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Man confronted by a woman's sexuality

September 24, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

France's fiery Catherine Breillat gets down to business fast in "Anatomy of Hell." A darkly beautiful woman (Amira Casar) wanders through a gay disco and touches a man (Rocco Siffredi), confident he not only will follow her to a restroom but see that she gets emergency room treatment after she slashes her wrist. She is a woman, it seems, in search of a sexual experience that lies somewhere between "nothingness and brutality."

Once her wrist is bandaged she offers him a proposition: She will pay him to come to her house to watch "where I'm unwatchable." The woman has on her mind female sexuality more than merely sex. She sees herself as woman confronting man with her sexuality and has apparently despaired of getting through to a straight man. What follows is graphic, but it's too cerebral and too challenging to be dismissed as pornography.

Confident she can arouse the man, his homosexuality notwithstanding, she first wants him to understand what it means to her to be a woman -- a woman steeped in an awareness that from the beginning of time women have been brutalized by men who regard them as possessions, a woman convinced that men fear women and especially their genitalia.

In her clinical yet stately manner Breillat is largely -- though not wholly -- successful. With enlightenment dawning, the man and the woman have sex with an intimacy he has never experienced. But to Breillat the man is now like any other guy whose inability to handle intimacy has potentially destructive consequences.

With her spare style and the solemnity of the man and the woman's lengthy and very French philosophical discourses, Breillat invites being labeled pretentious, or merely ridiculous, in the grimly presented in-your-face sexuality. Although Breillat succeeds in making many of her points viscerally as well as intellectually, her historical view of relations between men and women may not universally hold true any longer. It's also hard to go along with her apparent belief that all men are unable to handle intimacy, yet "Anatomy of Hell," which Breillat adapted from her novel "Pornocratie," is persuasive.

Best known for "36 Fillette" and "Fat Girl," both about women intent on discovering sexuality on their terms, Breillat has inspired tremendous trust in her two actors. It seems perverse to cast astraight male porn star as the film's gay man. But Siffredi, who had a small part in Breillat's "Romance," brings to his portrayal a kind of world-weary understanding of sexual dynamics that is not surprising from a man who has worked in porn for nearly 20 years. Casar recalls Goya's "Naked Maja" in her majesty and provocativeness.

Breillat announces at the start of her film that in some intimate moments she employs a body double for Casar. This amusingly smacks of a double standard, because it's absolutely clear that Siffredi is fully on display. What is undeniably tantalizing about "Anatomy of Hell" is that production notes say its running time is 87 minutes, but it clocks in at 73.


'Anatomy of Hell'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Graphic sexuality, complex sexual themes, strictly for adults only

Amira Casar...The Woman

Rocco Siffredi...The Man

A Tartan Films release of a Flach Film/CB Films production with the participation of Canal Plus and the Centre National de la Cinematographie. Writer-director Catherine Breillat. Based on her book "Pornocratie." Producer Jean-Francois Lepetit. Executive producer Antonio da Cunha Telles for Animatografo II (Portugal). Cinematographers Yorgos Arvanitis, Guillaume Schiffman. Editor Pascale Chavance. Costumes Valerie Guegan, Betty Martins. Production designers Jean-Marie Milon, Pedro Sa Santos. Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes.

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