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aka - Anatomie de l'Enfer
France 2003
Directed by
Catherine Breillat
77 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Anatomy Of Hell

Synopsis: A nameless woman (Amira Cassar) explores the mystery of her sex with a nameless man (Rocco Siffridi) over the course of four nights.

Sartre said that hell is other people. Taking a subsection of that observation, for Catherine Breillat, hell is sex, in its physiological and anatomical reality and its psychological repercussions. Anatomie de L'Enfer is given over to displaying the former and reflecting on the latter. It is quintessentially French in being concerned with sex and, moreover, talking about sex. The difficult, unpossessable, irruptive, destructive, messy and beautiful thing about sex is, of course, that it is irrational, for better and for worse. All the talking (and looking) in the world will never capture its insistent reality and hence it is unsurprising that the French as descendants of Cartesian rationalism never cease their Sisyphean circumlocutions of it (the paradigmatic filmic example for me is Jean Eustache's 1973 The Mother and The Whore.

Breillat's film is also very much in the Sartrean tradition in being concerned with articulating the alienation that the sensitive consciousness feels in face of the brutal indifference of the physical world, a sensation that Sartre called 'nausea'. In Breillat's case, and this film is, by her own adjuration, her ultimate statement on the subject, the popular feminist notion of 'abjection' would be more appropriate. The abject is that which as 'civilized' beings we deny in our daily discourse and Breillat's agenda here, in the spirit of her ironically entitled 1999 film, Romance, is to bring the unspeakable or, as this film puts it, 'the unwatchable' to light. In this respect, and as personal exorcism, its provocative, taboo-breaking honesty is to be commended. Unfortunately, this candour comes with a feminist diatribe of literary and philosophical pretensions that varies from the theory-informed tedious to the risible and back again. Clearly, when The Guy with serious intent refers to The Girl's sex as: "The horror of Nothing that is the unprescriptable All" we are in a different realm to the everyday.

Breillat has stripped the naturalistic cloaking of her similar but different 2001 film, Brief Crossing, and given us a kind of theatricalised illustration of the feminist separatist position that, in essence, all men hate all women because they fear their otherness. One supposes that Breillat is being intentionally provocative in advancing such a proposition. Although this is reasonable as an opening gambit, the impossible-to-accept, mind-numbing aspect of the film is that it does not develop from that point but simply reiterates itself (men will find this more galling than women).

One of the problems with this mono-dimensional thesis is that it is masochistically self-confirming. Breillat's characters are ciphers for a world view signed, sealed and delivered before the cameras rolled and you are expected to sit quietly and listen to the director's disquisition (the script is based on verbatim transpositions from Breillat's book, Pornocratie). Unless, for whatever reasons, you subscribe to that world view and wish to have it confirmed, the consequence is, as with any film that does not engage one with its substance, that one starts attending to its flaws - Rocco Siffredi's strained attempts at acting, poor continuity, the dummy's arm sticking out of the water, asking questions like "if it's supposed to be so honest, did the woman have to be magazine-perfect and the man hung like a horse", "wasn't he supposed to be gay" and "how much longer is this going to go on?". With films like Baise Moi and Irreversible the French have cornered the market in avant-gardist sexploitation films. Anatomie de L'Enfer arguably is the most sophisticated and sophistic offering from this source yet and the one most likely to last.




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