Agent provocateur

French director Catherine Breillat continues to push the envelope -- and her audiences -- with two films, "Sex Is Comedy" and "Anatomy of Hell."

Published October 15, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

The descriptive word most often draped around French filmmaker Catherine Breillat, almost like an apologetic bunting, is "provocateur." Her admirers and her detractors alike must acknowledge that she likes to push the infinitely stretchy skin of the envelope: What other filmmaker has ever shown us a blood-soaked tampon used as a teabag, turning a glass of water into a pinkish elixir that two characters, a man and a woman, drink in order to cement their own holy communion?

That's the image that almost everyone who sees Breillat's newest picture, "Anatomy of Hell," will remember most vividly, perhaps with revulsion, perhaps with puzzlement or admiration -- or any combination of the three. But to describe the scene as baldly as I just did negates the wonder and audacity of it: 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.

Breillat is a provocateur, but she's the plain brown kind: Her particular brand of provocation is markedly lacking in showmanship. She doesn't serve up that bloody tampon as an existential shockeroo, left to lie there, limply, at a philosophical dead end: She wouldn't insult us by being so maddeningly vague.

Perhaps because Breillat is French, she's often thought of (by Americans, at least) as one of those "wordy" filmmakers obsessed with heady ideas -- in short, an arty windbag. But Breillat is the exact opposite of a windbag. Her great distinction as a filmmaker is that she's so obsessed with specificity that she worries abstractions until she's made them concrete. When she sets out to make a movie about the mystery of womankind, and the fear, revulsion and confusion it has inspired since the beginning of time, she doesn't waste time dilly-dallying with metaphorical brushstrokes.

To put it another way: What could be less abstract than a used tampon?

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The vagaries of foreign-film distribution are such that Breillat's two most recent pictures are being released almost simultaneously in the United States: "Sex Is Comedy" (2002) is a fictional account of the filming of the central sex scene in Breillat's 2001 "Fat Girl," and it is, as its title suggests, something of a comedy. In "Anatomy of Hell" (2003), a young woman is brought back from the brink of suicide by a gay man who happens to catch her just as she's slicing her wrist with a razor. ("Why did you do that?" he asks her with blank incredulity. "Because I'm a woman," she replies, as if he'd asked her why she'd raised her umbrella in a rainstorm.) Recognizing him as an impartial audience -- in other words, a man who has no interest in her sexually -- she invites him to spend four nights with her, to "watch me where I'm unwatchable." She'll even pay him for it. Her instructions to him are "Just say what you see."

The two movies are distinctly different in tone and visual style, but the tensile intellectual cabling that connects them is pure Breillat. Breillat wrote the scripts for both films, although it seems as if, for her, writing and filmmaking are so entwined they're practically inseparable. Although she obviously works through her ideas with discipline and vigor before she steps behind the camera, those ideas are never stiff and bloodless by the time they reach the screen: Somehow, their molecules are still buzzing, having gained life rather than lost it in the transition from page to moving image.

"Sex Is Comedy" offers us a window into the way Breillat works (or at least as much of a window as Breillant wants, or is able, to open). Her alter-ego here is Jeanne (Anne Parillaud), who is making a movie in which a young virgin (Roxane Mequida, who played the same character in "Fat Girl") is seduced by a loutishly seductive older boy (Grégoire Colin, who did not appear in the earlier film).

At the beginning of "Sex Is Comedy," Jeanne is shooting a scene in which the soon-to-be lovers are kissing on a beach: She berates the boy (he is known only as "the actor") for not kissing the girl ("the actress") properly or believably. She suspects, correctly, as it turns out, that the two of them are stalling, purposely messing up because they're nervous about the sex scene they're going to have to shoot soon. Jeanne reveals her doubts about her actors in a series of tail-chasing monologues, some of them delivered to her patient, simpatico assistant director, Léo (Ashley Wanninger), but many of them spun out into the air as if no one were listening at all. Jeanne just needs to get the words out there in order to crystallize her own ideas about what she wants, and needs, to capture in the film.

Jeanne's relationship with the actor is particularly fraught: He complains that the actress has ridiculed him and doesn't want to kiss him. He's not turned on by her, anyway, and would prefer to have nothing to do with her. He's sullen and sulky and doesn't seem to think being an actor is all that big a deal, stating that he'd much rather "have greasy hands, work with the soil." Jeanne doesn't hide her exasperation with him, confronting him daily with all the ways in which he's disappointing her (and then wringing her hands some more after-hours with her long-suffering assistant). She and the actor are often physically affectionate -- they frequently nestle up to one another in conspiratorial flirtatiousness. But emotionally, they're both like the hooked side of Vel-Cro: They just can't connect.

Breillat makes it clear from the beginning that, as difficult as the actor is, Jeanne demands so much from her performers that she sometimes comes close to breaking them. The comments she makes to, and about, them can be monstrous: "The way you look at her, it's awful." "They can't even kiss right." And, perhaps most harshly: "I'm always in control. They're my actors."

The point, of course, is that Jeanne can't control her actors -- she can't even be so arrogant as to shape their performances. But as director, it's her job to marshal every cast and crew member in the service of her overarching idea. Otherwise, why make a film at all?

Jeanne is a formidable presence on the set. One day she shows up with her foot, inexplicably, in a cast. When a well-meaning crew member asks if she broke it, she retorts, "I put my foot down. It broke itself."

She has decided that the actor should wear a prosthetic penis for the sex scene, both to make him more comfortable about his near-nudity and to protect him from the anxiety of having to get an erection. Once the actor has been fitted with his bogus boner (the technician who made it is named, appropriately, Willy), she marches up to him to assess the effect. She crouches close to him, as if to caress him. He stands there stiffly. His abrasive personality has temporarily dissipated: Suddenly, he's nothing but robe, slippers and cock, and in a matter of minutes, he and his faux erection will be called upon to perform.

But Jeanne isn't out to humiliate him. What she needs to do -- and all of "Sex Is Comedy" is about the way she works this out in a caffeinated whirl, first in her head and then with her actors -- is to galvanize her actors so they're able to peel back every last protective layer. At one point, she begs her actress, "Dazzle me on the monitor, so I feel like an intruder." The actors' nervousness about the sex scene is natural, but it can't be allowed: It's the very thing that could kill the scene's meaning. "Fear of being obscene makes one obscene," Jeanne says at one point. "Emotion is never dirty or obscene -- it's grace."

Parillaud's performance is sharp on its surface and soft at its core. And if Jeanne truly is Breillat's alter ego, she is a pitiless self-portrait. Breillat has written this role without a scrap of vanity. We see Jeanne watching a scene on the monitor, demanding that it be redone over and over again. "We didn't see the cock -- it must show and not show," she hisses in exasperation, while the crew and actors flutter busily but helplessly, understanding exactly what she means but at a loss as to how, precisely, to deliver it.

But when the sex scene finally comes together -- it unfolds before us with an emotional intensity we couldn't have predicted -- we understand exactly what Jeanne, or Jeanne/Breillat, was after. And not even Jeanne herself (or, for that matter, Breillat) believes that she did anything so active as to "shape" the resulting scene. Rather, she willed it into a rough approximation of her original conception, as if she were bending a spoon with her mind. But she knows, as we do, that the actors have gone somewhere she can't follow. She can only watch while they do the bulk of the work -- but then, watching was the only reward she was after in the first place.

If "Sex Is Comedy" is an examination of the bond of trust between an actor and a director, "Anatomy of Hell" puts that bond to the test. The woman, the luminous Amira Casar, and the man, Rocco Siffredi (the Italian porn star who was so touching in Breillat's 1999 "Romance"), spend most of their time in a bedroom, although not necessarily in bed. We never learn their names, although we become intimately familiar with their bodies.

The man shows up at the woman's house -- it's perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, the kind of desolate locale that's more likely to foster desperation than romance. He wears a chic, oyster-colored suit of some casually liquid fabric, a get-up that's clearly designed more to stoke his own vanity than to incite her admiration. When he arrives, the woman explains, vaguely apologetically, that she hasn't had time to undress. She eases out of her clothes and extends herself on the bed. He sits in a chair opposite her, annoyed and wooden. He has no interest in her; he doesn't want to be there.

But what unfolds during that night and the three that follow -- each night, the man arrives at the appointed hour in that rippling suit, each time looking slightly less like a spectator and more like a suitor -- is a peculiar kind of intimacy that transcends sexual preference. It transcends sex, period. The woman reveals herself to him in ways that she herself can't even see (at least not without the aid of a mirror). She shows him how she responds to his curious, if unenthusiastic, touch; she shows him how easily she can accommodate, and expel, a large stone dildo; and she shows him how she bleeds. Her purpose is to reveal to him, and to articulate for herself, the revulsion that women's bodies can incite in men -- revulsion founded in the fact that women's bodies, with all their hidden though penetrable corridors, are the ultimate plumbable-yet-not-knowable mystery.

The man proves her right. The woman reclines on the bed, an all-powerful odalisque, a nude drawn with two parallel hill-and-valley strokes. The man is unmoved by this bride stripped bare, and in fact, goes out of his way to berate her. He lectures her about her own vulnerability. ("The fragility of female skin inspires disgust or brutality. Women depend on one or the other.") When she apologizes that she hasn't shaved, he sneers that even removed hairs still exert their presence. Even shaved, her sex would look like "a plucked chicken." He remarks on "the sloppy, shapeless aspect" of her "hidden lips," and compares the moistness of her skin to "the skin of frogs." His zingers intensify to the point of feverish ridiculousness: "Frogs at least have the decency of being green."

But the more time he spends with her -- not just looking at her and touching her, but listening to her -- the more deeply he begins to understand her. "Anatomy of Hell" isn't a meditation on misogyny -- that's its most obvious reading, and, frankly, its laziest. Breillat uses this man and woman on a bed (sometimes only he is clothed, and sometimes the two of them are naked) as a way of exploring the meaning of women's bodies from social, political and personal angles, instead of purely sensual ones.

Breillat frequently shows us the woman's pubis in glistening close-up. The movie's opening credits explain that a body double was used for these most explicit scenes, but it doesn't matter whose parts we're seeing: The intimacy of these close-ups is almost stifling at first, but we learn to relax into them.

Still, that kind of directness is bound to make some people uncomfortable. One gay critic had this to say: "Eeeuw." I wouldn't call that a misogynist response -- maybe it's femmephobic at worst. But while I don't think "Anatomy of Hell" has anything so clumsy as a thesis, I do think that critic's response proves Breillat's point exactly -- that the sexual essence of women is so foreign to men that revulsion is a part of their response to it. (Actually, that may be the very response she's hoping for.)

But Breillat is aware that that revulsion is felt by women as well, and not solely because of social conditioning. After all, our parts are mysterious to us, too: We can't get a good look at them without a mirror. (And I'll bet there are plenty of us who thought "Eeuw" the first time we saw what we really look like.) Our lovers are often more intimately acquainted with our hidden parts than we are.

Maybe that's why Siffredi's performance here is so moving. He and the woman have intercourse on the first night -- he's aroused by her in spite of himself -- and afterward, we see her sound asleep, while he weeps quietly at the foot of the bed. We don't really know what his tears are for. They could be a simple release, or it could be that he feels moved by her vulnerability (or identifies with it) in ways that he couldn't articulate if he tried.

Even so, his feelings for her and her womanhood are anything but tidy. At one point, his simmering resentment toward her causes him to retrieve a gardening tool from the shed and prop its stubby handle in her vagina as she sleeps -- maybe an acknowledgment that, even with all his magnificent manhood, he's all too easy to replace.

The surprise of "Anatomy of Hell" is that Siffredi's character is ultimately more vulnerable than the woman, because while she knows exactly what to expect from him, he's susceptible to her in ways he never could have predicted. Siffredi's performance is lovely, partly because of the languid expressiveness of his slightly droopy eyes. He's such a securely masculine presence that he doesn't need any phony macho affectations. (The performances he delivers for Breillat are the polar opposite of his rough porn persona.) The purity of Siffredi's sexual confidence hovers far outside any socially proscribed notion of what a man should be. He's so masculine he's almost feminine.

Although "Anatomy of Hell" at first seems to present women as aggrieved souls, it ultimately swerves around to assert the certainty of their power. There's something queenly about the way Casar drapes herself along the length of her bed. Even as she speaks of the vulnerability of womankind, she looks ready to rule the world. Breillat and her camera people (Yorgos Arvanitis, Guillaume Schiffman, Miquel Malherios and Susana Gomes) light Casar as if they'd wanted to paint her instead of commit her to film: Her skin has an unreal lunar glow, a visual metaphor for feminine sexual allure. The ocean that rages practically outside her doorstep may be rushing to get to her, or to escape her -- it's hard to say which.

Catherine Breillat is less a feminist filmmaker than an aggressively feminine one. I'm sure she does want to shock us with that bloody tampon cocktail. But she also reminds us that that blood -- which men of many cultures have used as evidence that women are "unclean" -- is the source of all human life.

Even though Breillat's movies can be joltingly distressing -- it took me days to recover fully from "Fat Girl" -- I always find something jubilant about them. Breillat's movies are always seriously alive. At the close of "Sex Is Comedy," as the end credits begin to roll, we see Parillaud-as-Breillat peeling and eating a banana with voracious delicacy. Relieved and delighted that the most difficult scene in her movie is behind her, she announces to the surrounding crew, "I think life's hilarious!" I don't doubt for a minute that Breillat does, too.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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