Catherine Breillat on Pier Paolo Pasolini

Catherine Breillat on Pier Paolo Pasolini

Anatomy of Hell

Anatomy of Hell (2004)


Catherine Breillat

Excerpted from Pier Paolo Pasolini: Writing on Burning Paper, which launches at Metrograph on Friday, 4 November from 6pm, and is available to order now in Metrograph Editions.

Anatomy of Hell plays 7 Ludlow from November 12 as part of Love Meetings: Pasolini & Contemporary Cinema, along with 6 of our favourite Pasolini titles.

In the ’70s, Boris Gourevitch, an old man of Russian origin and the owner of several cinemas in the Latin Quarter, liked to say he didn’t need to see a film before he bought it for his theatres, that in fact it was better to put himself in the shoes of a spectator who pays to see a film without prior knowledge, because cinema is desire.

This desire for cinema, this instinct, had long been my approach to Pasolini. It was the poster for Accattone that first made me dream: the boy with a face as if carved with a billhook—plebeian, his aesthetic far removed from the polished heartthrobs of the silver screen—who jutted his hips forward with insolent nonchalance, deeply desirable and repulsive.

These Pasolinian “boys in black and white,” with their features of a naive and crude brutality, they were carnal, like the hero of Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, the young man in dungarees who for a long time made me dream. They weren’t actors, they were flesh on the verge of desire. This is how I would describe my fraudulent love of Pasolini. Love in black and white. As great films should be, which is what I believed at the time.

His very face was published in black and white in the newspapers, accompanied always by the scent of scandal, even when he professed his political beliefs.


This face was so particular; it was just as well-drawn, nervous and sleek as those of Accattone and the other boys in the film were indistinct, masses of brutal flesh. I loved Pasolini as someone whose imagination was so far removed from mine and yet so close. He loved the same kind of boys that I loved—manifest in their raw desires, intellectually crude, the opposite of himself.

But back then I had yet to see a Pasolini film. Cinema was too expensive for me—I decided to become a “director” at the age of 12 upon discovering Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel at the high school film club, and then Buñuel’s Viridiana, my second film.

The die was cast; as a “grown-up” I would become a director of cinema. And I told myself, I’m not sure why, that my cinema would be “blasphemous.”

What exactly did that mean? I don’t know—probably the inverse of decorous conventions and of this society that so repressed the desires, impudent and repelled, that made up my universe as a little girl and, later, a teenager.

Stupidly, I was outraged that Pasolini would film the Gospel of Matthew: a religious subject! I shunned the film, like a hurt lover, only to discover it, probably in 2005, when along with other directors I worked on the radio program Le cinéma l’après-midi on France Culture, where we discussed films that were coming out and, to change it up, also DVDs that brought cult directors back into the limelight.


Teorema (1968)

I often like to say that I am not scandalous but that I am a scandal, and that society has actually denied me the right to exist.

That’s how I experienced the shock of The Gospel, as important for me as Murnau’s Sunrise.

I came of age when dreams were in black and white. Even though I eventually shot my first film in color, I hesitated for a long time. In the end, my unconditional love of painting prevailed over my love of cinema, despite my belief that “Great Films” had to be in black and white.

When 30 years later I started Anatomy of Hell and the director of photography asked me about the light I wanted, I said, “I don’t know—in my head, it’s a black-and-white film, except that it’s in color! And my references are silent cinema and German Expressionism, except that there’s constant talking.”

I would say that this definition profoundly corresponds to the essence of my film, in which the Italian protagonist has the face of a Pasolinian actor, and even if it isn’t in black and white, it is nevertheless monochrome, in the color “flesh.”


During the so-called May ’68 revolution in France, I published my first book, L’homme facile, written furiously when I was 16 and immediately forbidden to minors!

I often like to say that I am not scandalous but that I am a scandal, and that society has actually denied me the right to exist.

From the start, I was doomed to what is known in France as “library hell.”

Thus I was forbidden to myself, I wasn’t legally allowed to re-read what I had written. A young girl like me had no right to exist out in the open. This secretly brought me close to Pasolini, whose films I still hadn’t seen, but with whom I felt a confused affinity…

His tragic and romantic death has long been an integral part of his oeuvre for me.

And in January 1969 I experienced, together with the rest of the world, the shock of Teorema and the revelation that a great intellectual film could be in color!

I had finally had my first encounter with Pasolini.

When I made Romance, I thought I was making a film very close to Ōshima or Imamura (my masters back then were Japanese). It took me a very long time to admit to the carnal coldness of this film even though it was so intimately mine. When I first started writing the script, almost 20 years earlier, the title was Glacial Romance. I removed the adjective from the title, but I froze the film more deeply, choosing for the costumes a pure, dominant white and, in most scenes, sets of scarlet and dark, earthy brown.

These were the colors of the alchemist in Marguerite Yourcenar’s The Abyss, but also those of Georges de La Tour, whose paintings I had seen exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris and who revolutionized the colors of the film and its meaning.


Romance (1999)

 Romance is a “heroic” quest in sexual identity. This is conveyed through the mystical transparency of white.

I called my actress, when we were getting ready to shoot one of the film’s difficult scenes, “Jeanne at the stake.”

The way her arms are tied to the window frame is almost Christ-like; the light shining through the blinds obviously seems divine, evoking the aura of the saints.

In 2000, the only films by Pasolini that I had seen—passionately, so intimately close to me—were Teorema and Accattone, with its hero and his face reminiscent of Caravaggio (who is another of my cinematic references: his plebeian faces and his Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy, which, alongside Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, represents the face of jouissance I want to show in my films).

More than Teorema, I still regard Accattone as the confirmation of my dreamed desire of Pasolini: his films, the aura of his person. A sort of big brother of cinema. I belonged to the same family.

Just after shooting Romance, I was living with a very young boy, marvelous and dandy, who was surprised to learn that I had never seen Salò, which was his cult film.

And he pushed it into my videotape player with authority.

I must confess (to my regret) that I was not at first completely taken by the film.

The brutality of the teenagers’ kidnapping obviously excited me, as did their escalating and unthinkable abasement.

I believe that the things we dread as an inconceivable possibility actually constitute us secretly, as a frightful and frightened desire.

Though I admit to having found the whole scatological part interminable and too demonstrative, the film then suddenly changed course. The executions and tortures were no longer repetitive but throbbing.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Subtly yet completely different, even if they are part of a methodical massacre, they present themselves as a spectacle. The greed and guilt of the young man, who has joined the executioners and is watching this spectacle, even though he should have been included, seem to me necessarily those of the spectator—myself, in this instance, experiencing something I reproduced in my films, this devouring desire to see what had always terrified me. Watching through hands covering my eyes, the fingers carefully spread so that I could see anyway and protect myself uselessly:
this is the naive illustration of denial.

I watched without missing a beat, with the same greedy curiosity as the young defector. What I saw was my own desire for murder and torture, represented to me as an inconceivable, voluptuous temptation.

I found it magisterial!

I couldn’t stand it:
I regretted having seen this terrible film, whose images were eating away at me.

It was a “Bad Film” in the sense that it distressed me and it hurt me for a long time.

I find that when there is an excessive urge to cry “Bad Film,” often it is the same syndrome. Audiences who stoically and happily gobble up horrible garbage, violently revolt and rage against films that touch them and do not leave them whole. These are “Bad” films—bad in the sense that they hurt them!

The memory of Salò hurt me for a long time. It was an excruciating, relentless revealing of my self. You can’t hide the truth from yourself. I found the film masterful and at the same time so terrible that I hated having seen it. But I knew it was a great film, even if it had been “bad” for me.

It is necessary for the audience to understand this.

I realised to my amazement that I was indeed Pasolinian.

I realized to my amazement that I was indeed Pasolinian, whereas I had run after Ōshima, whose cinema I knew much better and whom I felt close to, as I did to Imamura, the other sacred monster whose Unholy Desire was part of my imaginary. But I didn’t have their carnal sweetness.

Clearly, I was Pasolinian:
it manifested in me as something intimate, relentless and methodical.


A friend, Valérie Lang, introduced me to Petrolio. The language (although translated) dazzled me:

I discovered that Pasolini was a great and unrecognized writer. Language is living thought, it is the soul of the author. And despite the Tower of Babel of the plurality of languages, and the obstacle of necessary translation, a certain universality always prevails.

Then the same friend made me read Orgia, which became my bedside book, like Les Chants de Maldoror.

So often I would read terrible passages to my friends.

I wanted to make a film of Orgia, I thought about it for a long time; I hesitated, also, with Marguerite Duras’s The Malady of Death.

Then I decided that, after all, I am a writer, I have a feeling for words, and ever since childhood their music has inspired my most violent reveries. So instead I wrote Pornocracy; as if a dam of the unconscious had burst, I wrote it in 10 or 15 days—then I chose the much prettier title Anatomy of Hell to make it as a film, whose joint debt to Pasolini and Duras is, I think, obvious.

After Anatomy of Hell, I absolutely wanted to see Salò again, this time at the cinema, in a darkened theatre. I watched it in awe from start to finish. I could not at all understand my original reservations.

Clearly, a masterpiece must be deserved.

Don’t despair if you don’t understand it at first, if you are frightened; the time will come when you will be able to watch it again and again, and with the incomparable joy bestowed by the discovery of a great work.

Myself, I had to travel far along my life’s journey before reaching this point.

Writing these lines is inspiring in me an urgency to see the film again.

I compare it to the quest for the Holy Grail, to the Arthurian legend of the Knights of the Round Table who had to follow the “dangerous path” and prove themselves through a series of trials before they were finally able to sit at the Round Table without the abyss opening up beneath their feet and swallowing them up.

That’s how it was for me with Salò.

A few years later, I must have deserved to see it—like a masterpiece.

Sometimes I am asked to present Salò in cinematheques or as a bonus on English or French DVDs. I have developed the notion that there are works the public might not be able to bear but that must under no circumstance be forbidden. Salò is for me a magnificent and fundamental film.

And if one should probably avoid seeing it as long as they lack the strength, so what!

It is not strictly necessary for a masterpiece to be seen. It is absolutely essential that it should EXIST outside of ordinary commerce. And that it should wait for us until our day arrives.

7 May 2022


Translated from the French by Giovanni Marchini Camia

This is an excerpt from Pier Paolo Pasolini: Writing on Burning Paper, a new publication celebrating Pasolini in the centenary year of his birth from Fireflies Press. 

Anatomy of Hell

Anatomy of Hell (2004)