November 12, 2020
Toronto Star
By Peter Howell, Movie Critic

French sex as a form of aversion therapy




  Anatomy Of Hell

Starring Amira Casar and Rocco Siffredi. Written and directed by Catherine Breillat. 87 minutes. At the Camera and Canada Square. R

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Sex Is Comedy

Starring Anne Parillaud, Grégoire Colin, Roxane Mesquida and Ashley Wanninger. Written and directed by Catherine Breillat. 92 minutes. At the Carlton. 18A

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Should Catherine Breillat ever tire of making dull pornography, and there's sadly no indication of that happening anytime soon, a career in aversion therapy awaits her.

I see her filling the shoes of the attending nurses in a real-life recreation of the behaviour-modification scene in A Clockwork Orange, in which a porn-loving felon, his eyes clamped open, is forced to watch degrading and violent sex films until he literally retches at the thought of seeing another naked, throbbing organ.

The arrival of two Breillat movies in a single weekend, Anatomy Of Hell and Sex Is Comedy, brings us perilously close to this brave new world of dampened desire.

French director Breillat is the cinematic equivalent of a cold shower. Her films, now stretching back two decades (longer if you include her acting career), treat sex as the most repugnant of acts, only to be indulged in by sadists or masochists.

Who needs a censor, or a finger-wagging granny, when you have Breillat around to convince us that sex is sinful, unfulfilling and degrading? Anyone who experienced feelings of lust watching one of her movies would probably also get turned on watching a car crash, like the wretched auto fetishists in Cronenberg's Crash.

She insists that her films aren't intended to be erotic — each one comes with a treatise about censorship and repression — but she perversely casts beautiful people in them. She isn't interested in having the ugly perform the ugly acts she conjures in her writing and directing, because that would be a turnoff for the voyeurs she seeks.

For all of her talk of making a statement, Breillat is really only interested in making a spectacle.

(The notable exception to this is her 2001 film Fat Girl, briefly censored by Ontario ninnies, which revealed genuine compassion for a teenager's self-loathing. Breillat is capable of making a good film, when she wants to.)

Anatomy Of Hell is her latest effort, based on her book Pornocracy, and it's tempting to say it's the best indication yet that the empress has no clothes. Neither does her leading lady Amira Casar, the French actress who appears naked for most of the movie.

Casar submits to a variety of sexual violations, or rather her body double does — the movie begins with a disclaimer that all of the nasty acts to follow were inflicted not an a semi-famous French actress, but on an unknown body double. We are not encouraged to call this a double standard.

The movie opens with the sight of two men engaging in spirited oral sex outside a gay bar, while disco music thumps in the background, and it's the last time anyone happily gets their rocks off.

For the rest of this 90-minute ordeal, the sex is performed with the kind of fervour normally reserved for filling out tax forms or sorting laundry, albeit with a more interesting assortment of tools — including a gardening implement that is brutally used for rape.

Casar plays an enigmatic figure called "The Woman." She is dressed for a hot evening out, but finds herself inside the gay bar bemoaning her plight at having been born female. She intends to do something about the situation by slashing her wrists with a razor blade, but she is interrupted in her misery by a figure known only as "The Man," played by Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi (who also appeared in Breillat's earlier film Romance).

"Why did you do that?" he asks her, taking the razor away.

"Because I'm a woman," she replies.

The Man is not your average white knight. He makes it clear he doesn't like women — he despises their "obscene nature" — but he's concerned about The Woman's state of mind. She counters by making him an offer he really should refuse: She'll pay him a tidy sum to accompany her to a remote château, whereupon he will spend four nights with her, watching her "where I'm unwatchable."

He does more than watch. A series of degradations follow, some appalling and others simply silly, that quickly quell any frat-boy fantasies about the sniggering premise. Breillat labours to attach psychological and spiritual significance to the proceedings — she narrates a steady stream of pseudo-intellectual babble, and symbols of Christianity are everywhere — but any point she has to make is lost in the endless heaving of unhappy bodies.

Anatomy Of Hell might be dismissed as yet another manifestation of Breillat's obsession with sex, but it unhappily promotes several hateful myths. The movie strongly suggests that to be gay is to be a misogynist, that all men wish to do violence to women and that being female is the same as being miserable.

Back home in France, they apparently call this entertainment.

Less offensive, but no less stupid, is Sex Is Comedy, a movie that only partially lives up to its title. Belatedly released two years after its 2002 Toronto Film Festival debut, and timed to cash in on whatever interest Anatomy Of Hell drums up, it's the most autobiographical movie of Breillat's career.

It's about a film director named Jeanne (Anne Parillaud) who is attempting to film a sex scene between the two nubile young stars of her latest movie. But The Actor (Grégoire Colin) and The Actress (Roxane Mesquida) have even less interest in each other than The Man and The Woman of Anatomy In Hell, even though they are being paid a lot of money to feign interest the way thespians are supposed to do.

The movie begins promisingly with a scene of Jeanne and her faithful assistant director Léo (Ashley Wanninger) vainly striving to shoot a romantic beach scene with the recalcitrant young couple, whose ardour is further diminished by near-freezing weather. We can sympathize as Jeanne and Léo struggle with egos, perfectionism and a rapidly vanishing sun.

Equally of interest is the conversation Jeanne has later with her prop man, who has fashioned a lifelike penis out of rubber that The Actor is supposed to use for his big sex scene. (The term "lifelike" is open to debate; it's a strap-on model that looks as though it's the missing member from the puppet love scene in Team America: World Police.)

As usual with Breillat, not much happens outside the boudoir. What would pass as an amusing interlude in other films, the hassle to shoot a single sex scene, becomes the entire raison d'être of the picture. At least the title isn't a complete misnomer: The Actor looks absolutely ridiculous walking around in a bathrobe with his rubber prosthesis protruding out, like Pinocchio in a puppet version of Boogie Nights.

Are we to conclude from Jeanne's travails in Sex Is Comedy that it's a lot of hard work getting people to have bad sex on camera? If so, we can only hope that Breillat takes her own message, and finds happier employment making motivational videos for the carnally disinclined.