This review of Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell is part of the New French Extremity Retrospective series.
In Anatomy of Hell, a woman (Amira Casar) pays a homosexual man (Rocco Siffredi) to watch her in her bedroom. This is after she saunters through a gay bar, committing herself to the tragic isolation of none of them wanting anything to do with her, and slits her wrist in the bathroom.
The things she has him experience in her room are sexual, to a degree. They are pornographic only insofar as they extend to exploration of the naked female figure. When the woman first strips down, the man comments that the fragile female figure breeds one of two things: nothingness or brutality. Seemingly, he shows disgust for the naked female body because he is a gay man. Whether Breillat truly believes the male gay community has such pointed reproach for female sexuality is uncertain, but this reproachful dialogue takes up much of the film.
The framing of the film feels similar to that of Lars von Trier’s sex epic Nymphomaniac. Both feature two figures discussing sexuality candidly in a bedroom. In von Trier’s film, the woman is masochistic toward her sexual inclinations and the man attempts clumsily to assuage her self-loathing. In Breillat’s, both characters appear to engage in the same attack of female sexuality.
At least Breillat is able to imbue some poetry into her narration, whereas von Trier’s anecdotal strands are frustratingly pedantic in an attempt to hide their simplicity. What this poetry reveals, however, is unsettling in its lack of nuance.
If we are to take the narration at face value, then the film is a condemnation of femininity in general. There is the implication throughout the film that there is some original sin to being a woman that makes their sexuality a nuisance on the world. Like with Breillat’s Romance, the protagonist is a woman who not only hates herself but hates the world for causing her to be a woman.
Now, Romance may be “on to something interesting” by showing an image of woman that is dissected by society and made to serve two mechanical goals: be a sex object and then reproduce. But Anatomy of Hell doesn’t even appear to condemn the hegemonic perceptions of society in that way.
It is instead isolated in its own stilted world, in which the two characters function as symbols of larger societal representations only in that they are painted too broadly to be seen as individuals. They speak as if they are speaking for the demographics Breillat is having them represent, even though it is unlikely that they espouse the majority opinion on female sexuality. Even if they did, they certainly do not speak such opinions in a way that a normal human being would.
What we are asked to bear witness to in Anatomy of Hell, I suppose, is the oppression of the female body through common representation. Breillat is capturing the naked body in ways that challenge pop culture imaging of feminine sexuality, but the ends cannot possibly justify the means when the philosophical sensibilities of the creative voice appear warped from the get go. Why was the woman cutting herself in the bathroom of a gay bar, thus instigating the titular hell inside the confines of her bedroom: “Because I am a woman.”
That is our starting place. An all-encompassing statement that cannot possibly ring true as broadly as Breillat believes. Not a statement does Anatomy of Hell make that is not tarnished by its wide-sweeping scope and lack of nuance. The film posits that all men fear women on an innate level, that gay men in particular are more misogynist than straight misogynists, and that women are so existentially lost within the divide between male sexuality and female sexuality that they are crippled by the very idea of their own vagina.
In this way, Anatomy of Hell is shocking for all the wrong reasons.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)