A specialist in closed-door provocations, Catherine Breillat directs films in which no intimate gesture can take place without referencing a millennia-old struggle between men and women, and no pleasure can occur without at least raising the possibility of pain. Usually, women end up on the hurting end, but Breillat doesn't exactly wave a shaming finger: She seems to accept this state of affairs as the way things have to be. Having witnessed queasy sexual negotiations and suffered unspeakable cruelty, the protagonist of Breillat's Fat Girl sits in silence, as the film suggests that she's seen the light and has nothing more to say. It's a mystery how anyone can hold this view of the world and still drag herself out of bed for croissants and coffee, but Breillat's best moments make a literal war of the sexes look like a fact of everyday life. It's when she retreats into theory, as she does pretty much from the start of Anatomy Of Hell, that she becomes hard to take seriously.
An Indecent Proposal for filmgoers with plenty of Hélène Cixous on their shelves, Anatomy Of Hell focuses on four eventful evenings in the life of a woman (Amira Casar) who strikes up an acquaintanceship with a gay man (Rocco Siffredi) when he witnesses her cutting herself in a disco bathroom. After surprising him with a blow job, Casar promises Siffredi cash if he'll agree to, in her words, "watch me where I'm unwatchable." She's not being coy; she's being literal. Shortly after Siffredi first arrives, she gets down to the business of displaying parts of her anatomy that she'd need a mirror to see herself, prompting him to compare her genitalia to "the horror of Nothingness that is the imprescribable All" and, at another less poetic point, a frog.
Now a Breillat regular, Siffredi is best known for parts in films with titles like Captain Organ and Intercourse With The Vampire. The defiantly unerotic Anatomy Of Hell doesn't have much in common with Siffredi's usual work, apart from an eagerness to fill the screen with genitals. After a while, it feels less like an examination of the relationships between men and women than like an exploration of what can be inserted into a woman's vagina. (Pauline Hunt, Casar's stand-in for the close-ups, deserves special commendation for her work here.) Breillat adapted the film from her own novel Pornocratie. On the page, it's possible to contemplate the symbolic value of a man and woman sharing a drink from a cup with a used tampon floating in it without struggling to avoid gagging. But even without the difficult imagery, Breillat's grim observations on men, women, and sexual orientation (anuses, it would seem, are less threatening than vaginas) are tough to take. "Words are lies. Bodies are truth," Breillat's surrogate says in her recent—and much better—Sex Is Comedy. Maybe. But it's still best not to mistake all frank talk about bodies for truth-telling.