Anatomy of Hell written and directed by Catherine Breillat, with Amira Casar and Rocco Siffredi. A Jean-François Lepetit/Flach Films/CB Films production. A Mongrel Media release. Subtitled. 87 minutes. Opens Friday (November 12) at Camera. Rating: NNN
Some say repression is unhealthy, that anything less than a ruthlessly honest confrontation of reality violates intellectual freedom. Others believe that repression is the reasonable price of civilization, that a common agreement on the limits of public discourse is essential for the maintenance of a cohesive social fabric.
A third school of thought says there's nothing more fun than fucking with taboos and making conservatives howl.
If we want to understand what Catherine Breillat's up to with Anatomy Of Hell, we can safely eliminate door number two.
Anatomy Of Hell is exclusively concerned with what Breillat calls "that which can't be seen" and others have affectionately called jelly roll, vagina and even, famously, Rosebud.
And in spite of the fact that her two protagonists, lounging in and around their iron four-poster, discuss it in language (cribbed from Breillat's book, Pornocracy) so highfalutin it sounds like seduction by master's thesis, there's nothing academic about the visuals.
Breillat works into the mix sexual acts that combine Catholic imagery with garden implements.
You bet. From 1988's 36 Fillette to 1999's Romance, Breillat's films have been both celebrated and reviled for their frank and often brutal depiction of sex in all its baffling, messy, coercive, overwhelming variety.
She doesn't sugarcoat. She doesn't titillate. She draws on a graphic, ruthless, red-in-tooth-and-claw vision of desire that, whatever you may think of its merits, is the antithesis of gauzy Hollywood slow-mo fade-out schtupping.
She's sitting, sleek and elegant, on the cool, hazy courtyard patio of the Metropolitan Hotel, her deep-set, long-lashed eyes hooded with purplish shadow. Her voice comes from high in her throat, not hesitant, but a little choked. In her neat black blazer and coral necklace, she's more anthropology professor than avenging valkyrie.
"I realized that in Romance I really hadn't gone as far as I'd intended," she says. "I'd avoided the very subject that I really wanted to deal with - the question of showing that which can't be seen. Obviously, this was the puritan in me. In this film, I set things up so that I couldn't skirt the issue. It was the only subject of the film."
"That which can't be seen" is another way of saying nudity, which in the book of Genesis is the same word as "secret." Breillat plays with words compulsively, constructs elaborate arguments from etymologies. She seems to have fun with it.
"In Romance, Robert says that the etymology of 'seduction' is 'to bring to oneself.' We say that a woman's sex is ugly; it's not ugly. But what don't we like about it? What's dangerous about it? Precisely its seductiveness."
In Anatomy Of Hell, a woman (Amira Casar) picks up a man (porn star and Romance actor Rocco Siffredi) at a gay bar and offers to pay him to observe her nether parts four nights running. He agrees, and they spend the rest of the film in and around the aforementioned four-poster, locked in vulvocentric dialogue.
Public reaction to Anatomy has been violent so far. But for Breillat, violence is sort of the point.
"Mine is not the conventional type of cinema that leads the spectator to identify with the characters onscreen," she explains. "On the contrary, I'm confronting them, forcing them to react emotionally, with extreme violence, to what they're seeing.
"But it's not the film that creates this violence," she continues. "It's a little bit like a patient who would respond with aggression to a doctor's diagnosis. This mortal disease of sexual identity is within them already. It's not I who created it or aroused it, although it's true that I forced the audience to confront it."
She has said that this will be her last film of this type, which makes sense. Where do you go from here?
"My next film is going to be a spectacle," she says with gusto, "a show, a film that will deal with violent emotions but will be far less harrowing for the audience. I don't see why I should leave that sort of thing up to others. I'm really looking forward to showing sweeping emotions, with a sweeping narrative arc."
She smiles. "But I hope the radical nature of the films that have led me to that point will protect me from doing it in an academic or conventional way."