For almost three decades, the occasionally brilliant, sometimes maddening French filmmaker Catherine Breillat has created a startlingly original body of films about female sexuality. Like Freud, Breillat is fascinated by the question, What do women want? For Freud the answer was in the Oedipal complex and the little girl's realization that she is, as he put it, a failed boy. Anatomy was destiny and more or less end of story. For Breillat, anatomy may be destiny, but it has also been the impetus to an ongoing story about men and women at play and at war in the field of desire.
The title of Breillat's latest provocation, Anatomy of Hell, which she adapted from her book Pornocracy, indicates that Breillat has yet to tire of Freud's question. In this film, alas, it appears that the question may have finally exhausted her resources and maybe her sense. Once again, she gives us a man and a woman engaged in a bruising slugfest hinged to sexual difference. This time the battleground is an artfully dilapidated chateau of the sort that is familiar from old horror movies and gauzy fashion magazine layouts, and the combatants are a woman identified only as "the girl,'' and played by the French actress Amira Casar, and "the guy,'' played by the Italian pornography star Rocco Siffredi, a sculptured slab whose talents are almost exclusively instrumental.
The two meet cute Breillat-style when the girl desultorily takes a razor blade to one of her wrists in the bathroom of a gay disco. After the guy helps with her wounds, she propositions him: in return for money, he will spend four evenings with her. Glazed with boredom, stupidity or perhaps just numb from all that dancing, he agrees, and the unlikely duo embark on a round of anguished talk and some bad sex. Editorial discretion limits what I can say about the carnal encounters, save that they are graphic, at times clinical in aspect and awkwardly choreographed. Unpleasure rather than pleasure is the name of Breillat's game, which I assume explains the already-infamous scene in which a garden tool suddenly appears where no garden tool should.
Anatomy of Hell
Directed by: Catherine Breillat
Starring:Amira Casar (The woman), Rocco Siffredi (The man), Alexandre Belin (Blow-job lover 1), Manuel Taglang (Blow-job lover 2) Jacques Monge (Man in bar), Claudio Carvalho (Boy with bird)
Running time: 77 minutes
Language: In French
with Chinese subtitles
The rest of the film is equally and painfully foolish. On their first night, the girl leads the guy into a bedroom, whereupon she strips off her clothes and assumes a supine position that invokes such classic nudes as Manet's Olympia. In that painting of a prostitute, her maid and an incurious cat, which shocked Paris when it was unveiled in 1865, Manet created a radically desentimentalized and defiantly independent image of female sexuality. Staring out from the canvas, the prostitute appears as free of shame as of clothes and ready for anything. Breillat's nude, by contrast, directs her gaze outward with an air of grudging petulance, as if she were weary of having to haul herself (yet again) onto this altar of female degradation.
Although some of Breillat's films, including 36 Fillette and Fat Girl, convey an uncomfortably raw sense of the real world in their vibe and preoccupations, other of her films traffic in a deadpan surrealism that recalls a late-period if less amusing Luis Bunuel. As in Breillat's similarly themed and more successful outrage Romance, the lead actress's performance in Anatomy of Hell is almost entirely drained of affect; Casar is as limp as a rag doll and just as expressive. As he did in Romance, Siffredi's appearance in the new film seems predicated on his Pavlovian physicality. The characters' dialogue, in turn, is so stilted and ridiculous that it is impossible to know if Breillat is attempting some kind of Brechtian alienation effect or has just gone off the deep end.