Anatomy of Hell

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/15/04 18:18:11

4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Anatomy of Hell” is one of those films that balances the line between intense artiness and tawdry exploitation and frequently finds itself tripping over its own two feet. It has gotten a lot of bad reviews, even from those who have admired the previous works of writer-director Catherine Breillat (such as the acclaimed “Romance” and “Fat Girl”), for being pretentious, perverse, ridiculous and occasionally quite gross-the kind of film that people are talking about when they say that they hate watching those “foreign” films. I can’t really argue with that assessment-it is pretentious, perverse, ridiculous and occasionally quite gross-but I still find myself stubbornly admiring it despite those flaws, or perhaps because of them

Never one for subtlety, Breillat, adapting her own novel “Pornocracy”, kicks things off with the in-your-face symbolism of a beautiful Girl (Amira Casar) standing utterly alone and ignored in the middle of a gay nightclub that appears to be the suburban spin-off of the club from the opening scene of “Irreversible”. Instead of going home to watch her “Sex and the City” DVDs, she does the next best thing-she trots upstairs to the bathroom and slashes her wrists. (This is actually not that uncommon of an occurrence in such a club, though it is usually related to the amount of Cher songs played per hour.) As the bright red blood drips prettily onto her pure white outfit, she is rescued and patched up by the Guy (Rocco Siffredi), a fellow clubgoer with a pronounced revulsion for all things feminine. In gratitude, she offers him a proposition; she will pay him to come to her isolated beachfront home over the course of four nights and, as she puts it, “watch me where I’m unwatchable” while offering detailed critiques of the “obscenity” of the female form.

The rest of the film is dedicated to the four meetings, a battle of the sexes in which words are the primary weapons-the Guy talks about how the female body inspires only “disgust or brutality” or how the sight of a woman’s genitalia reminds him of a particularly ugly frog while the Girl offers such insights as “Man can’t give life. He takes it” while flashing back to traumatic memories of her childhood (including one that is a direct riff on the money shot from “There’s Something About Mary”). Of course, in a situation like this, mere words are not always enough and that is when they resort to deploying such items as lipsticks and gardening tools in wildly unanticipated ways. There is another scene, sure to send the majority of viewers remaining fleeing for the exits, in which a certain feminine hygiene product gets its most unforgettable on-screen appearance since the opening scenes of “Carrie”. Eventually, it all comes to a close with a meeting of the minds, so to speak, as well as one of those deeply ambiguous finales that winds up as confusing as it is intriguing.

In her first film, “A Real Young Girl”, Breillat told the story of an adolescent girl who grows fascinated with the sights, smells and secretions of her changing body and in a way, “Anatomy of Hell” almost serves as a continuation. Here, however, that fascination has been replaced with revulsion and rage as she clinically deconstructs the female form in order to illustrate how anything-body parts, ideas, you name it- that is consistently hidden from plain view is eventually deemed repulsive and obscene by many, regardless of how natural they may actually be. It is a intriguing premise for a film, sort of a grand summation of the ideas and themes that have obsessed her throughout her career, but any serious exploration of a woman and the distaste she feels towards certain body issues immediately disappears once the observations begin and the Girl immediately gets the upper hand of the callous Guy. In this meeting of the minds, it soon becomes apparent that only of the two came armed,

This imbalance becomes even more obvious when you witness how she has stacked the deck in the casting. As the Girl, Amira Casar (you may remember her as the other woman in “Sylvia”) turns in a heroic and triumphant performance in a role requiring her to bare her soul as well as her body. On the other hand, it quickly becomes evident that Siffredi, the former Italian porn star whom Breillat previously used in a supporting role in “Romance”, was cast in the film for one reason and it wasn’t for his acting ability; the role is simply too much for his limited abilities and as he sits there and offers weirdo profundities like “Fecal matter is inert” (a sentiment that many attending this film will doubtlessly concur with), he looks as baffled and confused while saying them as we are listening to them.

In fact, the self-conscious profundities-which come right at the start with an opening title card that explains to us that “A film is an illusion” (thanks for sharing) in order to explain that Casar was given a body double for several key shots (even though anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of film editing tricks will be able to detect when the stunt vulva turns up)-are so over-the-top that I have a sneaking suspicion that “Anatomy of Hell” may, in fact, be nothing more than a practical joke that Breillat is playing on her audiences. In her previous film, “Sex is Comedy” (which is only now getting American distribution), she poked fun at herself by telling the story of a pretentious female filmmaker trying to overcome time restraints, malfunctioning props and bickering actors in order to shoot the central sex scene of her latest work (a premise directly inspired by her similar struggles to film just such a scene in her “Fat Girl”). Having already demonstrated an uncharacteristic sense of humor towards herself in that film, who is to say that this is nothing more than a straight-faced goof on her previous provocations and that the real joke is on the critics and pundits who fall for it and attempt to take its excesses seriously? For those fans intimately familiar with Breillat’s filmography (admittedly a pretty tiny audience in the States), “Anatomy of Hell” should prove to be a blast.

Even if you don’t share the suggestion that “Anatomy of Hell” is an inspired bit of self-mockery, there are other compensating factors to admire. As I mentioned before, the Casar performance is impeccable-she takes a role that is essentially an all-but-unplayable author’s conceit and transforms it into a genuine, flesh-and-blood character. Visually, the film is quite striking as well-at times, it suggests a cinematic version of the photographs of Man Ray. Finally, there is the singular vision of Catherine Breillat to admire. In a time when even foreign films seem increasingly concerned with telling the kinds of safe, predictable stories that will inspire a worldwide blockbuster, here is a filmmaker who has, for better or for worse, made a film that only she could make without apology or compromise. “Anatomy of Hell” is not for everyone and even the majority of those brave enough to seek it out are likely to walk away filled with either disgust or boredom.

However, I would suggest that anyone even vaguely intrigued with what I have described should make an effort to seek it out While it frequently teeters on the edge of ludicrousness, it nevertheless has the kind of strange power that will resonate for days in the minds of anyone who can make it through to the end credits.

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