This is a highly flawed film. Indeed, judged by its lofty aims, it is a failure. But the critical reaction to it was largely unfair, especially when it comes to the film's co-star, Rocco Siffredi.
Like most/all of Breillat's work, AoH is a film about the conflict between men and women, and it is delivered in uncompromising fashion. Breillat is a feminist director, but that term should not serve to minimize or constrain her work. Her films make social statements about the consequences of male desire and the subjugation of women, but they are too sophisticated intellectually and emotionally to be limited by labels.
The problem with her work is when the words of her characters do not live up to her intended message, and when she is unable to create onscreen actions which justify the grandiose statements the film and its characters make.
Here, Breillat's message seems to be that the very nature of femininity, indeed the vagina itself, is viewed with a natural disgust by men. The universality of her statement is what prevents it from working. While it may indeed be possible that SOME men view the sex organ with disgust, it seems that many, if not most, instead view it with a combination of curiosity, desire and admiration. Try as she might, her full screen shots of vaginas do not arouse disgust in this viewer, and I most verily possess that pesky Y chromosome.
Breillat attempts to create a mythic quality with the film, making the two characters "the man" and "the woman." But in attempting to create this iconic duality, their desires and responses seem overwrought and unbelievable. The more extreme the behavior (and there's plenty of extreme behavior in this film), the less likely the behavior can be ascribed as the outgrowth of universal desires or predilections. All men and women simply do not feel or think the way these two characters do.
The film is essentially a chamber piece, about a woman (Amira Casar) who recruits a man (Rocco Siffredi) to "watch her where she's unwatchable." They soon embark on a sexual journey in which Siffredi resurrects the juvenile combination of curiosity and cruelty that often shape young boy's behavior.
But the basis of his behavior is at its root unbelievable. While some men may view women as insects, men as compassionate and sensitive and Siffredi's character do not. And as the dialogue becomes more elaborate and vicious, the basic unlikelihood of the character's motivations weighs the film down and makes the dialogue tedious.
But there are real strengths to this film. With every picture, Breillat becomes more and more masterful in her technique. The film is quite beautiful, and Breillat's use of tracking shots create a wonderfully dreamlike quality in the exterior scenes. The scenes of the raging ocean, in particular, are hauntingly beautiful.
And silly dialogue was not enough to ruin Siffredi's performance. Siffredi is a noted pornstar/porn auteur, and not surprisingly he doesn't hesitate to show his genitals throughout the picture. But the real vulnerability that an actor has to show is emotional, not physical. And what a revelation it was to see this porn titan display such tender vulnerability on screen! His performance has received little acclaim, with most critics dismissing it as the kind of stiff acting one would expect from a porn actor. But there is real humanity in his acting, and a graceful presence on screen. Siffredi is a promising actor who will likely never get an opportunity to show it outside of Breillat films. It's a shame.
This film is a must for Breillat fans, but overall it is one of her less cohesive efforts. For a film that better blended great acting with believable dialogue, check out Brief Crossing.
My grade: C+, or 2.5 stars out of 5.