Anatomy of Hell

Published: Friday, Jan. 7 2005 9:44 a.m. MST

"Anatomy of Hell" opens with a brief glimpse of a man (Rocco Siffredi) having sex outside a nightclub. Inside, a dour young woman (Amira Casar) glares at all the dancing queens, heads into the bathroom, and slits her wrist. The man discovers her, bandages her up, asks her why she did it. "Because I am a woman," she answers.

Ah, the pleasures of French art-porn.

Catherine Breillat, the high priestess of highbrow provocation, has made complacent audiences squirm and aesthetes excitedly inhale their clove cigarettes with such deconstructionist sex fables as "Romance" (1999) and "Fat Girl" (2001). "Anatomy of Hell," based on Breillat's novel "Pornocatie," leaves her earlier films in the dust. It's a graphically anatomical allegory of desire and gender politics that appears to take place in a bedroom but that really unfolds far up in the atmosphere. The air's pretty thin up there, but the pretensions are thick enough to compensate.

The Girl (so labeled in the credits; she's never named) invites The Man (ditto) back to her place and offers to pay him to "watch me where I'm unwatchable." Because he's gay, she figures he'll be able to give her the old patriarchal male gaze without acting on it. Silly rabbit.

The Girl disrobes and lies on her bed. The Man waits until she's asleep, then has his way with her, and weeps. That's just the first night.

The history of movies is rich with tales of cloistered lust gone bonkers, from "Last Tango in Paris" and Japan's "In the Realm of the Senses" to the more recent "Crash" and "Damage." "Anatomy of Hell" is the most clammily academic of the bunch. Breillat's point is (or seems to be) that while women understand desire as entirely a matter of mind, men get hung up on possessing and controlling the physical vessel. Fine, point taken.

"Anatomy of Hell" is not rated but would probably receive an NC-17 for graphic scenes of sex, male and female nudity, use of strong sexual profanity and graphic sexual slang terms, and sexual violence. Running time: 74 minutes.