Catherine Breillat continues to flesh out her daring-to-dopey view of the flesh in "Anatomy of Hell." Compact, ultra-explicit two-character pic about what transpires when a beautiful straight woman hires a handsome gay man to "look" at her is gloriously mannered, proudly pretentious and undeniably compelling.

Catherine Breillat continues to flesh out her daring-to-dopey view of the flesh in “Anatomy of Hell.” Compact, ultra-explicit two-character pic about what transpires when a beautiful straight woman hires a handsome gay man to “look” at her is gloriously mannered, proudly pretentious and undeniably compelling. However, there’s way too much dialogue that crumbles under its own weightiness, particularly when spoken by porn star Rocco Siffredi. International notoriety is assured and, even in France, where pic opens Jan. 28 after its preem at the Rotterdam fest, censorship issues appear to be brewing.

Even by contempo standards, film contains some envelope-pushing firsts, such as filmdom’s lengthiest and most graphic ode to tampons. Full frontal nudity, including erect penises, is woven into the tale of power filtered through intimacy.

First thing on screen is a dense paragraph spelling out that a body double has been used whenever the camera ventures into more intimate regions of lead actress Amira Casar’s body. Preamble has the strange double effect of (a) absolving viewers from speculating as to whether the beautiful and talented Casar actually lent her own privates to the enterprise, and (b) putting one on the lookout for genital continuity in extreme close-ups. However, there is no doubt that prolific porn vet Siffredi unveils his own physical attributes for the camera.

First shot shows a bout of anonymous male-on-male fellatio. Cut to the dance floor of a disco whose clientele is all male except for a sad-eyed wallflower (Casar) contemplating a gyrating population to which she may as well be invisible.

The nameless woman goes to a well-lit restroom, where she proceeds to stain her satiny white dress with bright red blood as she slits her wrist with a razor blade. At that moment, an unnamed man (Siffredi) enters and asks, “Why did you do that?” Her reply: “Because I’m a woman.”

That night, they seal a deal. She will pay him to come to her large, isolated house, perched on a rocky precipice overlooking ocean surf. His job is to look at her, to endeavor to truly see her in all her most intimate contours.

Arrangement, which evolves over a succession of nights spent almost entirely in one spartan bedroom dominated by a brass bed, is the catalyst for the baring of bodies and souls. What initially seems like masochistic humiliation mutates into a hands-on tutorial accompanied by pointed-to-ponderous musings on why society and religion have got women all wrong.

Using a cultural measuring stick that would give an MPAA ratings panel a collective heart attack, Breillat posits that “community standards” are hogwash. It’s about time, she opines, that people accept that moist, accommodating vaginas, menstruation and female desire are standard equipment for half the human race. Not shameful, not unclean. So get used to it.

Unlike actress Caroline Ducey who, in Breillat’s “Romance,” was asked to play a nebulous and none-too-bright woman, Casar radiates dignity however potentially silly her character’s words or deeds. Sincere, but way out of his acting depth, Siffredi is hobbled by his thick Italian accent which means he mauls Breillat’s torrents of aphorisms and metaphors. The effect is something like Arnold Schwarzenegger attempting Hamlet’s soliloquy.

Breillat is militantly in favor of personal and intellectual freedom — and that aspect of her mission as an artist is laudable. But it’s the way she expresses it on film that lends itself to giggles and guffaws.

The things Breillat has her characters say are nearly impossible for anyone but the author herself to deliver without tipping into the risible. Indeed, the offscreen voice that comments on the proceedings is Breillat’s own, presumably reading lines verbatim from her book “Pornocratie” (Pornocracy), on which the pic is based.

While not as brief as the sex acts depicted, pic is agreeably swift at 77 minutes. For the record, Casar’s body double is billed as Pauline Hunt.

Anatomy of Hell

France

Production

A Rezo Films release of a Flach Film, CB Films production, with participation of Canal Plus and CNC. (International sales: Flach Pyramide, Paris.) Produced by Jean-Francois Lepetit. Executive producer (Portugal), Antonio da Cunha Telles. Directed, written by Catherine Breillat, based on her novel "Pornocratie."

Crew

Camera (color), Yorgos Arvantis, Guillaume Schiffman, Miguel Malherios, Susana Gomes; editors, Pascale Chavance, Frederic Barbe; music, D'juiz; art directors, Pedro da Santos, Jean-Marie Milon, Paula Szabo, Pedro Garcia; costume designers, Valerie Guegan, Betty Martins, Catherine Meillan, Sanine Schlumberger; sound (Dolby), Carlos Pinto, Filipe Goncalves, Emmanuel Croset; casting, Michael Weill, David Santini. Reviewed at Club 13 screening room, Paris, Dec. 10, 2003. (In Rotterdam Film Festival.) Running time: 77 MIN.

With

The Woman - Amira Casar The Man - Rocco Siffredi Voice - Catherine Breillat
With: Jacques Monge, Claudio Carvalho, Carolina Lopes.
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