My first Catherine Breillat film and I chose her most complex, controversial, 2004 Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l’enfer ) which was, adapted by the director from her novel Pornocratie. Its groundbreaking, and formidably genius, as BBC film critic, Jamie Russell put it an example of “feminist existential porn”. It has also been hailed as a “feminist fairytale” which is how it initially caught my attention.
Most if not many may argue Anatomy of Hell is not a film but a porno which is understandable given the explicit and visceral context. Personally, I see it as an art film that provokes unnerving questions into something very intrinsic which is accepting our own sexuality for what it is. Breillat’s perspective is harnessed in exploring that truth of why the physicality of the female body makes us feel uneasy, intimidated, and awkward to talk about. Ergo the title “ANATOMY OF HELL”.
Biologically speaking, no question the vagina is a complex part of anatomy and how it functions is astonishing as it’s a key component in the equation to creating life. But aside from that, how does one even begin to deconstruct this film?
The plot is straightforward but heavily loaded with the filmmaker’s assertions on how specifically men observe the sexuality of the female body. It begins with a woman played by Amira Casar in a gay night club clearly isolated from everyone in that bar and for whatever reason we never get an answer to why she’s there. She ends up in the bathroom slitting her wrist when a man played by Rocco Siffredi interrupts her asking why she’s doing that to herself. She replies, “Because I’m a woman.” Wow! I’m going to stop right there, put my psychoanalytical hat on and attempt to interpret this for a moment.
A club filled with men could be a representation of a patriarchal society but in this instance gay men usually don’t find women sexually desirable. Which allows for someone to ask the question, why? Freud theorized that a girl was considered a failed boy as the woman slitting her wrist is hurting but we’re not fully cognizant of what that pain is we can only assume its because she feels lonely and undesirable. She doesn’t meet all the criteria of what’s desirable in a patriarchal society therefore struggles to be what an ideal woman should be or is it much bigger than that? She’s a failure because she’s not a man?
Returning to the plot, the woman pays the same gay man (who rescued her from hurting herself further) to join her for four days to examine her sexuality in this somewhat dilapidated-looking chateau that’s essentially isolated. It unfolds into a very rude, conflicting awakening where both sexes relearn their perception of each other. I won’t go into specific details, but give you a general sense of what to expect which includes, bloody tampon water, explicit close up shots of the female sex, bodily fluids, foreign objects, and some enlightening, somewhat extensive monologues. This film isn’t meant to entertain you by any means, as its primary purpose is to shine light on female sexuality. Viewers will hate it or praise it, there’s really no middle ground here. Even in its showing at the 29th International Toronto Film Festival, critics and reviewers walked out and in response to that Catherine Breillat said, “I want to create a reflection on sexuality. It’s normal that it’s difficult for moviegoers to watch this, but those journalists who walked out should be asking themselves why they left. Why were they so shocked?”
Catherine Breillat as I’m learning is notorious for exploring femininity and sexuality by using film as her medium and yes this film is demanding and relentless to watch, but you really have to scratch the surface and dig deeper to figure out what she’s trying to say. I don’t necessarily believe it’s a man hates woman kind of film, I think its more about a woman showing a man who she physically is and his reaction is like the inquisitiveness of a child, exploring anatomy that essential constructs a petrifying reaction because he can never undo what he’s seen and experienced. Breillat even gives us a scene of waves crashing into the cliffs which exemplifies the crazy, wild-like nature that is woman. Overpowering. Unpredictable. And symbolically accurate to an extent. It’s perfect.
In the end, I’m left with more questions. How can one be so horrified by something they’ve often objectified in the past? You love what it can make you feel, yet trash it later down the line because you can’t handle its actual power. Its such an obscure tango between the sexes. As we continue even to this day to define and analyze sex.
Its one hell of a film, that leaves me fascinated with a stupid grin on my face because Catherine Breillat is out there questioning and utilizing film to make her work known. I’m absolutely mesmermized by her fearlessness. And we need more of that these days. She is a lone artist casting a spark out in a dark abyss where no one dares to go to turn on a light and see the physical nature of being a woman. Or maybe there are a select few? Either way, Catherine Breillat is a fascinating rare breed.