Catherine Breillat commands a formidable presence – a woman at once coolly sensual and watchful, careful about her words and boldly assured in her delivery. She is a principled artist who has found herself once again calmly situated at the eye of a stormy debate over her work and its provocative affront to the French censors. Although short-sightedly labelled “the auteur of porn” by her conservative opponents, Breillat’s infamy is nevertheless deserved, as her bawdy films and writings have repeatedly taken on sex as both subject and object, dishing up explicit and sometimes unsimulated representations of sex, rape and sadomasochism that have collapsed traditional distinctions between what is considered art and what is dismissed as pornography. Casting a defiant eye on the ideological instruments of perversion, Breillat’s films are at once gratuitous and reserved: heavy-handed dialogue opens a space for viewers to critically consider her compelling narratives and charged imagery; unflinching long takes characterise her careful and defamiliarising play with nudity; her signature roving camera gently pans in semicircular arcs, casually observing couples doing more talking than fucking in bed; unabashed depictions of sex are gracefully choreographed but stilted, awkward and discomforting, precluding the fetishistic pleasures traditionally afforded the voyeuristic spectator in conventional sex scenes.
Breillat was aptly baptised into cinema as an actress in 1972 with her supporting role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s libido-charged Last Tango in Paris, and over the course of her remarkably audacious 25 year career, she has thoroughly plumbed the depths of female sexuality, consistently returning to a handful of themes such as the traumatic loss of virginity (A Real Young Girl, Fat Girl, 36 Fillette), cross-generational couplings (Brief Crossing, Perfect Love), female masochism (Romance) and female sexuality as a potent force that is repressed and made obscene by its patriarchal bedmate. In her latest film, Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l’enfer), Breillat probes deeper into the uncharted possibilities of representing sex and sexuality, masterfully crafting a literary, painterly and ultimately terrifying tableaux vivant of the female body. The narrative set-up is both familiar and unique in the Breillat lexicon: an unnamed woman (Amira Casar) searching for her sexual identity becomes embroiled with an unnamed, misogynistic man (Italian porn-star, Rocco Siffredi), striking a contractual deal with him and igniting a psychosexual relationship that proves revelatory, volatile and ultimately explosive. The basic carnal ritual enacted by the partners across their series of nocturnal rendezvous is simple: the woman puts her body on display for the man, reclining nude in the center of a clinically lit, sparely dressed room, as if on a medical examination table. The nudity is at once excessive and sublime, composed in reminiscence of both the classical renaissance nude and the sanitised image of the body in western medicine, demanding to be viewed apart from the pornographic vision that dominates the way nudity and sex are seen today. Loading Anatomy of Hell with religious references, Breillat strikes at the Judeo-Christian roots of perversion and obscenity, attempting to resurrect the body from the hell to which it has been banished by confronting the horror of its parts and properties, its elasticity and discharges, in queasy detail.
Months before its much anticipated premiere at the 2004 Rotterdam International Film Festival and late January French release, Anatomy of Hell began sending shockwaves through the French film community and cultural agencies, reviving a blistering debate on censorship that has targeted Breillat on many occasions. Despite the predictably mixed commercial and critical receptions of a film so literary, philosophical, and driven by symbolic referents, Breillat’s tenth feature garnered the top prize at the Philadelphia International Film Festival and has found its way to Australian, US and Canadian markets. In the anxious calm before the storm, I met with Breillat in Paris to discuss this stirring work, her thoughts about sex, and her responsibilities as an artist working against a supremely moralistic tide.
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Kevin Murphy: A recurring motif in your work is women who are involved in relationships with men who refuse or are unable to fulfill their sexual desires. I’m interested in why the woman in Anatomy of Hell picks a man out of a gay club.
Catherine Breillat: More than for desire, she is looking for her sexual identity, for her “self”. For her, he is a kind of image. It’s not a club for homosexuals, it’s a club where men come together, men who don’t like the company of women, and there are many places on the planet where men don’t like women. It’s an allegory.
KM: Can you speak about the contractual deal that evolves between them.
CB: Essentially, she’s paying him to watch her where she can’t be watched. It’s like the theory of Pythagoras, which postulates that you can’t watch what is not watchable. We are constantly watching ourselves and aware of the fact that society is always watching us, but the difficulty lies in the attempt to see ourselves in a different way than we are envisaged by society. If you can’t love yourself, you can’t love anybody else. This woman is paying this man to be the first guy on the earth to look at her. They recreate the first night and the first woman, like Adam and Eve.
KM: That’s interesting, because in this film you invoke so much religious and classical iconography.
CB: I do, and I think because of this, I couldn’t find an actress who would play explicit sex with Rocco Siffredi – not one. They all refused, perhaps because we are living in a very repressive time. The moral order is riding our backs and is coming down hard on me and my work. I had to make the film like a sacred painting. I had to paint my Caravaggio.
This film will elicit a strong hateful response because it is about the forbidden aspects of religion, more Judaism than Catholicism. It’s actually a version of the Torah, an illustration of a section about woman. I read the Torah after I shot it, and I realised this passage from the Torah is the opposite take on the same subject, word-by-word an illustration of the female body, menstruation. It is about impurity, about blood. The woman in this film represents a Christ.
KM: The mise en scène in Anatomy of Hell is dream-like, like a figurative space.
CB: I intended for it to seem like a dream, loaded with symbolic meanings, where everything that is a symbol is our truth but is not reality. Reality and truth are not the same thing. Truth is more emblematic of the human condition, I think. Like in Romance, this film allows you to enter a new dimension, one conducive to fantasy. When you speak about sexuality, you are always working in a fantastic dimension.
KM: This film, like your first, A Real Young Girl, has been adapted from your own novel. How do you translate these stories, and these representations of sex and bodies, from the page to the screen?
CB: The essential subject or the original set-up is a man and a woman that sit down in one room. There is no romance. You can’t write a script with things like “she’s lying on the bed, she’s spreading her legs, he’s watching her and it’s really, really awful.” I had to find another way to write the script with poetry, a kind of poetry that could perfectly illustrate the subject. That’s why I wrote the book, Pornocratie, as a way to flush out the poetic language of the script. The writing of the script led me to the writing of the literature. Ultimately I kept the original script, and I just added voiceover and the last five pages from my own book. That’s why the movie is quite a mute film. All those scenes have to be mute, because all those lyrical passages and dialogues had to be translated into metaphorical and metaphysical light, literally transposed into cinematic light. When you see great silent films like Murnau’s, you realise the primacy of the image in film; it is the image that is emblematic of what’s actually going on.
KM: The voiceover is unique because it speaks for both the woman and the man. Where does it come from and who is it?
CB: It’s me! At first I had this extremely lengthy voiceover over much of the film, and my editor was furious, and I told her that she could cut all that she wanted and keep only what was necessary. So we did. And we had a test screening for four or five people, with the voiceover spoken by Rocco and Amira, and it went well, but it’s better when it’s me, because when it’s them, it reads like a psychoanalytic movie, and I hate psychology (laughs).
KM: It also seems very personal, as you are so present in the film.
CB: When I shoot a film, I always project myself into one of the characters, at once into either a man or a woman, and Anatomy of Hell is the first film in my career in which my voice and my thoughts come from the man, not the woman. I am the body of Rocco, and I am only faintly present in Amira; she’s like a me that is very far off. Usually I identify with the women, with Anne Parillaud, with Roxane Mesquida, with Anaïs Reboux, with Caroline Ducey. I am in their bodies. But here I occupy the body of the man, and the woman is more an example, like an obelisk or a picture. Like many of my films, Anatomy of Hell is a film about initiation, but in this case, it is the man who is initiated.
KM: Despite the reductive dismissals of your work as pornography by conservatives, it is an interesting decision to cast Rocco Siffredi twice in roles requiring such explicit sex scenes. Is this a self-reflexive decision?
CB: No, but it’s a very complicated role, and no French actor could do it. Rocco performs with his entire body and mind, so he is a sort of perfection.
KM: The film begins with the disclaimer stating that the cinema constructs a fictional space and that the actress is substituted by a body double in many of the scenes.
CB: That is because the actress required by contract that I preface the film with the disclaimer that she didn’t have actual sex with Rocco. I wrote especially heavy-handed wording designed to be vague for the viewer.
KM: I read it as your game with the censors. For me, the film is very much about seeing the body as both subject and object, with the close-ups of the body’s parts, its fluids, its falling apart and being mutilated, like in Pasolini’s films. I read the statement as differentiating the actors, these people with careers, and their bodies, which are objects.
CB: Yes, that’s quite true. Many of the close-ups and even the wide shots are framed such that you only see body parts and can’t tell if it is really the actors. And this is what the game is about. When you put that sort of sentence in front of the movie, when you say “Resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental”, you are lying, because filmmakers always take inspiration from life.
Anatomy of Hell was a nightmare to shoot, as well.
CB: Days and nights, people were actually immersed in the film and couldn’t disengage from it. A Portuguese and very Catholic crew member told me that this movie prevented him from sleeping at night. Rocco was too much for him. He couldn’t watch him or separate the real Rocco from the image of Rocco. It was very difficult, and I had to care for many people on set, because we were confronting a certain fundamentalism, where looking at a woman’s body like this is really scary for people. And I think that the film will have a violent reception. I’m sure that hate and anger will come from the fundamentalist establishment. I hope that they won’t kill me.
KM: If these images and issues can inspire such hatred and fear, what is your responsibility in producing them?
CB: I think that artists have an imperative to show these images, because all the images of sex and bodies that we see are marred by perversion. There is just one point of view about sex, and it is pornographic. And I think that that is just the point of view of a very bad industry, and artists have the responsibility to represent sex from another point of view. This is what I have to address, and what I must do is show images that are not showable.
KM: As an auteur, are you creating a new kind of cinema, another genre?
CB: This is a unique film. Nobody else would do the same thing. I think that another filmmaker working like this is David Cronenberg, particularly in his film eXistenZ (1999), in which he was trying to challenge and change the aesthetic codes around the representation of sex. When you look at organic objects, such as sexualised bodies, you are filled with shame and fright. Once you are used to it, there is no shame or fear to experience, so you’ve changed the aesthetic codes and from that you actually create a new gauge for morality. Aesthetic is fashion. That is what I want to show, like Cronenberg, and for the same reasons, because Cronenberg said that he made eXistenZ after thinking about the moralism, the aesthetics, and the fear around sexuality, and more than sexuality, just sex. I think that the vision of sex is so awful for puritans because sex belongs to intimacy, and intimacy belongs to the individual, and it is not something that belongs to hell, to the collective dread. Hell has an anatomy, and it is the woman’s body.