At its worst, which is fairly awful, Catherine Breillat's sex-shock cinema highlights the pat in epater le bourgeoisie. Her latest, Anatomy of Hell, doesn't so much straddle the fine line between art and porn as balance, bleeding, on the knife's edge between trenchant and pretentious. Let's start with the film's patronizing disclaimer: “A film is an illusion, not reality—fiction or a happening: it is a true work of fiction.” Didn't James Cameron already make True Lies? “For the actress's most intimate scenes, a body double was used. It's not her body; it's an extension of a fictional character.” Okay, I get it. The private parts we're about to confront in massive close-up don't actually belong to Amira Casar (“the Woman”) but to her body double, Pauline Hunt—whom I hereby nominate for best supporting vagina of the year.
As Gaspar Noé taught us, the gates to hell can be found inside raunchy gay clubs. It's to one such disco inferno that the Woman goes to slit her wrists. Was it the popper fumes and the slutty Gaultier tank tops that drove her into the abyss? Nope: “Because I'm a woman” will suffice. Luckily, a concerned Man (Rocco Siffredi) intervenes, helps bandage her up, and chaperones her on a stroll through her murky Walpurgisnacht. Woman thanks Man with a blow job and a job offer. As an “impartial” audience, she'll pay him to spend several nights at her cliffside mansion critiquing her exposed flesh. “Watch me where I'm unwatchable.”
The key word here, in more ways than one, is “unwatchable.” What follows is a quasi-Sadean scenario spread—and I do mean spread—over three nights. The first night vividly one-ups Gustave Courbet's epochal crotch-canvas, The Origin of the World, and posits a bold companion piece, Finger-banging the Origin of the World. Night two dispenses with dialogue (“Your words are inept reproaches!”) before sounding the swampy depths of the Woman's unmentionables with a garden tool-cum-tuning fork. Night three is an extended meditation on the use of bloody tampons as tea bags. We can be thankful, at least, that the Woman doesn't offer “biscuits.” Meanwhile, the ocean outside is “roiling like a bitch in heat,” and audiences are starting to roll their eyes.
Personally, as a member of the so-called impartial fraternity, I haven't had this much exposure to a vulva since I was born. So let me come clean: the moist, hairy spectacles of Anatomy of Hell made me say, “Ew!” Busted, homo! Breillat's honorable, if cartoonishly executed, idea here may be to deconstruct this “ew” through the Siffredi surrogate, to verbalize the suppressed thoughts of those who find girl-bits a “malevolent frivolity.” And these would be what? Rapists? Psychopaths? Bisexuals? Skanky Italian porn stars? Men in general? Maybe beneath our civilized veneer all men have an urge to ring the thing in lipstick, sodomize the brown bunny, revel in the icky compulsion of the female mess. Maybe, ladies, when your gay says, “Cute skirt!” what he really means is, “You have a froglike obscenity between your legs.”
Despite his archetypal credit, Siffredi's incoherent allegorical status—not to mention his line delivery—is only the most glaring deformation of this Anatomy. Cutting from a garish wooden crucifix to a slow pan down Casar's torso is a close runner-up. Breillat's one good trick is to subvert the odalisque motif: Anatomy of Hell is laughable in a movie theater, but it might work up some tawdry Dada vibes as a DVD loop hung between Ingres's Grand Odalisque and the notorious Courbet. Beyond that, her intentions beat me—over the head with the collected works of Foucault? I propose that we set up a roundtable with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jack Valenti, and the ghost of Bataille and check back next issue.