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Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat, 2004)
Even the basic premise of Anatomy of Hell, Catherine Breillat’s aptly named new study of the female form, is as likely to incite audiences as it is to invoke derisive laughter from them. In a shocking statement that transcends easy labels like “feminist”, she suggests women, at their core, possess a fundamental loathing of their loins, rooted in the self-hate that is formed when frustrated men discriminate against them for possessing such frustratingly unconquerable orifices. It’s a daring, absurd, and possibly foolhardy material for a movie, since it clearly oversimplifies the point of view of a filmmaker who has consistently proven herself to be an intelligent and perceptive storyteller. It is a lot easier to comprehend her use of such a proclamation as a rhetorical provocation, functioning in the same way that the director has used explicit nudity in this and her past work. Because Breillat so deftly combines the silly with transcendent here, though, the gambit works.
Breillat never has shied away from using shock tactics to jolt her audience’s complacency. Anatomy of Hell, challenging as it is, fits into her oeuvre quite nicely. In previous movies, she’s transformed rather commonplace scenarios into startlingly intimate, voyeuristic encounters by opting for perspectives not commonly chosen and frankness almost never allowed. This time out, she works on a less literal, almost philosophical, plane. Essentially a two-character film, Anatomy of Hell would be undeniably reduced as a work of art if it were not for its sheer explicitness. Body fluids that are usually considered taboo show up regularly in the film, and they ground the highbrow ideas in the inescapable facts of our biological lives. That being said, in this tale of a suicidal woman (Amira Casar) and the gay man (Rocco Siffredi) who she pays to examine her vagina, semen on a lip can stand in for tears and vaginal secretion can inspire intense self-reflection. The body is never disconnected from the mind, and in that fact, Breillat finds her drama.
Although motivations, especially those of Casar’s character, remain sketchy throughout Anatomy of Hell, it seems that at the end of the film the entire ordeal was engineered by the woman in an attempt to make her gay savior aware of the burden that she carries between her legs (and it’s only when this becomes apparent that certain formal decisions – such as having one voice speak both characters’ interior monologues - make sense). To Cesar’s suicidal female, even the consolation that her vagina can bring forth new life is not enough to counteract the feeling that the space between her legs has is a metaphorical void. Nor can such knowledge offset her feelings when she observes the effect that the organ has on men, who she claims feel “the body of women calls for mutilation.” Blood is a constant presence in the movie, reminding the viewer of that statement, and always there’s the threat of violence looming over their bed. One jaw-dropping scene involving a gardening scythe is shot in a manner that recalls a slasher film, and the night-by-night structure of the script never fails to build to some greater bodily horror than the night before. Still, Anatomy of Hell feels like a horror movie most of all in the way that it readily reduces human beings to meat, although here things are done to humans that I would never consider doing, even to low-grade ground chuck.
Because Breillat secludes her actors visually, the film achieves an airtight environment in which society’s distaste for such forthright exploration of others is not present. The director’s pessimism to me feels more like an audacious lack of politeness, brought about by her setting’s newfound freedom. She refuses to dress up her characters’ emotional responses with manners, searching for primal, completely unguarded responses. Because Siffredi’s character thinks so little of Casar’s, he’s free to speak her mind without concern about her feelings. She dresses up for him, apparently seeking his approval, while she leads him toward psychic ruin, making it clear in retrospect that her ties to society have been severed and her suicide attempt has only been delayed a while. The vagina ultimately defeats any masculine fantasies attached to Siffredi’s penis here, but there’s no sense of triumph in that victory. Ultimately Breillat deserves credit for not compromising her unadorned examination of the gender politics with the learned behavior she’s gone to such extremes to strip away. Although Anatomy of Hell might not be a film that can be taken too literally, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be taken seriously. There are kernels of truth in even its most outrageous statements. After all, the disclaimer at the start of the film, which defensively makes it clear that the lead actress used a body double for her character’s vaginal close-ups, is all the proof one needs to see that even in the most liberated context, we place stigmas on the offending body part.