Sexually Frank or Just Shockingly Wrong?

‘Anatomy of Hell’ continues a director’s tradition of naughty close-ups

Viewers unfamiliar with the work of director Catherine Breillat (“A Real Young Girl,” “Virgin,” “Romance” and “Fat Girl,”) may be unprepared for what is in store in her latest film, “Anatomy of Hell.”

Simply put, Breillat does not shy away from showing graphic sexual images, and her latest work is no exception. In fact, the visuals in this film are so intense even ardent fans may be taken aback.

Breillat’s audacious, minimalist, even pretentious film explores female sexuality with unflinching detail. Anyone looking for erotic entertainment is advised to search elsewhere. As the characters are enigmatic, and the story—a “fiction” based on her novel, “Pornocatie”—is ambiguous, this film is not likely to arouse anything other than questions.

“Anatomy of Hell” opens with a significant disclaimer that a body double was used during the film’s scenes of intimacy. This refers to the female character; the male is played by Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi in all his glory. Immediately after this message is flashed, viewers see a scene of gay fellatio outside a nightclub. Inside, a woman (Amira Casar) heads to the bathroom to commit suicide. On the way, however, she touches a gay man (Siffredi), who saves her from death. Afterward, she fellates him and they make a deal––she will pay him to “watch her where she’s unwatchable,” in an isolated house on the edge of town.

Most of “Anatomy of Hell” takes place in the woman’s home over a period of several days. The woman and the man—neither are named—interact in sexually provocative ways. For starters, they dissect the woman’s anatomy, discussing her body and pubic hair, and investigating her vaginal fluids and menstrual blood. When a tampon is used in a kinky manner, audiences will get a taste of how Breillat likes to push people’s buttons.

The film is nothing if not scandalous. Breillat, a provocateur, would not have it any other way. The filmmaker makes sure viewers are spellbound––if they are not racing for the exits––and “Anatomy of Hell” is suspense fully compelling.

One thing that may keep the audience’s attention is the almost constant nudity on screen. Alas, despite the gorgeous bodies on display, it is not titillating watching Casar’s character yield a stone dildo from her vagina, or seeing Siffredi’s blood-soaked penis after intercourse. That said, both actors give incredibly brave and brazen performances.

Casar has mastered the necessary facial expressions––from surprise to pleasure to amusement, sometimes during the same sexual activity—and the actress ably plays both vulnerability and control. Casar clearly understands Breillat’s perspective that women have to use their sexuality as a weapon against men, but her role at points challenges her, especially during a strange scene featuring a large garden implement protruding from one of her body’s orifices.

In contrast, the well-endowed Siffredi is unfortunately saddled with an underdeveloped character. He tries his best with the part, but mainly succeeds at points when he is asked to be emotionally naked rather than the many more moments when he is simply inert, as when he stares aimlessly on camera.

The best thing that can be said about “Anatomy of Hell” is that the images, however explicit, are all artfully composed. Much of what the characters say is ridiculous, and there are long, silent stretches of inaction. Breillat may be trying to deconstruct sexuality by making clinical certain sexual acts, but she would have done well to make her characters more appealing.

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