Dir: Catherine Breillat France 2004. 77mins.

Forthright French director Catherine Breillat made her international breakthrough in 1999 with Romance, the centrepiece of a retrospective at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Breillat has returned to Rotterdam to premiere her tenth film Anatomy Of Hell, which takes Romance's sexual explorations even further, into territory where some audiences may be nervous to follow. Anatomy again features Euro-porn idol Rocco Siffredi, this time opposite up-and-coming French star Amira Casar, whose reputation should get a considerable boost as a result.

The film will consolidate Breillat's reputation for cerebral audacity, and should perform well in France. It will be a must on the festival circuit, and will tempt adventurous international buyers, although some may balk at potential censorship problems - not only because of the extreme explicitness, but also for brief but troubling scenes involving a baby bird and young children. Although Siffredi's cult status cannot harm the film's fortunes, Rocco-philes expecting a typical romp will find Anatomy not merely a turn-off, but outright alarming. Anatomy Of Hell flouts taboos more confrontationally than any mainstream sex drama to date.

Casar plays an unnamed woman whose suicide attempt in a gay nightclub is interrupted when a man (Siffredi) walks in. Troubled by men's horror of women's bodies, the woman pays him to join her in a course of investigation into male-female relations. It is unclear at first which of the two stands to learn more, but the woman proves to be in control of the situation, sexually and pedagogically. The film is divided into four nightly sessions at the woman's clifftop house, where the couple philosophise and perform outre acts involving such items as a stone dildo, a tampon and (in the only scene that risks raising titters) a garden rake.

The premise is that men find women's bodies obscene, not least because of a terror of menstrual blood. As expounded by Casar, the argument rehearses some traditional feminist positions, though they have rarely been stated so graphically. Based on Breillat's novel Pornocratie, the film is quintessentially French in that its language used is both analytical and somewhat florid: a reference to 'the horror of Nothingness that is the imprescriptible All' is typical.

If one takes Anatomy as part of a tradition of French discourse on sexuality, involving pain as much as pleasure, then there is no denying its seriousness of intent. Stylistically, it is striking for its rigorous control, both in the claustrophobic restriction of most of the action to a single set, and in the coolly severe performances.

Siffredi impresses with a sympathetic, melancholy presence and ability to look as if he's thinking deep thoughts even while sporting an erection. Casar gives a powerful performance of the less-is-more variety, exposed sometimes brutally to the camera's gaze but exerting a commanding presence, not least when posed to echo a Goya nude. Although she spends most of the film naked, an opening caption stresses that a body double was used, presumably for the anatomical close-ups - a caveat that Breillat uses to provoke us into thinking critically about the nature of screen sexuality.

Production companies: Flach Film, CB Films
Int'l sales:
Flach Pyramide
Jean-Francois Lepetit
Catherine Breillat, based on her novel Pornocratie
Yorgos Arvanitis, Guillaume Schiffman
Pascale Chavance, Frederic Barbe
Production design:
Pedro da Santos, Jean-Marie Milon, Paula Szabo, Pedro Garcia
Main cast:
Amira Casar, Rocco Siffredi