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Monday, January 4, 2010

Sadean Woman

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Catherine Breillat recently remarked of her new film Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l'enfer): "After finishing Romance I immediately felt like remaking it. It wasn't that I wanted to disown it, but I knew the subject had two sides, and this time I decided to see it through to the end." Adapted from her novel Pornocratie, Anatomy of Hell does not really function as a sequel but instead pushes some of the 1999 movie's key themes to new extremes.

The action opens in a gay nightclub. There's no dialogue, just the pounding of the music and the couples on the dance floor. A young woman (Amira Casar) is there, seemingly alone. She flees to the bathroom where she slits her wrist; a man (porn star Rocco Siffredi, who also played Paolo in Romance) tends her wound and leaves with her. He claims to be disgusted by women but agrees to her bargain: she will pay him to look at her. "Watch me where I'm unwatchable, no need to touch me. Just tell me what you see."

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Over four nights he visits her cliff-top house. Her room is sparsely furnished but you can't help but notice the crucifix above the bed. "I bless the day I was born immune to you and all your kind," he tells her as he sits gazing at her naked on the bed in front of him. A misogynist, he tries verbally to hurt and humiliate her, but gradually she gets under his skin. He doesn't even know her name, yet he has experienced "total intimacy" with her and is so thrown by the emotions she awakens that he reacts violently. As he tells a bar-room crony: "I made her crap her shit and wallow in her piss. That slut. She was a pigsty by the time I left... but she wanted more."

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Handsomely lit by Breillat's regular cinematographer Giorgos Arvanitis, the film combines graphic imagery of sex with poetic voiceovers and philosophical asides about the nature of desire. There's a hint of Strindberg about the extraordinarily intense and destructive relationship between the man and the woman. Though Breillat doesn't 'do' humour, there are nods in the direction of Buñuel's surrealist comedies Viridiana (1961) or Tristana (1970). Anglo-Saxon audiences are liable to titter during the more portentous episodes, for instance a voiceover (read by Breillat) telling us that "the ocean, like a woman, could engulf you", or the moment when he contemplates her genitalia and observes (disgustedly) "frogs at least have the decency of being green", or the scene in which the woman pulls out a bloody tampon, holds it up as if it's a tea-bag and dunks it in a glass of water for her lover to drink. ("Don't we drink the blood of our enemies?" she asks.)

At its crudest, Anatomy of Hell plays like a Freudian case study, complete with dream sequences and flashbacks to childhood incidents that explain the man's disgust for women. Breillat herself resists such a reading and insists on the film's mythic elements; actress Casar concurs, likening her character to Ariadne and Siffredi's to the Minotaur.

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Casar, a one-time Helmut Newton model, insists that the film is in no way exploitative. "What's wonderful is that the girl is the mistress of the game. She is Pandora, the wise one, and she chooses who she will live out this ritual with. She puts a mirror in front of him so he can move from barbaric thoughts to emotion. I don't think there's an ounce of vulgarity there."

I interviewed Breillat at the Rotterdam film festival in January, the day after Anatomy of Hell's world premiere. Her producer Jean-François Lepetit was at the festival raising money for her next project, a costume drama based on Barbey D'Aurevilly's 1851 novel Une Vieille Maîtresse (An Old Mistress), the tale of an impoverished aristocrat obsessed by his former mistress. "I think it's a magnificent work. It was written 70 years after Dangerous Liaisons and refers back to it. It depicts the last cry of the aristocracy, a period just before the rise of the bourgeoisie, who forced women to wear collars up to their necks and extinguished the enlightenment that allowed writers to discuss emotion and desire and knowledge