Arthouse Rocco: Close-Up on Two Films By Catherine Breillat

Nobody fucks like the French. Or is that the Italians? Ask Catherine Breillat.
Michael Pattison

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Catherine Breillat's Romance (1999) is playing January 25 - February 24 and Anatomy of Hell (2004) is playing January 26 - February 25, 2017 in the United Kingdom in the series Catherine Breillat, Auteur of Porn?

“Why do men who disgust us understand us better than the ones we love?”

—Marie, Romance

“Forget it. She’s a bitch. A slut like any other.”
“Yes, but the queen of sluts.”

—Man, Anatomy of Hell

Nobody fucks like the French. Or is that the Italians? Ask Catherine Breillat, the French auteur who remarked, when probed in an interview promoting her 2004 feature Anatomy of Hell, regarding the decision to cast Rocco Siffredi, the Italian megastar of hardcore porn, in one of the film’s two leading roles: “No French actor could do it. Rocco performs with his entire body and mind, so he is a sort of perfection.” The Italian Stallion, born Rocco Antonio Tano, took his screen name from Roch Siffredi, the Alain Delon character in Borsalino, Jacques Deray’s 1970 gangster picture.

To Anatomy of Hell, which Breillat adapted in part from her own 2001 novel Pornocratie, Siffredi imports his credentials as the handsomely-endowed star of more than 1,300 pornographic films—and nobody could deny his commitment to Breillat’s arthouse chic: charming, intense, ridiculous, serious. Out of his depth and yet utterly fine. “A Portuguese and very Catholic crewmember told me that this movie prevented him from sleeping at night,” Breillat said. “Rocco was too much for him. He couldn’t watch him or separate the real Rocco from the image of Rocco.”

Images are real. Look, here, at Siffredi’s thick, beautiful phallus, dripping in menstrual red after his character, “the Man,” completes intercourse with “the Woman” (Amira Casar), a sexually and existentially despairing creature whom he saves, at the beginning of the film, from an attempted suicide inside a gay nightclub. On that occasion, in the first scene of the film, he asks her why she would do such a thing. “Because I’m a woman,” she replies. Taking her to a late-night pharmacy to get her wrist bandaged up, the Man is repaid with an al fresco blowjob (the film’s second, less than eight minutes in). A business transaction: Woman asks Man to embark upon a series of evenings together at her isolated coastal villa. “Watch me where I’m unwatchable,” she pleads. That’s how the deal was made, Breillat tells us in voiceover—assuming, we gradually learn, the perspective of her male protagonist. 

The director, for her part, does separate reality from its stand-in. Anatomy of Hell opens with a disclaimer, deliberately heavy-handed, which reveals that Casar’s sex scenes were performed by a body double. This, however, becomes part of the game—and the film is, in the way in which it unfolds like a throwback to a talky, state-of-the-genders chamber-piece by Ingmar Bergman, very much a game. Breillat knows we’ll have her opening proviso in mind when the frank images of her film begin to take hold: the fellatio, yes, but then other moments too, such as when Siffredi draws a cloacal circle on his co-performer in primary-scarlet lipstick, or when he penetrates one of her orifices with the handle of a garden rake. That Woman is both a consenting and sleeping recipient of these acts only adds to the moral complication, the simultaneously fascinating and outright horrible ideas the film explores. 

Breillat throws these scenes at us with something resembling a stark lyricism. Casar and Siffredi, Woman and Man, act out the brutal dialogues that punctuate their sex acts against a mise en scène that invokes a found or recycled film set rather than someone’s actual home. The minimal décor (and its crucifixes, its harsh lights), the Melvillian color palette, the way Casar lies on her bed like an Edward Hopper subject: the film is less painterly than painted, with a dankness showing through the white matte of the domestic interior—a visual reminder, like the striped and textured background of a Francis Bacon canvas, of something fundamentally grim. 

In its relatively brief but unrelenting thematic interrogation—of what its director evidently sees as the unpleasant truths underpinning the sexual politics between men and women—Anatomy of Hell is a helpful distillation of, and introduction to, Breillat’s cinema. In expanding Siffredi’s onscreen contribution to co-lead, it can also be viewed as an extension to Breillat’s 1999 work, Romance—which marked the porn star’s first foray into comparatively mainstream fare (in his own country, stints on reality TV and appearances in television commercials have followed). As Paolo, Siffredi receives fourth billing in the earlier Breillat picture: the first of several strangers with whom protagonist Marie (Caroline Ducey) commits adultery. Perhaps as a joking nod to his reputation on the hardcore circuit, Breillat (or Marie) makes him wear a condom. (The film’s first line of dialogue, referring to a more conventional actor: “He’s coming.”) 

Marie is a more full-fleshed prototype of Woman. She is the long-suffering partner of Paul, a self-absorbed actor (Sagamore Stévenin), with whom she lives in a clinically white apartment on Rue Bobillot in Paris—a more modern version of what will become a rundown imitation (“a train and a cab away”) in Anatomy of Hell. The whiteness, against which even a colorless pet cat is camouflaged, reflects the sexless relationship at the heart of the film, as well as the blank model on which Breillat constructs her characters. Marie and Paul, like Woman and Man, are not only conduits for the film’s pre- and post-coital philosophizing (“Love between men and women, I’ll say it again, is a devious conflict”), but also expressions of the director’s hard-edged poeticism. Consider, here, the coolly impressive costume choice when Marie returns home from one of her flings in a simple but striking red dress. 

In both of these films, I must admit, I prefer those scenes in which Breillat ventures beyond the physical-figurative prison in which her hapless couples live out miserable existences—when she ventures, that is, into the crude energies of a world inhabited by people and color. In Romance, Marie journeys to the Basile, a late-night café bar on Rue de Grenelle—which Breillat frames in a noir-esque, post-downpour establishing shot that for half a moment recalls Hopper’s Nighthawks. Inside, it’s all primary hues: Godardian reds and blues, with Marie in a beige jacket that catches the attention of a fair-headed man, who looks at her with the natural intensity, the built-in romance, of a Fassbinder performer. He is less beautiful than Sagamore Stévenin, but also less forgettable. 

It happens again, this scene—or a variation of it—in Anatomy of Hell. At the very beginning, in fact, when Amira Casar negotiates a crowd of sweaty nightclub extras, to the pulsating rhythm of The Shadeaux Men’s deep house classic “Spanish Storme.” Bored, she drifts. And catches the eye: of a man who emerges from the neon. That same mop, in both scenes—those heavy, Raymond Burr-like eyes. The same actor, a natural screen talent: Rocco. 


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