Friday, May 16, 2008

(Private) Parts and Labor(ed)

It took me a while, but I can clearly say now that I find Catherine Breillat's films, with the exception of Fat Girl, unbearably stupid. Her films are cold, grindingly repetitive, simplistically and dishonestly reductive, emptily provocative for the sake of provocation (and probably for the sake of commercial appeal masquerading as non-commercial independence), and both misanthropic and anti-male. It took me a while to reach these conclusions because she's such a gifted visual stylist. Her films are compelling if you turn the sound off, and she shows an empathy in photographing her actor's faces and bodies lacking in the rest of her approach. Her dialogue destroys everything, though. Blank characters function as mouthpieces for her outdated mix of Freud and pseudo-feminism in which men hate women because they're terrified of their vaginas. Everything that happens, in Breillat's world, happens because of heterosexual power struggles between the two sets of genitalia. Anatomy of Hell, which I watched last night, is Breillat at her embarrassing worst. The film is about an unnamed woman, who goes to a gay disco where she's the only female in the place. She tries to commit suicide in the bathroom, but an unnamed man finds her and gets her medical help. She repays him by blowing him in the bushes, and then paying him to watch her most intimate moments for four days. Not only is the man gay, but he hates women and finds vaginas disgusting (like all gay men, Breillat possibly implies). Over the course of the four days, the man will smear lipstick on her open vagina and anus while she sleeps, stick a garden hoe in her anus, drink a glass of water with her used tampon floating in it, and (shock of all shocks) have sex with her on her period. The man, once the four days is up, becomes an obsessive shell of himself and goes back to find her, but she's gone. He then imagines pushing her off a cliff into the roiling sea below (described in voice-over narration as "a bitch in heat." Seriously.) The whole shebang is approached with a deathly seriousness that provides the film's only trace of humor, albeit unintentional. Check out some choice nuggets of dialogue that Breillat finds philosophically provocative:
(When the man finds the woman slashing her wrists and asks her why)
Woman: Because I'm a woman.
(After the man sticks his finger in her vagina)
Man: I bless the day I was born immune to you and all of your kind. The elastic resistance of a boy’s anus doesn’t lie about the tightness of his lower intestine. The lie about the softness of women is hateful… the malevolent triviality that turns them into a trap. The horror of Nothingness that is the imprescriptible All.
(When the woman asks him why he is disgusted by her menstrual blood and not disgusted by anal sex with men)
Man: Fecal matter is inert. It has already been through the life cycle.
(After they have sex while she is having her period, and blood covers his penis)
Woman: There's blood on your penis and you are afraid. You think that your penis is wounded. But the blood comes from the fertile place of life, and you can't understand how something can bleed without coming from a wound. You are afraid that your penis has lost all of its power.
Man: Yes.

To be fair, these are English subtitles translated from the French, but I don't see how dialogue like this can ever work in any circumstance, even in the hyper-stylized allegorical world of Breillat's films. How can anyone take lines like these seriously? How can this pseudo-profundity be taken seriously by anyone as a worthwhile intellectual pursuit? Her supposed provocations (tampon tea, etc.) are ridiculous as well. John Waters did it better and funnier in his early films, without the terrible doctoral dissertation dialogue.

The actress playing the woman, Amira Casar, requested a disclaimer before the film telling the audience that the penetration shots and vaginal and anal close-ups were filmed with a body double. The disclaimer should have let me know what to expect for the next 80 minutes: "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." I wonder how the real woman whose body parts were filmed feels about being described as "an extension of a fictional character." Breillat, in an interview about the disclaimer, says "I wrote especially heavy-handed wording designed to be vague for the viewer." How is heavy-handedness vague? The interviewer failed to ask her. People think all art films are like this, and waste their time on crap like 300 and Transformers instead, which is too bad, but if it keeps them away from Breillat, I guess they broke even.

While I was searching for excerpts of this film's dialogue on the Internet, I stumbled across an academic journal article about the film with this section title, "An Introduction to Breillat and the Transvaluation of Gender Morality and Sexual Aesthetic through a Subversive, Nietzscheian √úbermunsch." Somebody with tenure probably wrote that. What an uber-munch.

I did like one thing about this film -- the performance of Rocco Siffredi, an Italian gay porn star, as the man. That a porn star speaking ridiculous dialogue in a non-native language gives a memorable, impressive performance is a real surprise. It would be nice to see him work with a non-porno, non-Breillat director. His ease in front of the camera, his movements in and out of the frame, and his expressive face act as an antidote to Breillat's attempts to cardboardize him (and all men) as a woman-hater. He's more interesting than the terrible movie he's stuck in.

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