Anatomy of Hell Reviews
[font=Century Gothic]"Anatomy of Hell' is not a bad idea for a movie. For example, it is always a good thing when men and women exchange sexual information about their respective genders.(I learned a good deal about sex from my women friends in college.) But the movie wallows in pretentiousness and neither performer were apparently cast because of their acting ability. Catherine Breillat had already covered similar territory in the superior "Brief Crossing." I did think the tampon scene was informative, though. [/font]
The film cannot really be viewed as a film in the traditional sense. It's more of a thesis. Breillat's argument seems to be that, depending on who you are, a woman's body is either completely terrifying or spectacularly divine. She also proposes that homosexual men are simply unenlightened straight men, but I won't get into that.
I would certainly advise seeing the film, but I would never, ever suggest that you will enjoy it. Cheers.
Like so many of her films its based on one of her novels. The only other of her films I've partially seen, is last years critically popular "The Last Mistress", when my girlfriend wanted to see it after the enthusiastic reviews. I largely ignored the movie, turning once or twice from my computer screen to look up at an Asia Argento sex scene, which seemed to be going on every ten minutes or so. I became aware that Breillat is known for pushing the boundaries "between pornography and cinema", and by her repeat appearances on an IFC series on sex in film history called Indie Sex, and repeated mentions by Slavoj Zizek, about how her ambitious and interesting films often fail because of uncious ideological lines between sexuality and "seriousness", that are so fundamentally ingrained in language and culture they are almost impossible to unbind.
After pleasant experiences with other sexually explicit movies like the sui generis "Wayward Cloud", the genuinely heartwarming "Shortbus", the cold machine world of Cronenberg's "Crash", and elliptical fairy tale of "The Ring Finger", I felt I was ready to give the infamous Breillat a peak. After recently watching "Anti-Christ", and readiing the firestorm of controversy it created, I felt I had to take more than just a passing look at one of her films.
In many ways both "Anatomy Of Hell" and "Anti-Christ" deal with fear of female sexuality, but where Anti-Christ deals with fear itself, and psychological coercion among other things, AOH takes a more direct approach to its subject. It could be said that the film is almost one note compared to Anti-Christ's multi-valent discussions, but the religious allusions, philosophical quandaries, feminist underpinnings, and graphic images of the human body, are just as apparent, and more self-aware.
The story begins in a gay night club, where a despondent woman begins cutting her wrists only to be interrupted by a man (played by ex-porn star Rocco Sefredi), who promptly takes her from the club to a hospital. After the hospital they engage in a brief and inexplicable sexual encounter on the street, and she asks him to come back to her home for a few days to "look at her objectively where she cannot look at herself". He agrees to the arrangement provided the price is right, and for 4days he watches her naked on a bed, as she discusses her views on sex and sexuality.
In Briellat's own fascinating words, "Essentially, she's paying him to watch her where she can't be watched. It's like the theory of Pythagoras, which postulates that you can't watch what is not watchable. We are constantly watching ourselves and aware of the fact that society is always watching us, but the difficulty lies in the attempt to see ourselves in a different way than we are envisaged by society. If you can't love yourself, you can't love anybody else. This woman is paying this man to be the first guy on the earth to look at her. They recreate the first night and the first woman, like Adam and Eve."
For the record, Vera Chytilova's Fruit Of Paradise" is actually a much better radical film on the literary Adam and Eve theme, but is also just equally as difficult and abstract. If Anatomy Of Hell is Adam and Eve, than the fruit of knowledge is the female vagina, the snake his sexual impulses, and God his shame which banishes him from Eden, his innocence. There is a variation of this in the films first flashback where a boy takes a small new born bird from a tree.
Breillat has said she was influenced by certain passages in the Torah regarding the uncleanliness of women and menstruation. Menstrual blood is the primarily bodily fluid on display especially in the end of the film, and by the final day of their encounter, the characters are nearly drenched in it. Breillat aims to shock but also to recreate the sense of seeing general awe/fascination/aversion/symbolization of seeing the female anatomy for the first time, through Siffredi's exagerated and alien viewpoint. An erect penis is among the first images we see on screen as Siffredi after years of porn is not about to become bashful now shows us his/the male member as rudimentary, protruding, and I can't but think is an intentionally comic moment in the films opening that sets the tone for the rest of the film, literally in-your-face.
The vagina on the other hand is rarely completely visible whether like in the movie by the hair which obscures it, as Breillat argues, anatomically by its position on the body, symbolically and as the netherworld of impulse and libido to the conceptual heaven of the rational mind, or through censorship both internal and external. External censorship means the government or studios coming in and dictating what is and what is not permissible, which did not happen in this movie. Internal censorship, is from the cast and crew itself, where Breillat could not find a single actress in all of France willing to have un-simulated sex with Siffredi (as she initially wanted) and crew members being more than a little shaken up over during filming (some having reoccuring nightmares).
Whether the refusal of the actresses was because they would have to be completely nude, be in a sex scene, or be in a sex scene with Siffredi (a porn star), specifically is not fully known. "Sex with a porn star in a film" is only a typo or two away from "sex with porn star on film", so maybe the linguistic dangers were not worth the risk. Because of this issue, the movie opens with a disclaimer that the actresses body is that of a body double, which represents an extension of her character and that she did not engage in actual sex. This was done as part lead actress Amira Casar's contract. So far from this being an exclusively patriarchal kind of repression emphasised in "Anti-Christ", the film's construction shows how a fear of female sexuality is not exclusive to men, even as it's content argues the opposite.
In one of the most interesting scenes Casara says a tampon is roughly the size of the average human penis, that she can put one inside herself and walk around and feel nothing. She asks is it not proof that the act itself of sex itself is not important, but the meaning behind it? Likewise it is not the body of the actress in the film, nor the acts the bodies perform but the meaning behind them. AOH I think is film as much about the complex responses it generates, if not more so, than its content(story).
I read of one instance when a forty year old woman apparently vomited on herself in the theater, during the films most controversial scene where a tampon is used as a tea bag. Breillat's response, "I'm just amazed at the sense of shame she must have felt for herself, her body and her feminine condition...Here's a woman who must have had her period for 40 years. So why hide it? Why must we pretend it doesn't exist?". She is just as hard on critics who walked out of her film in a statement I actually very much agree with: "I can't understand and can't accept journalists walking out. It's their job to stay for the entire screening and report on what they've seen. As far as I'm concerned, by giving into their primary reaction, they are breaking their journalistic code."
To compound this complex discourse Breillat narrates the thoughts of both characters, and though its the actress who does most of the talking (I say actress because the characters are credited as "He" and "She", also similar to Von Trier's Anti-Christ), it is Siffredi who gets most of the internal monologue, and who becomes the main character we experience the film through. The Woman remains mysterious throughout, and by the end seems to vanish completely.
This is not a casual film, from the throbbing techno-score which bookends the credits, it creates a tension it does not surrender for its 74 minute run time. I do have reservations about her appropriation of a gay male character allegorically as only "a man who doesn't like women", because it runs the fine line of bringing down on itself the Chasing Amy criticism of showing how all a lesbian needs is a good man (a criticism I actually don't agree with regard to that movie, but valid.). AOH suggests however peripherally that all a gay man needs is to be locked in a room where he has to look at a naked women. I bring this up for devils advocate sake, because I actually think the film shows sexuality as more fluid than the modern gender entrenchments we've come to accept as normal.
Samuel R. Delany once said that what drove off Ralph Ellison(who'd previously been a big suporter of his work) and what made many critics so uncomfortable about his novel Dhalgren (besides it's incredibly dense, circular structure), was the bi-sexuality of it's main character who had thri-part relationship with a man and a woman. "Gays" his critics could except because they were in a discreet group and separate group. Straddling both worlds was just too much to fathom, and too close to home. In fairness the woman doesn't necessarily succomb to any of the sexual enlightment Sefredi' experiences, she just unburdens herself for a moment, using the man as a sexual prop in her one woman excorcism. She doesn't recover from her self destructive behavior and simply vanishes unresolved as so many sharp points introduced and discarded by Breillat's plot.
A woman who Casar goes to the gay club with at the beginning is seen making out with a man on the dance floor; did he come with them, did she meet him, was he a straight man trolling for straight women in a gay club, or a bisexual man playing both fields, or a gay man who was just curious? None of these characters are ultimately anything more than abstractions, sketches of humans to extend the rigidly one sided ideas and themes of revulsion and intimacy.
Siffredi's "revelation" that he experienced something profound in himself as result of the encounter is overstated by an out of place bar room confessional he has with a drunk. The scene hammers the most general idea of the film home, when the finer details were what made the movie interesting in the first place. In more of Breillat's words "I'm not trying to make sitcoms, nor am I trying to make a normal type of cinema...I don't believe in the idea that you have to lead the spectator to identify with the characters. In my films, I force people to accept that these other emotions exist. I make viewers my puppets, rather than allow them to feel as though they are the person on the screen. I like brutalizing and raping the audience."
Sex is not as we imagine it, not as it is advertised, and repeated to us in words and images, it exists separately as sounds, smells, tastes and other sensations especially hard to display in films. Breillat's method for jogging these other senses, is to show us fluids; ejaculate both male and female, blood, and saliva. It disgusting, provided you find these substances of the body disgusting(or giggle inducing). There are some general activities in the film that would fall under the category of perversions, but I haven't mentioned them so far because so many others have made "obscenity lists" out of this movie. Listing the actions (which are meaningless) out of context devalues them, and turns the film into a simple porn designed to induce arrousal, when it is anything but sexy.
I don't want these items to be hidden away as if they weren't things that happen in the movie, so here it goes: there is a stone dildo, a rake is shoved into an orifice (its not clear if its an anus or vagina), lipstick is put around an anus, and I've already mentioned the tea cup scene. The rake scene is about aggression, curiosity, and their combination in pushing the limits of transgression ("you[men] don't know how much damage you can do"), the lipstick scene kept in context is done by a gay character (who admits to being repulsed by the female sex) is the psycho-sexual equivalent to the now famous Barak Obama remarks of "putting lipstick on a pig", the tea cup (which 2001's Ghost World used as a gag about art school pretentions) amounts the a discussion of the differences between blood and water, and the stone dildo is the only instance of an actual close up (a jump cut at that) on the object exiting a vagina, which obviously recalls giving birth (the other scene that seems to be most reviled in reviews).
In elementary school a boy I knew told me if you take your index and thumb and make them into a circle and then put your other index between them, that is what sex will feel like. I remember saying aloud well why don't people just do that with their fingers all the time? I had unintentionally stumbled into a joke the older boys understood, but I did not. I remember seeing "The Miracle Of Life" video as a high school freshman and feeling very nearly faint, when the placenta cascaded in what seemed like a cartoonishly ridiculous rush of liquid. Thankfully a kindly older girl noticed my sudden paleness and offered me some of her water. I've met guys both young and older whove told me point blank they think vagina's are gross, as if they were saying the sky was blue or the earth was round. "Its like the skin of a frog" as Sefredi says, "Its moist, and it oozes and secretes, but at least frog's have the decency of bieng green".
As academic as Breillat seems in her approach, there is a cultural sensibility stretching back to ancient times (cuts to images of crucifix on walll after sex scenes) where women are inviting sirens on the outside who have these strange mysterious monsters lurking between their legs, that a man never gets to see until its too late to escape. 2007's "Teeth" dramatized this idea mostly for laughs, but as that movie pointed it, its a myth and pop culture iconography(see "Jennifer's Body", and by "see" I dont mean recommend) present in multiple countries across continents and throughout history.
In The Vagina Monologues there is a scene where a middle aged woman recounts a story of how she began a relationship with a man. When they are about to have sex for the first time, he asks her if he could first just look at her between her legs. She nerviously allowes him, he looks at for a long time, and finally looks up and says something like"your beautiful"; and they had sex and fell in love, etc. Okay, admittedly it sounds less like a cheesy porn when you actually see it performed. In fact, it was one of the few happy monologues in the version of the play I saw. Breillat's story is almost a parody of this scene, with the vagina hating man is converted by days of S&S; sermon and sex.
To use a phrase from Family Guy to describe the actual intercourse between the characters, it is "hilariously brief and unsatisfying", but I believe this too is Breillat's intent. If Sefredi, were having sex with a woman for the first time it would be, despite the great erotic build up leading to it, be sound and furry signifying nothing. Her discussions however cold are more important than his advances, like the tampon Casar cannot feel, it means nothing (not even enough to wake her), unless she wants it to.
Judd Apatow and Sasha Baron Cohen bank on using the penis as a punchline, the proverbial "shock cock" as cash cow, but the closest general audiences will have gotten to a labia is when Lars Von Trier makes Gainsbourg cut her own off in Anti-Christ. Which makes sense with Breillat's view and not only for Gainsborug's character (which it still does) for the audience to get a glimpse of female sex, only on condition that it be followed immediately by punishment (castration), hers and symbolically the audiences.
When I went into this movie I thought it would be a drama with some graphic sex, but what it turned out to be is a graphic sex montage with some allegorical discussion and narration floating above it. You simply cant cut out, cut away, or ignore human bodies in this film, and even as you are shocked by something like the tea cup scene, your forced, if it does, to ask why it causes such repulsion and flinching? These characters don't get to the root of the problem, but they do get down to what all the fuss is about.
Maybe in the end Breillat is just rubbing our face in it, but as the opening shot suggested and I joked about, haven't Apatow and Cohen(who are the least offenders, and usually pretty funny) been rubbing our faces in it already. Guys can show their cocks when its all in good straight jest(usually about a homosexual situation; Borat's naked chase), but even a glimpse of a vagina and its universal reproaches of "provacative", "distracting", and "eww gross" in unanimous chorus. Roger Ebert says "There are scenes here where Breillat deliberately disgusts us, not because we are disgusted by the natural life functions of women, as she implies, but simply because The Woman does things that would make any reasonable Man, or Woman, for that matter, throw up." What Breillat responds when asked what she does find disgusting; "When I see Harry Potter flying over France, even though I adored the novels, I'm just horrified at the poverty of imagination with the transposition onto to the screen.".
AOH is a cerebral, detached, abstractly theatircal film, largely recorded in a single bare room, acted between two characters and a series of props. If it is overstated, I think its because its attempting to touch nevers seldom exposed to light. "I think that another filmmaker working like this is David Cronenberg, particularly in his film eXistenZ(1999), in which he was trying to challenge and change the aesthetic codes around the representation of sex. When you look at organic objects, such as sexualised bodies, you are filled with shame and fright. Once you are used to it, there is no shame or fear to experience, so you've changed the aesthetic codes and from that you actually create a new gauge for morality.
Aesthetic is fashion. That is what I want to show, like Cronenberg, and for the same reasons, because Cronenberg said that he made eXistenZ after thinking about the moralism, the aesthetics, and the fear around sexuality, and more than sexuality, just sex. I think that the vision of sex is so awful for puritans because sex belongs to intimacy, and intimacy belongs to the individual, and it is not something that belongs to hell, to the collectived dread. Hell has an anatomy, and it is the woman's body."-Catherine Breillat
Its problem was its stationary anatomical dissection. I deduce simply from the title because I had some effing bad fansubs (Need to rewatch), which means a lot of the dialogue I didn't fully comprehend. But I saw enough to make me decide it's badly put together. The script and ending have no true dedication, the actors are there so that Breillat can just teach audiences with them, as though they were puppets.