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The more taboo the subject, the fuller the theater

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We're all grown-ups here, so I'm going to be blunt: There's really only one reason anyone would go see a controversial film in which a hot French model and Italy's most famous male porn star spend four nights sans clothes at a remote waterfront chateau. Yeah, you could argue with me and claim that you're planning to see Anatomy of Hell to get further insight into human behavior, just like you attended The Brown Bunny because you had always wondered what Vincent Gallo might look like behind the wheel of a van.

            Savvy French filmmaker Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) knows that people are fascinated by sex; the more taboo the subject, the fuller the theater. And it's admittedly cynical of me to reduce her artistic expression to a yearning to fill seats. As is apparent in 2004's Anatomy of Hell --- which she calls "a true work of fiction" --- she has genuinely thought-provoking ideas on the proverbial battle of the sexes, but she's not subtle about her delivery. Would anyone care about her views if the film didn't contain a shot in which a woman is penetrated by a rake? (Don't worry --- it's not the business end. It's the... um... pleasure end.)

            Mouthwatering Amira Casal plays the unnamed Girl, who meets the unidentified Guy (googly-eyed Italian adult film actor Rocco Siffredi) when he walks in on her sullenly scoring her wrist with a razor blade in the bathroom of a gay bar. He gets her bandaged up, she "thanks" him, and with semen artfully glossing her lips, the down-on-men Girl hires him to come to her house on four consecutive nights and observe her naked body. For some reason, the gay Guy agrees, and the next evening he reports for duty.

            It's understandable that a woman might want a man to give her an honest opinion on how she appears sexually. That she would ask a gay man is puzzling, especially one with such unexplained misogyny ("The lie about the softness of women is hateful").

            What follows are contentious power struggles, clinical sexual situations, disturbing flashbacks, and a possible meeting of the minds, but I'm still not sure about that last one.

            The screenplay, which Breillat based on her book Pornocracy, is slightly silly. There were a few interesting notions to be found here --- I liked the parallel drawn between a wedding veil and a burial shroud --- but the conversation seemed more like a series of sweeping and spiteful assertions than an actual exchange between two people. Some of that blame probably lies at the feet of the actors, however --- Casal's great beauty doesn't translate into talent, and while Siffredi looks to be more than qualified for his day job, plot may be a little beyond him.

            There's a bizarre interlude focusing on the Girl's period, which shows up on the second night (isn't that always the way?) and which the Guy happens upon before she does. She instructs him in the finer points of tampons and expounds on her theories about men's fear of "the blood that flows without the need of a wound." And if you're wondering whether gooey, gory sex ensues, then you don't know Breillat.

"A director is a predator. You drag the emotion out of them."

            In 2002's Sex is Comedy, Breillat turns the camera on herself... or at least her obvious on-screen doppelganger. Lovely and lanky Anne Parillaud, best known for Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, portrays Jeanne, a filmmaker who resorts to a number of mind games in order to shoot a seduction scene with a pouty actress and a stubborn actor who don't get along.

            In the tradition of Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, Comedy is a movie about the director's creation of another movie, and the inner movie here is reminiscent of Breillat's Fat Girl. The petulant Actress (Roxane Mesquida, who played the older sister in Fat Girl) has changed her mind about an agreed-upon nude scene. The insecure Actor (Gregoire Colin) also has problems with nudity but decides to erect other roadblocks to see how far he can push his director.

            Jeanne has her share of problems with the Actress, but Jeanne's relationship with the Actor is fascinating, frustrating, and the focus of the film. There's an ongoing tussle over which of them is in control. She's not above using her sexuality to get him to do what she wants, and when he thinks he's got the upper hand, it's only because it suits her purposes to leave him with that impression.

            You don't hear actresses talk about Mike Nichols or Robert Altman batting their eyelashes when the director wanted to draw something difficult out of them --- they inevitably mention the level of comfort on the set. That's just one more of the differences between the sexes that Breillat shines a light upon: Men manipulate women by making them feel safe, while women get what they want out of men by making them feel desired. And no one seems to mind.

Anatomy of Hellshows Friday, February 11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 13, at 5 p.m.Sex is Comedy shows Saturday, February 12, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 13, at 8 p.m. All screenings are at the Dryden Theatre, 271-4090.

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