Woman’s Body as an Anatomy of Hell: Nihilism, Recursion and Tragedy in Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell

Sex as Body Politics

by David Durnell Volume 10, Issue 7 / July 2006 31 minutes (7578 words)

I. An Introduction to Breillat and the Transvaluation of Gender Morality and Sexual Aesthetic through a Subversive, Nietzscheian Übermunsch

When hyper-transgressive novelist-cum-auteur Catherine Breillat was seventeen, she wrote her first book, L’homme facile. [1] Due to the novel’s explicit sexual content and depictions of masochistic fantasy, the book was banned for those under the age of eighteen in France, ironically barring the novelist from the reading and purchasing of the book she had written herself. [2] This scenario gives the perfect allegory for Breillat’s artistic trajectory, as her introspective, sincere depictions of women are continually attacked and prohibited, though attempting to represent the feelings of women themselves. That censors should refuse an author her own creation –make her diegetic self forbidden to her– is equivalent to a society announcing that women are prohibited to feel and be as they are, and must exist as something else –something they are not. The publishing companies putting a ban on Breillat’s work was synonymous to banning Breillat’s own feminine self –her feelings, her desires, her truth. And this, Breillat believes, is the plight of her artistry, as well as the predicament of women within current society. [3] Her films, then, are an attempt to subvert society’s projections of who and what women ( as well as men) essentially are –and what her films aim to liberate.

With Breillat’s latest film, Anatomy of Hell [4], Breillat wishes to free the woman –her body, her psyche, her soul– from this repressive nature of a fearful, contempt-filled –and religious– society by initiating the man, by allowing him to understand the other, and thus understand himself. [5] “The woman in this film represents a Christ,” says Breillat, using iconography for the means of the iconoclast, allowing her female protagonist to take the “fall” so that this man might understand more. [6] And as such, Breillat’s protagonist in Anatomy of Hell must exist as a savior, a martyr of society’s inflicted masochism, and a woman who must face a sort of “mutilation” of fluids, of “falling apart” –a diegetic manner that Breillat compares to Pasolini. [7] It is no surprise then that one of her favorite films is Pasolini’s now infamous microcosm of fascist bodies Salò [8], more than implying that Breillat anticipates a similar filmic response as Pasolini’s film, as well as taking and supporting the same metaphorically graphic extremes as Pasolini. [9] It is also not surprising then that Breillat’s film also takes hints from Italian neo-realism (though possessing some self-reflexity, mostly through surrealism or sudden genre-changing) with its brutally long takes, life-like character ineptness, and focus on wounded individuals, blatantly ignoring those “dead formulas” of story (which film pioneer Cesare Zavattini speaks of in his dissertation on the meaning of neo-realism). [10]

And like Salò, “This film will elicit a strong hateful response because it’s about the forbidden aspects of religion,” Breillat warns. [11] “… 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.” [12] Whether or not ??Anatomy of Hell??’s salvation disgusts or enlightens will depend on the viewer’s own reaction to the characters own actions –to the film’s presentation of their sexuality, their orifices, and their own eventual transcendence, and the moral implications of such a “transgressive” ascendance. Like a feminine or egalitarian adaptation of Nietzsche’s concept Übermunsch (which literally means over-human) Breillat wishes to save her characters from their own religion-generated-nihilism –and thus destruction– by beautifying their natural, organic bodies and lives, and liberating their withered selves from a declining, malevolent society –a society in which the characters are enslaved and guilt-ridden with “chastity” and “virtue,” and thus inherent impurity. Breillat’s feminist salvation is to make what is deemed impure beautiful, and to make what is sin –what is filth– a work of art, of righteousness, a Nietzscheian transvaluation. And, like Nietzsche, this specific reversal of biblical morality is not incidental, but totally intentional. Breillat alludes to the Torah several times in her film as a perpetuating cause of her protagonist’s inferiority complex and self-hatred, and even announces that her film is a sort of inverse Torah, acting as an opposite representation of the same subject: the female and her body. [13] Whether one sides with Breillat’s form of egalitarian Übermunsch, or with the opposing “puritan” or even “religious” society, will be the choice of the viewer, though the critical disgust the film generated seems to imply that society –or at least the film community– is not ready for Breillat’s highly-transgressive diegetic salvation –this of course confirming Breillat’s anticipated reaction to the film’s content and message. [14]

In The Antichrist, when speaking of his “true readers,” the Übermunsch, Nietzsche writes:

Let us not under-estimate this fact: that we ourselves, we free spirits, are already a “transvaluation of all values,” a visualized declaration of war and victory against all the old concepts of “true” and “not true.” [15]

In Anatomy of Hell, Breillat makes this declaration of war against what is the aesthetic and sociopolitical norms of society, of “old concepts,” of the commonly held views of female body, and of human sexuality. Her film is this “transvaluation of all values” –the stage of transvaluation being set in the hyper-diegetic recursion of Adam and Eve– thus formulating a new, hyper-transgressive approach to sexual aesthetic and morality, starting from a modern base case, this microcosm for Eden, and moving both progressively and in recursion to a new model of truth, of perception, and –hopefully– true intimacy, sexual egalitarianism through understanding and connection. The end result: a woman and a man at peace with the other.

There can be no doubt that what society now sees as “transgressive,” Breillat sees as beautiful –if not consummately righteous in form. And like Nietzsche’s last words in _The Antichrist_…

And mankind reckons time from the dies nefastus when this fatality befell —from the first day of Christianity!— _Why not rather from its last — From today_—? The transvaluation of all values! [16]

Breillat wishes to begin anew, to start “from today,” the last day of Christianity, the day of iconoclastic victory –that victory being the end of such nihilistic guilt caused within society. Breillat, as is the case in Nietzsche’s seminal work The Antichrist, wishes her oeuvre, and this film, to be recursive, in that a new base of reality/morality is created from which all other cases will be modified and transvalued. Yet despite this message, Breillat believes, essentially, that her film will garnish the response of misconception and critical violence –that society is not as yet ready for her truth– much like Nietzsche’s warning at the opening of The Antichrist, that his work is yet early:

This book belongs to the most rare of men. Perhaps not one of them is yet alive… Some men are born posthumously. [17]

Like the ban put on her first book, it may be asserted that Breillat, also, has been “born posthumously,” that her work should only be respected or exist without misconception after her death –after her existence as an auteur– and that in current times, for now, she will be ferociously forbidden from the innocent truth she knows to be.

It is important to address, however —when using Nietzscheian doctrine to promote the raison d’être of a feminist work— the misogynist tendencies of Nietzsche’s adjacent works, though generally non-diegetic to my The Antichrist citations. As Bertrand Russell notes in his book The History of Western Philosophy,

In [Nietzsche’s] pseudo prophetical book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, [Nietzsche] says that women are not, as yet, capable of friendship; they are still cats, or birds, or at best cows. ‘Man shall be trained for war and women for the recreation of the warrior. All else is folly.’” [18]

However, despite Nietzsche’s superiority complex towards women (and most other humans), his texts reveal a striking similarity to the causes of modern feminists. Claire Colebrook asserts precisely this in her review of Paul Patton’s Nietzsche, Feminism and Political Theory [19]:

…Nietzsche took as his target many of the values which contemporary feminists have sought to challenge—in particular, the idea of natural or “given” moral precepts. What remains problematic in any feminist appropriation of Nietzsche, however, is that (as in this attack) Nietzsche’s salutary arguments are associated with an ostensible denigration of women. Using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house is one thing; employing those same tools to correct and build the alternative terrain is quite another. To a greater or lesser extent all of the essays in Nietzsche, Feminism and Political Theory affirm that Nietzsche’s philosophical insights are valuable enough either to mitigate or override his particular and notorious comments on women. [20]

This “mitigation” of Nietzscheian misogyny is exactly my intention in comparing the greater essence of his philosophy with that of Breillat’s, Breillat’s work essentially being such as an “alternative terrain” to Nietzsche’s. For although Nietzsche has made some ostensibly masculist statements, Nietzsche’s greater message –that of the “transvaluation of all values,” of the nihilism and self-loathing caused by biblical guilt, stemming from the belief in hell (or the anatomy of hell, the impurity of the woman)– is identical to the intention of Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, and exact in its iconoclastic (and thus feminist) purpose and tenacity.

II. A Chronological Study of Diegesis, Structure and Iconography in Breillat’s Mise en scène and the Sacrifice of Her Übermunsch in Anatomy of Hell

Breillat opens her film with the intentionally ambiguous announcement that, “A film is an illusion, not reality-fiction or a happening: it is a true work of fiction. For the actress’s most intimate scenes a body double was used. It’s not her body, it’s an extension of a fictional character” –which serves both for a literary expression of Breillat’s film, as well as sufficing Amira Casar’s contract for the part, which specifically requires Breillat to announce that she did not engage in unsimulated intercourse with Rocco Siffredi. “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,” says Breillat. [21] Though existing as a disclaimer, this foreword also allows Breillat to distance the “object” of the actor’s bodies with the “subject” of her film: which is, of course, their sex. And exorcising sex from it’s objective portrayal has always been priority for Breillat: “I take sexuality as a subject, not as an object.” [22] The figurative, dreamy mise en scène in Anatomy of Hell, the labored nature of the characters dialogue, and the separation of their fictional bodies from the sex of those bodies all culminates to provide the platform for Breillat’s philosophical dissertation: the film itself more of a dialectical work than a story, with film the medium of theory.

From this disclaimer Breillat moves into the setting of a gay bar, wherein the protagonist –the unnamed woman (Casar)– stands isolated in her womanhood in a swarm of male-on-male fellatio, kissing, and dancing. Both to signify the self-indulgence and autonomy of the male, while in turn visualizing the remoteness and solitude of the female body, this microcosm is here to allegorize the state of the female form in –not just a gay bar– but the whole of society, as that female understands it to be. “More than for desire, she is looking for her sexual identity, for her ‘self.’ For her, he (the unnamed man) 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 do not like women. It’s an allegory,” explains Breillat. [23] Though the presupposition is held that gay men “do not like women,” Breillat is less concerned with the feelings of the homosexual male than she is with the repressed and fragmented “self” of the female, and the how that female views men –and thus views herself. [24] Her male characters are not to be dissected here: they are just a means to Breillat’s gaze at her female character’s subjective sexuality and psychology. “There is no masculine psychology in my cinema. There is only the resentments and desires of women. A man should not attempt to recognize himself in my male characters. On the other hand, he can find a better understanding of women. And knowledge of the other is the highest goal,” says Breillat. [25] It not so much important as to whether or not these homosexuals hate women –not important what oppositions Breillat wishes to presuppose– but that this women, Casar, understands men to hate her: an understanding that drives her to roam this place both in a search for her “self” and a manifestation of masochistic self-loathing. Anatomy of Hell is subjective only to the female character (as most if not all of Breillat’s films are). What is depicted in the fictional spaces of the film is the world as the unnamed woman sees it. Breillat then asks –once the unnamed women’s view of herself has been displayed– what is it that has caused this women to be this way?

Upon viewing the gay bar, and also viewing the female state of existence as this unnamed woman sees it, the unnamed woman leaves for the bathroom, essentially leaving her existence, to commit suicide –as no other alternative suggests itself. When the man (Siffredi) enters the bathroom, asking “Why did you do that?” the woman’s answer is, “Because I am a woman” –which brings to mind Freud’s famous assertion that “Anatomy is destiny” [26] –the woman’s anatomy making her destiny in this film, of course, “hell.” The unnamed woman’s only reason for this suicide is her own womanhood –a state of mind that suggests a descent into guilty nihilism– that Nietzscheian nihilism (as it is shown later to be the result of a religious understanding of one’s self) being the loss of reality, of beauty, and the apathy that follows such loss. Of course, the woman’s diegetic feelings of herself thus far are still unknown, and the rest of the film concerns itself with probing those feelings, with the man being that personified “probing tool.”

After leaving the bar, a contractual system is laid out: the man gets paid to watch the woman when she is “unwatchable.” Diegetically this system is made by the woman as a means to either prove her feminine nihilism as justified, as real, or to find some reason to subvert that nihilism and construct or prove beauty in herself –though the latter seems at first to be nonexistent for both characters (she thinks she is disgusting, as does he) thus making the woman’s offer an act of masochism for herself and an act of sadism for the man (as well as also being a justification of his own self). What this system does meta-diegetically, however, is create the dialetical platform for Breillat’s moral, sexual, and aesthetic transvaluation: both for the audience and for the characters. “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 then 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.” [27] And thus the system for recursion is made, where through the simulation of a base case, a base event (i.e. Genesis, Eden, Adam and Eve) the man and woman might redefine themselves, and also redefine humanity as a whole –leading back to current society: the audience. For what seems diegetically an act of torturous masochism, is in actuality a structural means of transgressive reassessment –both of aesthetic beauty and of human morality– and Breillat wishes the audience to reassess (along with the characters themselves) what it means to be Man and Woman, and to re-evaluate the very foundation of religious, Western morality: the fall of Adam and Eve.

After the contract is made, the woman –her pink dress soaked in blood (a metaphor for her menstrual-stained and thus impure existence as woman)– takes the man back to her isolated home (a home appropriately buried in garden-esque foliage, heightening the Eden allegory) to start the “watching.” Breillat’s stage for this “watching” is coated in iconography: a surgical-like light hangs over a dirty bed wherein the female will be examined –a literal symbol for both the man’s watching and God’s– this bed framed in a dirty, dilapidated master bedroom that both mimics the decrepit-yet-vintage nature of the Italian neo-realists, and provokes imagery of the filth that these two attribute to sex –the master bedroom being of course that realm of procreation. A crucifix hangs in a sort of totalitarian presence parallel to the woman’s bed, adding the third entity of religious concerns to the two’s sexual definitions –the man also bearing a golden cross around his neck. The diegetic crosses more than imply that the definition these characters have of themselves is swathed in religious designation.

Framed in this iconography, the woman proceeds to remove her clothing, and stretch out beneath the blaring light to absorb the comments and attacks of the man –as well as wallow in her own expectations, religious philosophy and masochism. Her nihilism here is that of Nietzscheian Christianity:

Once the concept of “nature” had been opposed to the concept of “God,” the word “natural” necessarily took on the meaning of “abominable”—the whole of that fictitious world has its sources in hatred of the natural (–the real!–), and is no more than evidence of a profound uneasiness in the presence of reality. . . . This explains everything. [28]

The woman does not view herself in natural beauty: but as an abomination –as does the man. The crosses they bear suggest that any natural acceptance of themselves has been “opposed to the concept of ‘God,’” thus taking on “the meaning of the ‘abominable.’” [29]

The man then makes the remark that the women’s naked body –her “fragility”– either inspires “homage or brutality.” It is important to realize here that the man is making a Baudrillardian distinction between what is the woman’s seductive presence –homage– and the result of her production, of sex –the brutality. For if her anatomy is her destiny (hell, impurity), then “seduction alone is radically opposed to anatomy as destiny.” [30] The man is not asserting that this homage is deserved, but rather the product of a woman’s deception, her seduction, and that women should depend on this. “It takes forever between the offer and the demand,” she says, putting a distinction between what offers sex and what sex really is: the seduction of sex versus its production. “That’s what we call the first deception,” she then states, and the lie of sex is made apparent –as is the “lie” of the female body. This lie is mirrored in Roland Barthes’ assertion that, “Sex is everywhere, except in sexuality.” [31] Heterosexual intercourse is thus rendered as something false, and something deceptive: malicious. This first deception that the woman speaks of is the illusory seduction of what is the virgin (a theme explored more in Breillat’s À ma soeur). After this illusion is penetrated, nothing “flows” and all is “fake,” the “artificial catching up” –which again mirror’s Nietzscheian nihilism: “We do not believe that the truth is still true once the veil has been lifted.” [32] Nietzsche would suggest that, in this diegetic space, there is no deception in sex, and that it can be what it is thought to be, or at least something beautiful. What then causes this loss, the “veil”? To Breillat, it is of course the religion these diegetic beings are surrounded in which makes the woman abominable, which causes sex to reveal something hideous about the woman, to create this “nihilism.”

“Women have two kinds of power, historically: as the courtesan and as the whore. The courtesan seduces men without giving them sex, exterminating the man without giving him a single taste of her body. In our society, women are condemned to be either courtesans or whores,” says Breillat. [33] This also is the distinction between what seduces –the courtesan– and what produces –the whore. It is this society of distinction that the man and the women in Anatomy of Hell operate within, that the woman is condemned to this “homage” or this “brutality,” the difference between the lifted and hanging Nietzscheian veil.

Further interest in Freudian destiny and religious impurity is generated in the discussion of female body hair. “Should I have shaved?” asks the woman. “It would still show… you would not be rid of your obscene nature,” replies the man. Both see such a natural substance as something to be loathed and detested –as does most of Western society– though it exists as something totally natural and organic in nature. Breillat here is stimulating the views of her audience, asking them to look at something in a different manner and question responses to sociological norms. Why is it that women shave their hair, and how has something natural been made into something considered disgusting? Not only does this work as specific social commentary, but also as a microcosm for something much larger: how is it that woman themselves have become something disgusting? Made to change themselves or condemned to only two traits: that of the seducer or the whore? One may attempt to deny that society sees women this way, but there is no denying that women are forced to shave, –an act that echoes “mutilation”– to fit a devised societal expectation. Breillat brilliantly chooses this undeniably existent topic in her first reversal attack, the building transvaluation.

From the discussion of female body hair, the man moves to a more direct announcement of a woman’s inherent impurity: that of her genitalia. The man compares the vulva and labia of the vagina to the “slimy” skin of a frog, and even goes so far as to call her genitalia a “pestilence.” While seemingly violent and abstract, the allusion here, beyond literal comparison, is that of the Biblical plagues of Exodus: one of them being a plague of frogs, making the man’s accusations inherently religious and Torahic. The next comparison that is made (through hyper-diegetic narration and anonymous flashback) is that of the female genitalia to a newborn bird. Through this sequence, the man admits that –if he were honest– his contempt for women is the same sort of juvenile contempt he had felt for a baby bird, one that is smashed in an act of pre-pubescent curiosity-cum-sadism. The death of this bird, of course, resulted in a botched act of ownership. That the little boy wanted to keep this bird in his pocket, Breillat says, is equivalent to the fear men feel about the female body. The Narrator speaks of the dead bird, smashed to a pulp by the boy, as the “slime that mocked him.” This mockery is that it may not be owned, the woman diegetically accusing men of locking women up because they cannot cause women to exist as objects otherwise. Breillat’s filmic subjectification of women is thus an attempt to free the female body from this incessant objectification, and a critique of history’s fear of the esoteric –a fear that is Torahic and extends from their or men’s own perversity, not from that of the natural female form.

Further social commentary ensues as the man speaks of the necessity of alcohol in public gatherings. Both an admission of his own connective breakdown with her, as well as that of general male/female society, the man wishes to isolate himself further from her with alcohol, his alcoholism existing as a further communicative divide between he and her beyond just that of their sex and mutual loathing. He states that it is the “bestiality” of the woman’s flesh that nihilates all reason, and invokes the desire for his “lonely” alcoholic drinking. Yet beyond just that alcohol, the man also seems to suggest that his homosexuality exists for the same purpose: to isolate himself from the woman, though he adamantly defends sodomy as something that is “true,” that does not lie, while the seduction of a women is vulgar: a sort of circular reasoning that seems to be born out of fear more than logic. Yet, to himself, his homosexuality is a literal “immunity,” while a woman is the opposing literal “disease.” The man even touches the woman’s vaginal secretion, and stares disgusted at it like it is some form of symptom. “A girl is a man’s sickness,” announces the narrator over another hyper-diegetic flashback of boys playing “doctor” and studying the young female body like some diseased version of themselves: a misunderstanding that seeped into their adulthood, Breillat implies, causing them to retreat into their figurative homosexuality. Alcoholism is –again– an allegory for something much larger (though recall that Breillat’s homosexuality is figurative, the man in her film more an Image of alpha-male, religious chauvinism than he is overtly “gay”).

After an introspective moment by the roaring sea –a symbolic look at the feminine natures of the ocean– the man returns to the master bedroom to find the sleeping woman. What follows is Breillat’s interpretation of the man’s methodology of sex, a Baudrillardian display of self/other nihilation, of “superficial abyss.” [34] Before the man conducts intercourse with the woman, he must erase her as a woman: cosmetically. Like the previous critique of the feminine equation of “shaving,” this serves to stimulate thought into the “being” of cosmetics: is lipstick something that is actually feminine, or a male-convention that actually erases and crushes femininity (like the bird stamped to a pulp)? To Breillat, lipstick exists as something more equivalent to the iconic brown paper bag worn to hide a female’s face than something that heightens one’s beauty. This is the same form make-up takes in Baudrillard’s Seduction:

Cosmetics too are a means of effacing the face, effacing the eyes behind more beautiful eyes, canceling the lips behind more luxuriant lips… Women are aware of this transformation when, in front of their mirrors, they must erase themselves in order to apply their makeup, they make themselves into a pure appearance denuded of meaning… It absorbs all expression within its own surface, without a trace of blood or meaning. Certainly this is challenging and cruel –but who is alienated? Only those who cannot abide this cruel perfection… [35]

How did the man subvert his contempt for women? Through an application of lipstick: through nihilating her features and erasing her form –restoring seduction. In this Breillat allows for a manner in which men, like they adore the “masks” of women, thus mask their own contempt for the “real” woman, the true one: the one behind the veil, behind the seduction. And with these qualities, Breillat proves herself to be the feminist iconoclast. Though a coyly cynical Baudrillard wished to keep these “veils” and this “seduction” as a means of preserving the “artificial perfection of the sign,” Breillat wishes for the opposite: to tear down the veil, and restore beauty to the secret –to nakedness. For all of these true things (e.g. the female body, menstruation, organic life) are treated with loathing and contempt, while things that hide and conceal (e.g. tampons, cosmetics, shaving) are treated with “homage.” A true and ferocious iconoclast, Breillat is slowly tearing away at the foundations of what society calls “female beauty.” For only after the man slathers the woman’s vagina, anus and face with lipstick can he be willing to penetrate her: which is really not penetration at all. A long shot of a lipstick smeared, clownish Casar shows how perhaps Breillat sees cosmetics: as something very ugly indeed.

“Religion would have us believe that sex is simply about the flesh when in fact it’s something higher and more idealistic. Religion says our bodies can’t be seen because they are ugly and dirty when in fact the taboo is more about rituals of initiation: in ancient Hebrew the word for ‘naked’ is the same word for ‘secret.’ I see the film as taking place in a post-religious context,” says Breillat. [36] When the man applied lipstick to the woman, it was nothing intimate, but the way in which he treats makeup: as a mask for both her “ugliness,” and a mask for his own contempt. He was merely preserving the “secret” that is nakedness, the “seduction” or the “veil.” And this “veil” is even diegetically addressed, the woman saying, “You wanted to kill me,” going on to state that the veils of marriage anticipate shrouds. The man, after this act of “erasing” and then intercourse, begins to cry –which happens only twice in the film. As will be shown, this depth, this sadness, is a sudden and overpowering realization.

The next night the man is presented with a new “secret,” a new “impurity” for him to react to: that of menstruation. Breillat references Renaissance paintings as a place of inspiration, [37] and the man’s curious tasting of the woman’s blood presents itself as something sacred, that a man makes menstruation part of himself: more figurative, of course, than literal. Yet this connective occasion is short lived –and the man suddenly reacts, as he did with lipstick, and leaves the room only to return with a garden hoe, which he inserts into the woman, letting it hang there suspended. This visually shocking diegetic device shows both the humiliation women are made to feel on account of their menstruation, as well as an uncompromisingly brutal examination of the tampon as a device of menstrual impediment. The imagery of a wooden hoe jutting out from this woman is no doubt disturbing, and Breillat brilliantly forces her audience to reexamine the function of a very common appliance –to examine both its conception and implications. Like lipstick, she may not condemn their uses, but questions and exposes the forces that have provoked their design: could it have been contempt, hate, or fear? It is more than possible that such was the case. Though Breillat may not be asking women to stop using makeup, tampons, or to shave, her appalling demonstrations of what those devices actually do, as well as what caused their design, bring up more than just a few questions.

And with this, Breillat is launching a full fledged assault on Western standard: that of beauty, expectation, and what is actually sexual. One could certainly imagine a hostile or mocking reaction from anyone asked to reestablish their ideals of attraction or beauty (which certainly accounts for the film’s bitter reception), and Breillat even anticipates such a response, [38] though deter her it does not. Her film is thus a thoroughly iconoclastic transvaluation of all Western –especially feminine– ideals. And Breillat views this not as “transgressive,” but as a recursive (versus progressive) truth.

“Because of this blood they say we are impure,” states the woman, alluding with “they” to the both the Hebrews and perhaps God in the Torahic book of Leviticus (as well as other biblical verses):

When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. … If a man lies with her and her monthly flow touches him, he will be unclean for seven days…” Leviticus 15:19-32.

Man born of woman… Who can bring what is pure from the impure? No one!”
Job 14:1-4

After a further discussion of the conventions of the “tampon,” as well as a blunt demonstration of its function, the woman offers a man a taste of her blood diluted in water, which they both drink. “Don’t we drink the blood of our enemies?” she asks. While diegetically disturbing, the act might be explained through the mysticism surrounding the drinking of one’s blood. Alan G. Hefner writes:

Throughout the ages, ever since primitive man, an attraction has existed toward human blood. It is thought this attraction originated in early man, when he observed a man losing blood he also saw the man eventually would weaken and die if the bleeding did not stop. Naturally it was concluded that the blood contained the man’s life. Gradually over time a magical connection to blood evolved too. Not only did the man’s blood contain his life, but it also contained his experiences, characteristics and qualities. Soon it came to be thought these characteristics and qualities could be passed onto others if they consumed or were touched by the blood. [39]

Figuratively, then, this act is the sharing of one’s own life, experiences, and characteristics with the other: the woman’s with the man. Diegetically, it is an act of hyper-masochism, which again, could created a connection through a sort of Sartreian anguish between the two otherwise distant characters. Though initially a demonstration of war, this act eventually turns into intercourse, implying that the characters felt something other than loathing upon drinking the woman’s blood, however transgressive such an act appears to be. The dead uselessness of a stone dildo without the movement of intimacy or the fantasy therein proves the need of sexual connection with some literal or imagined other, while also proving that sexuality is a very empty thing when stripped of emotion, connection, and longing –like the numb penetration of a tampon. Upon the woman’s admittance of isolation, the man seems to feel the same, and grabs the woman into his arms to make love. While this sequence of sex may seem sad, or even dismal, this is not to say that their love making is actually as such. Breillat is making a cinematic point: “I created the terrifying emotional substrata exploring the nature of sex to allow me to transcend the usual, horrible images that form the basis of the porno films people take pleasure in watching.” [40] Cinematically unaesthetic, and depressing by any pornographic standard, to Breillat, this is real intimacy: emotionally charged and bitterly honest, a real connecting interaction of love. Their humanity exists as the sole act of beauty in the dilapidated bedroom: an act of revolution despite the light, the filth, and the religious anguish that fills everything.

Afterwards, the characters stand gazing at the blood that spread as a result of their sex. Though one’s first reaction is that of disgust, the woman argues otherwise. “It’s beautiful,” she says. “You look like you’re bleeding. You’re afraid because you think you’re bleeding, even though you know you’re not. This hemorrhage is from the fertile blood of women.” Thus this blood transcends its impurity to something above anything else in human existence: fertility, the ability to make life. The connection they shared, of course, is that act. Though transgressive by many standards, Breillat argues the transcendent purity of menstruation: the last frontier, perhaps, of what is the “unwatchable.” By making what is impure good, Breillat thus escapes the nihilism of a society through beautifying what is called pure. Nietzsche writes in his praise of the Code of Manu:

Code of Manu shows a feeling of perfection, an acceptance of life, and triumphant feeling toward self and life —the sun shines upon the whole book.— All the things on which Christianity vents its fathomless vulgarity —for example, procreation, women and marriage— are here handled earnestly, with reverence and with love and confidence. How can any one really put into the hands of children and ladies a book which contains such vile things as this: “to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband; . . . it is better to marry than to burn”? [41]

Nietzsche praises that which handles “procreation, women and marriage” with “reverence and with love and with confidence,” as does Breillat. The woman, her body, and her function are not vulgarities, but rather beauties. Nothing about her –or any human– could be gross, other than to say that it is gross, which could make it thus.

The fact that, in Christianity, “holy” ends are not visible is my objection to the means it employs. Only bad ends appear: the poisoning, the calumniation, the denial of life, the despising of the body, the degradation and self-contamination of man by the concept of sin—therefore, its means are also bad. [42]

“The poisoning, the calumniation, the denial of life, the despising of the body, the degradation and self-contamination of man by the concept of sin” are the traits of the characters in Anatomy of Hell. These factors are the cause of their nihilistic self-loathing, contempt, and masochism. The only escape is to transvaluate the meaning of beauty, as well as filth, to redefine their individual selves as well as mutual selves as something beautiful, if not mystic. Like Nietzsche’s Übermunsch they are above society – transcend society – as they defy its essential decadence, and the society’s belief in their decadence.

However, a tragic ending to Anatomy of Hell suggests that Breillat sees such hope subject to imminent doom: that doom being a retreat into the safety of societal conventions. After the man leaves the house, he enters back into society, and leaves the isolation of that home, making their interaction nothing more than a sad pipedream. Once re-assimilated into the throes of culture and people, the man immediately returns to his contempt of women, talking to a man in a bar full of men. Breillat states:

In the scene in the bar he describes sex in the ugly way it is presented in pornography –he says he fucked her, and then he turned her over and fucked her up the ass– with no emotion or love attached to the act of love-making. It’s the way all men talk about sex, and also all the censors and religious creeds that teach us it’s an abominable act. But when he realizes that the vulgar terms he’s using are a lie, he begins to cry. He doesn’t even know her name, yet his sense of loss is overpowering. This is what making love is about, and the depth of his emotion is a revelation to him. [43]

A retreat into masculine-mutual violence, into destruction, destroying the beauty he experienced, the man returns to society’s expectations of him. Sex is restored as an ugly, one-dimensional exploit, an act of the flesh, of brutality –resorted to the realm of filth, of pornography. The old man’s casual agreement with Siffredi’s character and that character’s violence displays that the unnamed man’s view is passively accepted as normal in society, as expected. However, after a sudden and overpowering revelation, the unnamed man cries, “I experienced total intimacy with her… and I don’t even know her name.” The only way the man must be totally free of the woman after this stark and sudden revelation must then be to kill her, to free himself from her truth –and this he does.

In a beautifully and overtly surreal and reflexive final sequence, the unnamed man returns to the isolated home, finding nothing in the bedroom (a restoring of filth without emotion), afterwards approaching a ghost-like Casar and shoving her from a cliff and into the ocean –a highly dreamlike, memorable and intensely haunting mise en scène. If the woman exists as the iconoclastic martyr, then this death is necessary. Though tragically, this also shows that the man has returned to himself, and the movie comes full circle, the man allowing the woman to die as if he had never stopped her from committing suicide in the first place.

Like the fear of hell, the woman’s body has taken on the same attributes: both being the object of contempt and dread, as well as causing the woman herself to live in a state of “hellish” existence. “Hell has an anatomy,” says Breillat, “And it is the woman’s body.” [44] Breillat implies that if we cannot see differently, to transvaluate, nor understand that things like makeup, tampons, and even feminine shaving are not a heightening of the woman’s body but a hiding, a masking, a nihiliating, and that they were created as such, then she, the woman, will remain a map of hell’s terrain. A bold, and hyper-feminist stance, Breillat’s film is uncompromisingly bleak, yet dialetically hopeful. Though many will discard the film in hostile reaction, calling it “transgressive pretension,” Breillat’s “provocation” is not as it may seem:

I have both been praised and attacked by feminists. My discourse is feminist but also against women. I prefer to call it a feminine cinema. It is a discourse that should make men run away but the purpose is the opposite: to retain him… It’s a feminist cinema because it is from the point of view of women since there are certain things that are forbidden for women. I want to show these things, explore them beyond their limits …Is the provocation in my films intentional? I don’t focus on provocation. We live in a world in which there are many moral laws that people are obliged to conform to. Cinema allows us to have a transgressive weapon to break these rules. … My provocation is innocent. I started writing when I was 17. I wrote a book that was prohibited for people of less than 18 years. I was forbidden to read the same book I had written. If you consider that this is a provocation, this is what I do.

The “innocence of provocation” then lies in the audience’s reaction to the film: is it morally trangressive or recursive? A reversal of society seems unlikely, though this is what Breillat asks –or at least ponders. An audacious yet gallant work of dialetic, Anatomy of Hell will itself no doubt be the martyr of Breillat’s truth, bold and sacrificed in the name of transvaluation, in the name of the woman and man, and of love. It is humanity Breillat wishes to save, to liberate from repressive nihilism –from the icon. As such, Breillat’s true Auteurism is one of unrivaled heroism, and undaunted audacity, her films honest and innocent yet, more often than not, forbidden as well.


1 Internet Citation: Price, Brian. “Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

2 Ibid.

3 Internet Citation: “From Cinema Jove Film Festival in Valencia, Spain.” Reverse Shot. Accessed July 5, 2006.

4 Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell) (Catherine Breillat, France, 2004)

5 Internet Citation: Price, Brian. “Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

6 Internet Citation: Murphy, Kevin. “Hell’s Angels Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

7 Ibid.

8 Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy/France, 1975)

9 Internet Citation: Murphy, Kevin. “Hell’s Angels Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

10 Internet Citation: Price, Brian. “Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

11 Internet Citation: Murphy, Kevin. “Hell’s Angels Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 The film received a 27% at Rotten Tomatoes.

15 Internet Citation: Public Appeal, library. “Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, The Antichrist.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), p. 764

19 Paul Patton ed., Nietzsche, Feminism and Political Theory. (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1993), pp.247.

20 Internet Citation: Colebrook, Claire. “Nietzsche and Feminism.”

21 Internet Citation: Murphy, Kevin. “Hell’s Angels Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

22 Internet Citation: Price, Brian. “Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

23 Internet Citation: Murphy, Kevin. “Hell’s Angels Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

24 Ibid.

25 Internet Citation: Price, Brian. “Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

26 Sigmund Freud as cited in: Baudrillard, Jean, Seduction. (New York: St. Martin’s Press), p. 9

27 Internet Citation: Murphy, Kevin. “Hell’s Angels Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

28 Internet Citation: Public Appeal, library. “Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, The Antichrist.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

29 Ibid.

30 Baudrillard, Jean, Seduction. (New York: St. Martin’s Press), p. 10

31 Roland Barthes as cited in: Baudrillard, Jean, Seduction. (New York: St. Martin’s Press), p. 5

32 Nietzsche as quoted in: Baudrillard, Jean, Seduction. (New York: St. Martin’s Press), p. 59

33 Internet Citation: “From Cinema Jove Film Festival in Valencia, Spain.” Reverse Shot. Accessed July 5, 2006.

34 Baudrillard, Jean, Seduction. (New York: St. Martin’s Press), p. 51

35 Ibid., p. 94

36 Internet Citation: Macnab, Geoffrey. “Written on the Body: Interview with Breillat.” Sight and Sound. Accessed July 5, 2006.

37 Ibid.

38 Internet Citation: Murphy, Kevin. “Hell’s Angels Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

39 Internet Citation: Hefner, Alan G. “Attraction of Blood.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

40 Internet Citation: Macnab, Geoffrey. “Written on the Body: Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Sight and Sound. Accessed July 5, 2006.

41 Internet Citation: Public Appeal, library. “Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, The Antichrist.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

42 Ibid.

43 Internet Citation: Macnab, Geoffrey. “Written on the Body: Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Sight and Sound. Accessed July 5, 2006.

44 Internet Citation: Murphy, Kevin. “Hell’s Angels Interview with Catherine Breillat.” Accessed July 5, 2006.

Volume 10, Issue 7 / July 2006 Essays   120 days of sodom   amira casar   anatomy of hell   catherine breillat   country_france   feminism   feminism.   film theory   french cinema   pasolini   political   rocco siffredi