Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy of Hell" (2004)

No point looking to this film for narrative or character, because you won't find either. Directed by French provocateur Catherine Breillat, "Anatomy of Hell" is about the power of images to elicit strong emotions like loathing and aggression. A woman pays a gay man to "watch her where she is unwatchable." Inside her house, which quickly becomes a metaphor for the female body, the woman (Amira Casar) strips naked and lies down in bed like a Renaissance nude but in a room lit like an operating theater.

The man (porn star Rocco Siffredi) began as a voluble and complacent observer but very quickly became a silent and helpless participant in the woman's search for her sexual identity. He hates the weakness of female flesh, because it reminds him of his own mortality, and so he punishes it by sticking his dick into her anus and, on another night, by sticking the handle of a rake into her vagina. He is both fascinated and repelled by vagina fluid, rolling it on his finger and tasting it.

On the third night, the woman removes a bloody tampon from herself, and dips it into a glass of water as if making tea. Both drink from it, in a symbolic union that foreshadows the physical one on the next night. After he had vaginal intercourse with her, he removed from her his bloody dick. Earlier the woman had described menstrual blood as blood without a wound. In this climactic scene, the dick is injured without being injured, a visual paradox that reinforces the power of images, and the woman's contention that sex is not about bodies, but meanings.

In an interview, Breillat claimed that while making the film she saw herself more as the man than as the woman. The parallel between observer and director is obvious. What is interesting is the assumption of the male gaze by a woman. Does she then see as a woman, or as a man, or in some intriguing double-focus that defies easy categorizations?

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