Anatomy of Hell Review

Alex Hewison reviews Catherine Breillat’s immensely controversial latest effort, Anatomy of Hell. The film intends to be a graphic, yet symbolic, polemic about the sufferance of women at the hands of men. The end result, however, is a grotesque embarrassment to all concerned. Tartan’s DVD provides the movie with a better presentation than it deserves.

The Film

I once read a review that described Catherine Breillat as ‘the madwoman of World cinema’. Before seeing Anatomy of Hell the remark seemed facetious but affectionate, afterwards it garnered greater credibility than I had ever anticipated. Breillat is an interesting director but her cinematic credentials currently seem to revolve around her brazenly intellectual determination to dissect, examine and uncover the mysteries of anything and everything sexual. When I received my sample disc from Tartan, I discovered on the reverse side of the DVD sleeve a list of Anatomy of Hell’s ‘key selling points’. One such point was that ‘reviews for the theatrical release exposed film as extremely sexual and graphic – guaranteed to attract attention!’ I can only suppose that Tartan is banking on the chance that none of the inquisitive punters will have actually read the reviews that have so attracted them to Anatomy of Hell, since few critics have done anything other than lambaste the film with as much bile as they could humanly muster.

I won’t describe Anatomy of Hell’s opening shot (for the sake of tactfulness if nothing else), suffice to say it depicts an act that few films dare to overtly portray with about as much explicitness as is legally possible. Breillat’s message is clear: this is my style of cinema, so get used to it or get out while you still can. We are introduced to ‘the woman’, who has the good fortune to remain anonymous throughout the film, played with serene insanity by former model Amira Casar. We sense there’s something a little unhinged about her, not least because she is skulking around a club that is otherwise populated entirely by gay men, contorting her face into a variety of forlorn expressions of anguished contemplation. She is, in other words, a woman in a Catherine Breillat movie. She sidles off to the toilet and makes a vague attempt to slit her wrists. ‘The man’, played with blank incompetence by Rocco Siffredi, stumbles in on her and understandably demands ‘Why did you do that?’ She replies with just the faintest hint of a sneer ‘Because I am a woman’. If that exchange sounded even the slightest bit arch or pompous to you then be forewarned; Breillat displays unerring exactitude when it comes to squeezing in as many epigrammatic chunks of post-modern philosophy as can be comfortably fitted in between the film’s more unsavoury sections.

Roger Ebert once mused, with regards to sex in cinema; ‘it’s amazing how seriously [the French] take it’. Taking it seriously is one thing but Breillat seems to have gone into a pseudo-intellectual overdrive of ideas and body parts. The man is commissioned by the woman to spend four nights ogling her denuded form (‘to watch me where I’m unwatchable’) and verbally combat with her about why-men-hate-women and why-it’s-all-because-of-fear. Since the man ostensibly is gay, sexual intercourse is merely an optional privilege during their time together. The woman illustrates her theses by doing some teeth-grittingly unpleasant things to her anatomy, on occasion letting the man partake in the act and on even rarer occasions cohesively articulating the grievances she cryptically alludes to throughout the film. This mundane intellectualism might all be easier to stomach was there not something so woefully juvenile about Anatomy of Hell. After the first night of tendentious chatter and uncompromising body close-ups, the man’s remaining three sojourns at the woman’s lofty seaside abode descend into outright exploitation – and very unpleasant exploitation at that. There may well be arcane symbolism buried deep within Breillat’s unsettling imagery but by the end of the film the audience is as much in the dark as to the film’s meaning as the man and the woman are during their preferred activity of violent copulation.

There is, however, something to be said for directors like Breillat. Whilst the majority of modern filmmakers opt to tiptoe around controversial subject matter Breillat downright hurls herself into the firing line and for her bravery, if nothing else, she deserves to be commended. À ma soeur! (also titled Fat Girl) is an apt demonstration of her capabilities, but whilst said film was one of this century’s best (and least acknowledged) movies, Anatomy of Hell is easily one of the worst.


One thing that can be said in the film’s favour is that its cinematography is nothing short of gorgeous and the DVD excels in the reproduction of this visual beauty. The 1.85:1 transfer is anamorphic and nigh on perfect: sharp, slightly grainy, with rich colours and deep blacks. Indeed if the image has a flaw it is that it is perhaps a little too dark.

The sound is another matter, however. Three mixes are present but upon my first viewing (with the Dolby 5.1 track) it became apparent that the other two were essentially superfluous. The film opens and closes with a pounding techno soundtrack but otherwise the film has no music and no sonically exacting special effects. Still, the 5.1 audio mix nicely accentuates the film’s innumerable gasps and groans for those actually paying attention.

The Extras

To start off with, there’s the requisite trailer for Anatomy of Hell (which makes it look like a glorified porno flick and promises way more than the final product delivers), a Tartan trailer reel and a rather dull set of publicity stills.

The main extra is an interview with Catherine Breillat. At 65 minutes the interview is only marginally shorter than the feature itself and though it’s a rewarding experience it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. Breillat’s discourse with the interviewer is frequently abstract and cryptic; rarely going into the specifics of the production or the casting process or, indeed, any conventional area of filmmaking. Instead she outlines the numerous dialectics she intended (and, quite frankly, failed) to vocalise within the film and though many questions still remain unanswered, this is an ultimately more coherent piece than the film itself. Breillat (looking very soignée) comes across as languorously affable and pleasant and is visibly upset when discussing the hostile reaction the film received upon its release.


Anatomy of Hell is an unmitigated disaster of a movie, a sexually explicit train wreck of dreadful acting, poorly reasoned and barely explained philosophy and gratuitous scenes of graphic rumpy pumpy (oh how I’ve longed to use those words in a review) that provide neither prurient titillation nor meaningful insight into the battle of the sexes or the role of sexuality in 21st century society. The DVD is good stuff though.

Alex Hewison

Updated: Apr 20, 2005

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