On the way out of the premiere of this film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the couple in front of me started arguing. "What was that all about?", the man demanded to know. "Catherine Breillat is saying that this is what men think of women", his partner replied. "That is how all men think of all women?" he queried. She pondered intensely for a moment and then cried: "Yes!"
The relationship between the sexes has never been more bleakly portrayed than in Anatomy of Hell – or, at least, this is what a first surface glance, plus a passing familiarity with the filmmaker's previous work, might lead us to too-quickly assume.
Freely adapted from her novel Pornocracy, writer-director Breillat conjures a situation that is barely narrative, and deliberately close to pornography. Over four nights, an unnamed woman (Amira Casar) pays a gay man (porn star Rocco Siffredi) to stare at her genitals. Breillat has taken some heat for this choice, as if suggesting an equation between gayness with misogyny, but her intention here is perfectly clear: to show an interaction between a man and woman where desire is never an issue.
This woman has a point to prove: that men, in their heart of hearts, find female sexuality disgusting – and that upon their disgust they have built an entire civilisation of manners and morals. It does not take long for her accomplice to begin agreeing.
In a neat twist of her argument, the man states that guys who find women repulsive in fact envy just how repulsive they can be, while men who pretend to like women in fact hate them. There is no beating that paranoid logic.
Anatomy of Hell is certainly a strange movie. Those who find highbrow examples of French erotica – especially Breillat's previous films, such as Romance (1999) – risible in their po-faced intellectualism and languid, Durasian posturing will be quick to deride it. And nor does it have the lunatic, melodramatic edge of Jean-Claude Brisseau's highbrow girls-on-top sex film Secret Things (2002) – yet another film, like several of Breillat's, in intense dialogue with the epochal event of Eyes Wide Shut (1999). But Anatomy of Hell is worth persevering with and thinking through.
Breillat's art has always had two sides: an earthy, realistic side best expressed in 36 Fillette (1987), and an abstract, ethereal side. Anatomy of Hell, her most openly philosophical work, tries to explain what unites these tendencies. And this is where it goes beyond a simple blast at misogyny – or a singular story about the twisted drives or frustrations of this or that individual character (no Breillat film has ever been as empty of marks of character as this).
For Breillat, male sexuality – which she celebrates as much as she criticises – can take on mystic, mythical meanings because society admits, in the first place, to its brute, physical aspect (hence the prominent erections in her films). But female sexuality, because its physical aspect is kept hidden and made taboo, cannot become truly "sacred". Instead, it becomes shameful, even (or especially) within the hallowed realms of philosophical speculation – recall Jean-Paul Sartre's unambiguous imagery of the accursed "holes and slime".
The film's mission, then, is to both exhibit a woman's naked body and elevate it to the state of poetry. And in doing this, to dismantle, in an ambitiously sophisticated way, what Anglo culture pragmatically puts down to a 'double standard' of gender. But for Breillat such dismantling can never be a simple up-ending: it has to be a full-scale conceptual deconstruction, walking the paths of thought and feeling that female philosophers including Simone De Beauvoir and Michele Le Doeuff have traced in reaction to the Sartrean metaphysic.
Truth be told, it is sometimes hard to decipher Breillat's intriguing discourse within the stripped-back, allegorical situations of this movie – the problem with any translation of ideas to cinematic representations, a problem she no doubt vigorously embraces as she seeks out the images and gestures and words for her mise en scène. She has spoken in interviews, for instance, of this man's journey to ultimate self-awareness, where many viewers will only see dire confirmation of the hypothesis that all men are monstrous misogynists – proof of a so-called 'feminist fundamentalism' on her part, which is as far from Breillat's artistic and intellectual position as I can possibly imagine.
It helps to attend to the small, surreal details of this film, such as the voice-over narration (spoken by Breillat herself) which ambiguously flits between or perhaps beyond the consciousness of the characters; or the lighting that transforms Casar's body into an artwork reminiscent of Courbet's "The Origin of the World" – and the entire, primal man-woman situation into a hellish inversion of the Garden of Eden.
Naturally, the threat of censorship which briefly hung over Anatomy of Hell in Australia betrayed no sensitivity to either the subtle points or the broad brush-strokes of Breillat's cerebral essay on gender. It is not a great film – and it is far from her lesser-known best, such as Dirty Like an Angel (1990) – but it certainly deserves to be widely seen and discussed.
© Adrian Martin June 2004