. The gay man has great problems coming to terms with the idea of having sex in any form with the woman, especially penetrating her (a blow job didn't seem to upset him quite so much). His notions of disgust for the female sex are well-developed and well-articulated. She, on the other hand, can see many of the male attitudes that he displays in an extreme form in all men, and can reduce male sex drive into fairly simplistic psychological forces.

It could be argued that it is not productive to do this, that the perceived male desire to dominate, to take possession, to control, to glory in his penetrative power, is a pretty base instinct that is better sublimated or reinvented. This, in fact, is what we do - but seeing it in such a raw form, not animalistically but portrayed by an articulate, self-examining man, gives us a power of knowledge, we can also argue.

The theory also explains a lot of female psychology (with which Breillat says she is mostly concerned) and probably most of women's hang-ups about men. Anatomy of Hell has also been described as a companion to her earlier film, Romance, which follows a woman's quest for sexual self-knowledge and 'liberation'. But where Romance just asked questions, the woman in Anatomy of Hell has answers - and most of the things she believes are oppressive to women (the cause of women's problems) are about ill-considered, illogical, but near universal male attitudes to sex. Yet the film is not 'anti-male' - it struck me as more about coming to terms with fundamental drives and then deciding how to handle them. In the case of the gay man, his choice is to switch off completely, not concern himself with a sex that controls him by means of its fragility or alternately tempts him to violence and anger.

There is considerable discussion in the film about male and female psychodynamics - the male desire for 'dominance and control' for instance. It is expressed in fairly extreme form, as it might be in classical drama. (To get a handle on it, try reading Shere Hite's analysis of male-orientated definitions of sexuality.)

The whole movie is underscored with vivid photography and images. (Minor spoilers follow). When the woman is in the nightclub, she is seen against a background that totally isolates and distinguishes her from everyone else there. When she explains the female nature of the sea, how it seems so strong and masculine but is really a feminine symbol, we see the waves crashing at close quarters. Later on, when the man strolls confidently along the cliff top, we see the waves crashing far below him - something he cannot reach, and which would be vaguely threatening if he looked too closely.

The woman explains the symbolism of menstrual blood to him - the only blood that is spilled without the need for a wound, how it is 'purer' therefore than any blood that a man could spill. She delights in his appearance, covered in her blood, after she has had sex with him, and when he returns to the empty room where she once lay, he lifts the blood-stained sheets as if lifting on object of holiness, and his manner is devout (and the sheets also look like a shroud).

Breillat, in this cinematic illustration of her novel, has provided us with a deconstruction of the feminine mystique. She has confronted us with our prejudices, the inbuilt forces inherent in the battles between the sexes, she has given us two examples of human beings liberating themselves from their own disgust with their own bodies. Most of all, to cinephiles, she has made a classic that redefines French cinema at the forefront of art, justifiably breaking false boundaries set by years of censorship, (self-loathing?) and the effective ban on art to explore our deepest psyche. She has asked age-old questions but, remarkably, she has also provided her answers.

Behold the work of a cinematic genius in our lifetime, treasure her integrity and devotion to her work, use this example of art to be inspired, to self-examine - or join the milling throngs calling for mind-deadening Americanised cinematic art-substitutes.

(Footnote: this is one of the few non-mainstream films I have given a 5 star rating to - it is simply a superlative accomplishment in its genre, accessible to anyone who applies sufficient intelligence and a lasting contribution to the study of male-female psychology, gender politics and sexual awareness.)

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2006
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French intellectual take on kinky sex between a gay man and a suicidal woman.
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Angus Wolfe Murray **

Director: Catherine Breillat

Writer: Catherine Breillat

Starring: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi

Year: 2004

Runtime: 72 minutes

Country: France


EIFF 2004

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