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DIRECTED BY: Catherine Breillat
FEATURING: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, voice of Catherine Breillat
PLOT: A woman pays a gay man to observe her intimate moments for four nights.
COMMENTS: Sartre said Hell is other people. Catherine Breillat says Hell is other people’s bodies; or, more specifically, other genders’ bodies; or, when you get right down to it, women’s bodies.
A Woman goes to a gay disco and slits her wrists in the bathroom. She’s rescued by a gay Man, who takes her to a clinic to be stitched up. The Woman proposes to pay him to “watch her when she’s unwatchable.” He goes to her house for four nights, pours himself a few fingers of Jack Daniels to help him make it through the night, and they talk while she lies naked and exposed. “They fragility of female flesh inspires disgust or brutality,” he muses. “The veils [men] adorn us with anticipate our shrouds,” the Woman proclaims. (The conversation is not intended to be naturalistic; it’s a staged Platonic dialogue with a poetic overlay). While never verbally expressing anything but disgust for the Woman, the Man is drawn to experiment intimately with her body (including scenes involving garden tools, and worse). Then the arrangement ends. He is moved, and, in what may be a fantasy sequence, commits an act of brutality. That’s it; it’s partially successful conversion therapy.
Siffredi, a pornographic actor best known for his recurring “Buttman” character, turns out to be a surprisingly capable actor—although his moods are restricted to disgust and melancholy, both simmering. Casar is beautiful as she lounges around naked, but her role could be played by almost any beautiful nude actress. Although she shows more range than Siffredi, as any actress might, she has trouble putting across dialogue like “in intercourse, the act isn’t what matters, but its meaning.” Casar’s body double is anatomically correct. Breillat herself dubs the thoughts for both parties. And that’s it for the acting—which is a problem, in what’s basically a character-driven two-hander (explicit though it is, it’s so anti-erotic that could never make the grade as a one-hander).
On release, Anatomy of Hell received a lot of understandable criticism for its overly-simplistic brand of radical gender philosophy. Taken literally, the film argues (explicitly and didactically, despite the poetic trappings) that men are disgusted by women’s bodies and instinctively long to damage them—and that this misogyny is even more pronounced in gay men. That’s not a position I would want to defend in a Ph.D. thesis. But while that literal reading is both ridiculous and offensive, there is another layer to the film that is hopeful. Despite his disgust at The Woman’s body, The Man is eventually seduced by it. And after the job is done, he finds himself changed by the experience: “I experienced total intimacy with her. And I don’t even know her name.” Radical posturing aside, Anatomy of Hell at least partly celebrates the alchemy of shared human bodies: that point when carnal disgust is overcome and physical commingling becomes a spiritual experience. Look past words to the magic of bodies, this wordy picture whispers. Though mercifully short, Anatomy of Hell is a hard watch, composed of dull, pseudo-profound dialogues broken by shock sequences designed to reinforce its putative thesis that female bodies are disgusting. It’s not recommended, but—if you can bypass the untenable literal reading its characters propose—this erotic experiment is more thought-provoking than its detractors suggest.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“But sometimes [Breillat] is just plain goofy, as in ‘Anatomy of Hell,’ which plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka, who asked for more Breillat reviews and stated that Anatomy of Hell was “especially worth looking at, because of its rejection of a traditional plot.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)