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Cult Film Club: Anatomy of Hell

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The female body is the incendiary focus of Catherine Breillat’s tenth feature.

A semi-pornographic polemic, an explicit battle of the sexes, and a self-proclaimed 'illusion', Anatomy of Hell is the unmistakable work of French firebrand Catherine Breillat.

Adapted from her own novel 'Pornocracy', in 2004’s Anatomy of Hell Breillat eschews conventional narrative; this might be knee-deep in the taboo but it’s unashamedly intellectual – arthouse with a capital A. Instead the film takes the form of a probing, unflinching cinematic essay, comprising a series of sexual encounters which take place over four nights.

At the outset an unnamed woman (Amira Casar) challenges an unnamed man (Italian porn actor Rocco Siffredi) to observe her 'impartially': to watch her when she’s 'unwatchable'. By promising payment, the woman lures the man to a dilapidated and isolated coastal mansion. She’s like Countess Dracula, with her milky complexion and moody vibe. Except the man is apparently gay and thus she’s rendered impotent, a vixen stripped of her allure.

During the course of the film Breillat unflinchingly explores the fundamental differences between the sexes. Over their four nights together the woman displays her body like an artist’s model, in all its beauty and right down to the perceived flaws: her unshaved armpits and her inconvenient period.

Breillat directly challenges male notions of feminine attractiveness, along with questioning why some men desire to debase, possess, oppress or harm women and she asks what it is about the female body that causes it to be so routinely labelled obscene.

She approaches the subject as if it were legend; the film is deliberately abstract with the central couple representing the first man and woman, in a confrontation of two opposing natures. The original book was, by her own cheerful admission, "a long lamentation against men" but through the process of making the film and working with Siffredi, the male character became increasingly sympathetic.

Anatomy of Hell isn’t Briellat’s most controversial film (there’s stiff competition – excuse the pun) but it’s right up there. The set-up is straight out of a porno but she subverts the premise, forcing us to think, confronting us with uncomfortable but hardly ill-considered accusations. Amusingly, anyone looking for illicit thrills will get much more than they bargain for.

The surprisingly affable Breillat remains one of cinema’s most divisive figures. A formidable intellect, her first novel was published aged 17 but was banned in her native France for readers under the age of 18. Her 1999 film Romance caused classification nightmares across the globe with its non-simulated sex scenes. Anatomy of Hell was itself greeted – at least in some (old and male) quarters – with outright vitriol. The reactions might suggest that she’s touching a nerve.

Anatomy of Hell is fascinating, certainly and flawed probably. Most of all it’s hugely thought-provoking. The great cinematic transgressors move debates as well as the medium itself forward and Anatomy of Hell is as intelligent as it is provocative. Breillat’s films might divide people along the lines of politics or gender but, whether you agree with her or not, cinema is all the richer for her presence.

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