I’d like to be able to report that Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l’enfer, 2004, adapted by the director from her 2001 novel Pornocratie) has been praised by critics as magnificent, playfully provocative, darkly funny, fearlessly bold, beautiful, brilliant, engrossing, original; a complex and a startling revelation of philosophical genius when it was first released, but this is not the case. In truth, Breillat’s film was met with overwhelming disapproval, condemned as pornographic, pretentious, deliberately disgusting, too cerebral, too explicit, a film that “plays like porn dubbed by bitter deconstructionist theoreticians”.1
Many reviewers despised and dismissed the film. Indeed, Anatomy of Hell inspired numerous critics to walk out during screenings, particularly at the 29th International Toronto Film Festival. In response, Breillat stated “I’m not in favor of sexual exhibitionism. Rather, I want to create a reflection on sexuality. It’s normal that it’s difficult for moviegoers to watch this, but those journalists who walked out should be asking themselves why they left. Why were they so shocked?”2
What exactly is so disturbing about Anatomy of Hell? Catherine Breillat has always been a feminist provocateur, and she is no stranger to angry critical reactions to her films, but I suggest that Anatomy of Hell met with such outright rejection specifically because it is so deeply effective as one of the most effective feminist tracts ever deployed. This film explores the fully naked female body at length (and often in close-up) while disturbing the expected and comfortable modes of looking at women and our vaginas.
Neither porn, nor erotica, Anatomy of Hell frustrates voyeurs who routinely consume naked women as gorgeous mindless objects. Breillat evokes an unprecedented way of gazing at the female naked body and her sex; one that disrupts the comfort of both the pornographic and clinical gaze, while actively contemplating what it is to be female in a phallocentric and patriarchal society that routinely consumes our vaginas, yet despises it and considers it vile and disgusting.
Gynophobia reigns over our pornography-soaked misogynist world. Young women are particularly alienated from their own bodies: many have surgery to reshape their clitoral lips according to the standards of pornography, or to look like Barbie dolls in a popular plastic surgery procedure, gynoplasty; female circumcision for the first world. The title of Hayley Campbell’s 2014 review in Vice is particularly telling: “Anatomy of Hell Was the Film That Made Me Fear My Own Vagina.” For me, Campbell’s reaction to the film is much sadder and more shocking than Breillat’s film itself. Yet it is this very same revulsion toward the female body and menses that is key to understanding Anatomy of Hell.
Like most audience members, Campbell is trained to be disgusted by the sight of blood-soaked tampons and close-ups of bloody vaginas. Breillat sees this revulsion towards menstrual blood as itself both reactionary and sadly gynophobic. Admittedly, the third section of the film involves the steeping and drinking of a glass of water that holds a bloody tampon. As Stephanie Zacharek observes, “The beauty of the sequence isn’t that it’s so gracefully presented we forget to be queasy; it’s that Breillat treats our queasiness itself with respect, an allowable response that’s as much evidence of our humanity as the bloody tincture in the water is.”
If you suspend your disgust and contemplate the sequence closely – as you might a philosophical treatise – you’ll gain a new appreciation for the female body and the powerful beauty of menses. Drinking menstrual blood is a key sacred ritual of communion here, one that intimately brings together the central couple, and foregrounds Breillat’s remarks in the film: “because of this blood they say we are impure . . . what they call impurity, I feel quite the contrary.”
Menstrual blood and the bleeding vagina embody strength and purity to Breillat, which puts her completely at odds with thousands of years of phallocentric religions that maintain the opposite view. In the Catholic church, we metaphorically drink the blood of Christ to wash away our sins. Breillat’s fairy tale reworks one of the most sacred customs of the church into a profoundly feminist ritual.
Breillat makes sacred that which is considered profane. This should not be surprising, given that Anatomy of Hell is not an exploitational pornographic essay: it is in actuality a feminist fairy tale, and it is best approached as such. Breillat demonstrates that fairy tales are the perfect genre in which to playfully twist, reveal, and reverse that which we consider sacred and profane, as she does in her brilliant feminist versions of Bluebeard (2009) and Sleeping Beauty (2011).
Anatomy of Hell does not announce itself as a fairy tale, but elements of fairy tales are boldly pronounced. The film is set in four sections, and narrated by Breillat in voice-over, in “once-upon-a-time” mode. The plot is as simple and bizarre as any Grimm’s fairy tale, and it ultimately involves the exchange of money for sexual knowledge. Characters gain wisdom by the end of the tale. Breillat’s Prince is a sleepwalker; awakened to his first experience of intimacy.
The film’s plot is seemingly quite simple: a woman pays a gay man to look at her body in a house on the edge of a cliff. The woman’s naked body disgusts the male, and yet, like us, he is forced to constantly gaze at her body, looking deeply into her vagina, which becomes bloody when she gets her period. We never learn the character’s names, and once we get to the house, we barely leave a bedroom chamber, which holds little more than a bed, a mirror, a lamp and a prominent cross displaying the body of Christ nailed to it (a nod to Breillat’s Catholic upbringing).
The house is completely isolated; nearby is the crashing sea, a blatant metaphor for female sexual power. There are no servants. The hired male arrives in a taxi and is used at the woman’s will. If anybody is in danger of being murdered or raped in this tale, it is the male figure, not the female, clearly the stronger of the two. Time is suspended. We could be in any century or any place, as in a fairy tale.
Other than occasionally nodding off to sleep, the characters do precious little. They stare at one another as if in a contest (the male often loses and is forced to avert his eyes), and they talk about the female body and how men feel about women. Little sex takes place, with the exception of some caressing and brief unsatisfying sexual scenes – all very carefully constructed and controlled by the women here; both Breillat as ever-present voice-over narrator and director of the film, and Amira Casar as “the Woman” who pleasures herself (by being looked at) at the expense of Rocco Siffredi (a porn actor) who plays here “The Man.” Breillat is not without a sense of humor in casting a porn actor as the “weaker sex” under the complete control of a woman.
Anatomy of Hell may be read as a gender-reversed Sleeping Beauty, but in this case Sleeping Beauty is fully in charge. The woman, by paying for the man to watch her, is not passive, but rather controls the narrative tale. In this fashion, Breillat turns the traditional and necrophilic rape fantasy (passed on through the ages as Sleeping Beauty) into a feminist fairy tale of female agency in which the male figure (as well as the audience) is forced to listen to Breillat’s hour-long treatise on the hatred of the female body as they stare at a beautifully lit naked speaking woman.
She is a 21st century aggressive Sleeping Beauty come to life; neither a passive 19th century figure (as in Courbet’s 1866 painting “L’Origine du monde”), nor an odalisque slave figure, even if she poses as such through much of the film (thoroughly enjoying her own to-be-looked-at-ness) and by mimesis, conjures up these classical paintings.
At one point in the film, the hired man tells her “you talk too much.” Is that not what most male critics think about beautiful women? That we should shut up? Anatomy of Hell forces the viewer to rethink the assumptions that society has forced upon us in an attempt to define female sexuality. Anatomy of Hell is therefore a revolutionary film, and one of the key works of early 20th century feminist cinema. It is proof that we won’t shut up, and will not be silenced.
Anatomie de l’enfer/Anatomy of Hell (2004 France 77 mins)
Prod. Co: Canal+, CB Films, CNC, Flach Film Dir: Catherine Breillat Scr: Catherine Breillat Phot: Giorgos Arvanitis, Guillaume Schiffman Ed: Pascale Chavance
Cast: Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi, Catherine Breillat (narrator)
- Roger Ebert, “Review: Anatomy of Hell,” RogerEbert.com, 11 November 2004. ↩
- Hayley Campbell, “Anatomy of Hell Was the Film That Made Me Fear My Own Vagina,” Vice December 22, 2014. ↩