1930s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Erotic, French cinema, Mystery, Romance, Short Films, Thriller

Night at the Crossroads (1932) / A Day in the Country (1936)

La Nuit de Carrefour / Partie de Campagne

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jean Renoir

By Roderick Heath

Sometimes a famous name can be a boost or a burden. Or just a name. As the son of one of the most lauded Impressionist painters, Jean Renoir’s attraction to cinema gave the young art form an aura of matured sophistication, but might well have also lifted a few eyebrows in sceptical intrigue. If Jean ever seemed oppressed or dogged by the challenge of proving himself an artist in his own right, he never showed it in his films, which evinced only sublime freedom of form and spirit. In spite of his father’s schooling of all things visual and Jean’s initial interest in sculpture, Renoir was deeply attracted to the theatre, and film offered him a chance to blend two separate artistic realms and better refine a new one. Although today enshrined as one of the quintessential cinema masters, Renoir was too restless, droll, and politically tinted an artist to always be readily accepted in his day, although many of his works found swift and great favour, like the antiwar tale La Grande Illusion (1937), which managed the feat of getting nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, a first for a film mostly not in English.
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But Renoir’s association with the Front Populaire, the progressive and radical coalition that briefly came to power in France before World War II, made him a target for the right, and his best-regarded film, The Rules of the Game (1939), released on the cusp of conflict, stoked public ire despite being merely a tart ledger accounting bourgeois tomfoolery, subtly indicting the country’s self-congratulatory upper classes of detachment from their countrymen and blithe indifference to oncoming reality. Renoir himself had been the product of a gloriously unfettered childhood and had fought with distinction as a young man in World War I. His sharply diastolic worldview was formed then with a gift for depicting both the elating absurdity and gnawing distress of the human condition, his surveys sometimes acerbically critical, often warm and indulgent; even his regulation wartime propaganda film This Land is Mine (1943) champions communication above action. Renoir started making films in the mid-1920s, collaborating on Une Vie Sans Joie (1925) but really finding his feet with an adaptation of Emile Zola’s tale of an actress turned courtesan, Nana (1926), starring Renoir’s wife Marguerite, a first his cinematic muse and then indispensable collaborator.
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Renoir’s shoots were virtual family affairs and relied on a tight-knit team of collaborators. After acting in his movies Marguerite started editing them, whilst his nephew Claude would begin as a camera operator and eventually become a lauded cinematographer, whilst Jean himself and his brother Pierre acted in several. As he moved into the sound era, Renoir turned out a string of corrosively funny, brusquely intimate portrayals of squabbling class avatars and human frailty, like the hapless clerk and Sunday painter who gives himself up to life as a wandering hobo after killing his grotesque mistress in La Chienne (1931), or the fellow vagrant who refuses to be domesticated in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). In the midst of the Front Populaire’s heyday, Renoir made several films including the proto-neorealist effort Toni (1935), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), which portrayed the murder of a sleazy capitalist to allow a successful experiment in a worker’s cooperative to continue, and La Marseillaise (1938), a recounting of the French Revolution’s most fervent hours, which bore out Renoir’s simultaneous capacity to embrace radical new causes whilst also extending sympathy to figures caught on the wrong side of epochal tides.
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It feels right to look at Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country in concert because they’re both relatively short fruits of Renoir’s great period, and that diastolic sensibility is plain from their titles on down. Both films are set just beyond the outskirts of Paris, at locales serving the passing trade and beset by a mood of isolation and transience. They share a quality with Shakespeare’s pastoral plays of being thrust out beyond the usual norms of civilisation and forced to improvise a different moral order. The day/night schism erected between the two works begs for a clever artist to render them porous, and the undercurrents of pining disappointment that finally defines A Day in the Country is mirrored by the final sense of new chances in life that comes with the dawn in Night at the Crossroads. Both films take on material adapted from highly regarded authors. Renoir made Night at the Crossroads specifically to honour one of his favourite then-contemporary writers, Georges Simenon. A Day in the Country was an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant, a friend of Jean’s father and the other Impressionists, and an artist who shared with them a certain gruff and zesty dedication to reflecting on life as he saw it.
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Night at the Crossroads has a certain legendary cache because it was very hard to see for a long time, and even today supposedly still has a reel missing. One reviewer compared it to Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) for being an ostensibly rational mystery that still feels imbued with a nocturnal and numinous atmosphere even after the fade out. It was also the first adaptation to feature one of the most famous detective characters of all time, Simenon’s cagey, calm, modest but unrelenting hero Inspector Jules Maigret, played here by Pierre Renoir. The film’s first image, under the title card, is of a blowtorch at work on a safe in otherwise pitch black, an introduction to the mode of inky darkness and troubling illumination the tale unfolds in, the sense of forces at midnight working like termites at the fabric of the stable world. The movie proper kicks off with a series of sociological jokes as a motorcycle cop pulls in at a service station at the crossroads, in a drab semi-rural locale. The gang of workers who labour at the station mockingly read out society engagement announcements. The bourgeois couple in one of the neighbouring houses, the Michonnets (Gehret and Jane Peirson), note the behaviour of ostensibly rich people who also pay on instalment plans, and instantly accuse their neighbours, a Danish brother and sister, of stealing their car when they notice it missing.
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The Michonnets lead a posse into the Danes’ yard and break open the garage, but get more than they bargained for, as the car is inside with a corpse sitting up within. The dead man is a Jewish diamond dealer from Brussels named Goldberg. The Danish man, Andersen (Georges Koudria) is arrested and grilled over the course of the day by Maigret and his assistant Lucas (Georges Térof). Renoir conveys the passage of time during the interrogation by cutting away to a newsstand where the developments in the story are reported in the day’s newspaper editions – the morning’s fresh news becomes the sludge being swept up by a street cleaner in the gutter – and then returning to the ever more crowded and smoke-riddled inspector’s offices as the interview continues, the smoke from the anxious coppers growing thick in anticipation of the fog that looms about the crossroads. Finally, Maigret is obliged to release Andersen, but decides to travel out to the scene of the crime to try and get his bearings.
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The idea of disorientation is realised on a cinematic level by Renoir as he unsettles and fatigues the eye with his oblique framings, peculiar edits, and frustrated viewpoints. Information feels random and broken-up. Far from impressionism, Night at the Crossroads takes place in a cubist trance. Physical objects – gasoline pumps, cars, house interiors – seem imbued with a form of life, as they’re shot in a way where the human characters are glimpsed through frames or behind looming imminences, or seen darting through scantly lit patches of ground. The branches of the roads that link at the titular crossroads fade off into murky night or boiling fog. A sequence in which Goldberg’s wife is driven to the crossroads only to be shot by a lurking sniper takes place in oceans of dark punctuated again by small pools of light, his rifle-wielding killer looming as a vague silhouette, a nocturnal monstrosity. Renoir’s customary, breezy use of location filming, one aspect of his cinema that made him a precursor to the neorealists, avoids the imprint of the expressionist style that was waning in its native Germany but gaining new use in Hollywood, even as Night at the Crossroads succeeds in feeling as rarefied and odd as the first Universal horror films.
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Elsewhere Renoir’s camera mimics Maigret’s incisive, quietly registering method. A little vertical tilt of the camera follows Maigret’s gaze as he takes in the appearance of one of the station works, registering the dissonances. A close-up of a cigarette packet tells the Inspector of visits to unlikely quarters. The little world Renoir creates here is solid, tangible, sensuous, at once torpid and agitated. Exploring the new possibilities and practicalities of sound, Renoir utilised on-location recording. Scenes are filled with the din of passing cars and bustling activity, and occasionally there are disjunctive matches in the noise from shot to shot, an aspect that seems crude at first but also helps reinforce the overt mood of dislocation. Renoir shows a more exact sense of how to exploit sound as he utilises a tune heard first on one of Else’s records and then on the accordion played incessantly by the station workers to tip the detective off to the hitherto unexpected link between the two camps. One sequence, in which Maigret interviews the garage men, is loaded with Renoir’s mischievous sense of behavioural quirk as one man idly flips a jack handle and then begins sawing away on a machining job purely to aggravate the Inspector during one of his interviews.
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Night at the Crossroads is a beautiful time capsule of a slightly grubby, wayside corner of pre-war France, one that seems to have had a powerful impact in some Hollywood viewers, like Howard Hawks, whose The Big Sleep (1946) feels particularly under this film’s spell in parsing the harshness of the crime film through a thin veil of the otherworldly. Indeed, much of the poetic realist style’s fascination for characters on the margins of gritty, industrial France and the later film noir mode’s obsession with femme fatales and troubled antiheroes might well have flowed from this well. Here the perverse temptress is Andersen’s supposed sister Else (Winna Winifried), who seems the incarnation of the narcotising pall that hangs about the crossroads, languorously rolling upon cushions as Maigret tries to interview her, flashing her gartered thigh, or caressing her pet tortoise, perhaps the most amusing apt pet in film history. Else is actually Andersen’s wife, but she’s really in thrall to her former husband Guido (Manuel Raaby) who is hidden amidst the coterie of criminals that hides in plain sight about the crossroads, who utilise the service station as the base for criminal enterprises including robbery and drug smuggling. Else is used by Guido as general purpose concubine to keep his gang in line, with Andersen, who married Else in the hope of elevating out of the squalid criminal universe, tied fatefully to her. Soon the criminals try to murder him to keep him quiet. The criminal alliance that spans the crossroads becomes Renoir and Simenon’s sarcastic cross-section of French society, eventually building to the inevitable punch-line that they’re all in league to pull off something crooked in a twist reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express.
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The workers in the garage who do the dirty work, the sniping, readily offended Michonnets who act as fences, and the lurking aristocratic duo in the big house, all share nefarious motives – even if things prove a little more complicated. The collective of criminals feels like an ironic precursor to the workers’ cooperative in The Crime of Monsieur Lange. Renoir considers Balzac’s maxim that great fortune is always the product of a great crime, and seems to wonder half-idly if the path to a socialist society might lie down the same path. Although nominally a femme fatale, Else feels like a rough draft for the hero of Boudu Saved From Drowning, a self-confessedly lazy person who exists as a project of betterment and/or exploitation for others, but who eddies amongst her own thoughts and whims, barely aware of the niceties of civilisation. Winifried is a fascinating presence who was Renoir’s find for the film, reminiscent of the German star Sybille Schmitz in her aura of languorous eroticism, but made very few films. Anderson looks like a characters strayed out of a Fritz Lang film with one lost eye concealed behind a black monocle lens, a touch that makes him ineffably odd, a creature of proto-science fiction, human and mechanism coming together. And yet he turns out to be the one well-motivated character save the policemen. Andersen is a prototype for Erich von Stroheim’s Von Rauffenstein in La Grande Illusion, a sad remnant of a figure, damaged, mechanism-aided physique, fallen from his station and adrift in a mean and grubby present.
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I suspect the reason cinema beckoned so irresistibly to Renoir over art forms was the promise of movement. Renoir’s films vibrate with peripatetic energy and a sensibility close to a pantheistic feel for the landscape as a living organism in itself, and a concurrent contempt for the stifling immobility of civilised conventions and quotidian social structures, unnatural forms with no flexibility or dynamism. The urge to movement is often literalised in his characters who, if they have no place to go but also no reason to stay put, give themselves up to the logic of flowing rivers, speeding trains, open roads and anxiously inviting frontiers. Renoir actualised this anxious, liberating joy found in surging speed by often including a shot from a camera affixed to the front of a car or train, precipitous images of racing speed. The stuck-in-the-mud mood of Night at the Crossroads belies this motif to a certain extent, but then gives way as Lucas chases after the criminal band, laboriously catching up with the vehicle and swinging about with giddy speed as the villains loose shots at their pursuers. Renoir might well have been thinking back to Louis Feuillade’s serials when he took on Night at the Crossroads, but the surrealist spirit of such models is dovetailed here into a seedier, more mundane yet just as untrustworthy reality. Another great joke conjoined with a surreal affect comes when a doctor is called in to treat a wounded man; the doctor (Max Galban), called away from a night at the opera, arrives in full eveningware, complete with top hat and white gloves, like he’s about to play Master of Ceremonies for walpurgisnacht.
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Love and sexual passion are usually privileged in Renoir’s films to a degree that almost seems to ape the stereotyped French affinity for romanticism. The titles of both Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country contain the seeds of an obfuscating joke, associating both locations with aspects of opportune erotic adventure; the dejeuners of the later film face, and leap into, dalliances which Maigret spends a great deal of his story avoiding, as Else constantly tries to provoke the detective, the ever-attentive copper refusing to be drawn but clearly on occasion having a hard time of it. If A Day in the Country sees Renoir exercising the theme at its most apparently blithe and freewheeling, Night at the Crossroads finds lurking neuroticism and pathos as Maigret becomes a distraction to Else’s ultimate choice of between Guido and Andersen, who suffers for his love with a bullet in his back. Else herself seems to mildly prefer Maigret himself, and the very last frame sees Else grasping the detective from behind. But of course he’s one of the most famously married law enforcers in pop culture and moreover he’s the stern guardian of social structures. So Else makes a final, dutiful trudge up to see Andersen, at least rejecting Guido and his poisonous influence over Guido’s howls of protest, which might be amour fou or mere petulance from the Apache chieftain that his suzerainty is finally ending.
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When Renoir would return to tales of murder and smouldering jealousy, he would however dispense with the safe and generic mediating figure of the detective; his Emile Zola adaptation La Bete Humaine (1938) would again take up the theme of two men attached to one woman driven to acts of inchoate criminality and passion, but viewed from within that vortex, and the key image of headlong flight into modernity glimpsed from the viewpoint of Jean Gabin’s ill-fated train driver with the lingering temptation of self-consuming crack-up at the end of the line. A Day in the Country, by contrast, retreats into a bucolic past, a portrait of Edens lost, a place free of psychic and physical pressure from bustling machines and harsh contemporary facts. All the better for Renoir to take a closer, more exacting look at the dance of seduction and the evanescence of pleasure. Accounts regarding the production radically diverge. Some have claimed it was essentially left unfinished, as Renoir became frustrated with the weather, and eventually dashed off to get working on his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1936), and that Renoir’s assistant director Jacques Becker, who would go on to be a highly regarded filmmaker himself, reportedly shot some footage. Renoir however insisted that the project was always intended to be a short film and he resisted his producer’s encouragement to expand it into a full feature.
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The resulting pile of celluloid sat on the shelf for nearly a decade, during which time war broke out and Renoir moved to the US, where his interest in people on the fringes of society was evinced in regional dramas like Swamp Water (1941) and The Southerner (1945). Eventually, Marguerite Renoir sat down and carefully cut A Day in the Country together and it was released as a 38-minute movie almost one decade exactly later. Whatever the truth behind the film’s shoot and its long marination on the shelf, if might well be a great argument for such messy method, as it’s one of the most perfect artefacts in cinema, an island of expressive concision and theme realised through filmmaking. The title and basic notion seem carefully tailored to recall the works of Renoir’s father and his artistic alumni, who often went off on jaunts in the countryside to try and capture perfect visions of the world and the people at large in it. A Day in the Country was also an inferred glance at the new freedoms the Front Populaire’s reforms allowed to French workers, with enshrined shorter working hours and paid holidays, to pursue leisure in a manner once reserved for the kind of prosperous bourgeoisie Renoir depicts here. Not that A Day in the Country is any kind of political tract either.
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The story is as simple and universal as the plot of Night at the Crossroads is knotty and obscure. Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello), a successful tradesman, takes his wife Juliette (Jane Marken), his mother (Gabrielle Fontan), his daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and her fiancé Anatole (Paul Temps) out for a buggy ride in the country just outside Paris, on a fine summer’s day in 1860. Approaching a riverside restaurant, they decide to stop and have lunch. Dufour and Anatole are both enthusiastic to do some fishing and are initially frustrated when they can’t get their hands on some rods. Henriette sets her mind on a picnic under a cherry tree by the river. Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) are two gentlemen idlers whose day of calm and quiet time-wasting hanging about the restaurant and playing chess is spoiled by the sounds of the shrill and excitable city folk arriving outside. Upon catching a glimpse of the feminine pulchritude suddenly on hand, irritation swiftly turns to resolve to seduce the ladies, which proves, on the whole, a rather easy task.
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Renoir had taken initial, powerful inspiration from the lacerating intimacy of Von Stroheim’s films, and A Day in the Country could be described as Renoir’s take on the countryside trek and intended seduction in Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), shed of melodrama and moralism. Jean-Luc Godard, who greatly admired Renoir’s works even as he remained temperamentally antithetical to them as a director, would push the cycle of inspiration on by tormenting and misshaping Renoir’s template into Weekend (1967), tossing in one brief recreation of Renoir’s riparian placidity to ensure the connection. Renoir’s film celebrates passion in a manner blissfully, if finally with a flutter of heartbreak, disconnected from worldly business or moral judgement: there is only the purity of the erotic urge as an end in itself to be served by any willing party. As Renoir’s cinema matured, his grip on the rhythmic flow of his images and sense of how to use the space in a frame most exactly became surer and indeed scarcely rivalled, and A Day in the Country is a pure study in space as a cinematic value. The film’s key joke even depends on it: Rodolphe opens the restaurant windows to “enjoy the view,” and opens the window shutters to behold the sight of the mother and daughter riding upon swings, a frame opening within a frame where beauty of multiple varieties spills on.
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The two men look on like wolves in a Friz Freleng cartoon. Young seminarians marching by halt in distraction, needing a swift clip on the ear to get them moving again. Randy energy permeates everything; Dufour even mentions that the clasps for the oars on the riverboats are called dames. Later Madame Dufour tries to rouse her dozing husband after their meal with memories of past sexual adventures, but the torpor of bourgeois self-satisfaction has descended. It’s heavily hinted Henriette and Anatole’s looming marriage has been arranged; Anatole is probably one of Dufour’s employees, an overgrown calf more interested in fish than sex. Renoir casts himself and his wife as the Poulains, owners of the restaurant, serving up the goodies. But the mood isn’t one of mere, simple bawdy potential. Henri confesses to Rodolphe his exhaustion with carnal relationships with uninteresting women, and the project the two men set for each-other has a quality of dutiful adventuring. Rodolphe isn’t even particularly concerned when Henri abruptly takes more interest in Henriette rather than her mother. Meanwhile Henriette feels protean longings in the face of oncoming future. She’s tentative on a boat for the first time, worried she might fall in, and impressed by Henri’s easy way with rowing.
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If Night at the Crossroads is defined by its aura of hazy entrapment and immobility for most of its length, A Day in the Country, whilst seemingly far more placidly paced and becalmed than Renoir’s headlong contemporary fables, is actually rendered in a mode of constant, restless motion, conveying the giddy thrill of escaping a city where “there’s not enough oxygen,” as Dufour proclaims, into a land of sun, greenery, and lung-filling freshness. Renoir here offers a shot from the cockpit of the day-trippers’ carriage as they glimpse the restaurant on the roadside and read its signage with agreeable pricing. He attaches his camera to the swings upon which Juliette and Henriette ride, conveying the giddy sensation of being unshackled from the usual bonds of life and gravity. As the film reaches its climax the entire landscape comes alive, grass swaying, reeds thrashing, branches flicking, swing ropes dancing before the camera, the river waters pocked and pummelled by rain, all nature in concert with the thrill of fucking in the bushes.
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The river, the road, the railway, all courses that are ultimate symbols and shaper of Renoir dramas. Of course, one day he’d even make a film called The River (1951). Just as the water drives Boudu back to his natural state, Henri wants to flee the threatening encroachment of Paris (“Parisians are like microbes – admit one and you’ll have a colony in weeks.”) by heading upstream, but then the waterway bears the two makeshift couples down towards leafy beds. Henriette is resistant at first to Henri’s suggestions they land on the riverside and take a breather, only for Juliette to gaily float by, gleefully giving herself up to the designs of her self-appointed “Romeo” who then becomes into Pan chasing here around the tree with stick blown like pipes. Henriette lays down in the grass as Henri kisses her and Renoir swoops in for a colossal close-up of the girl’s tear-stained face, a portrait in conflict between social self and natural self, perhaps the ultimate theme of Renoir’s cinema (small wonder he’d go on to do his own take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, 1959).
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Collapsing facades gives way to elemental passion and the world falls into chaos before reshaping itself into the old, placid mould. A postscript scene redefines what we’ve seen, however. However many months or years later, Henri rows downstream alone to visit the scene of “my happiest memories.” He finds Henriette there, lying on the grass with Anatole. She sees Henri and approaches him, and reveals that she too can’t forget that defining day on the river, as it haunts her at night. Now she’s married to Anatole, who’s still a dolt. Henri watches the couple trudge dutifully back to their boat and settles for a sad and solitary cigarette, whilst now, in Renoir’s last, drollest bit of character revelation through action, watches as Henriette now easily and confidently rows herself and her husband, and the river flows quietly on. Passion has had its moment, the rest is mere stuff of persistence, but every good memory is a jewel taken out at night. This conclusion comes as a deft and supple gut-punch after all the sunny drollery, a vision of gentle interpersonal tragedy that, tellingly, enlarges upon the conclusion of Night at the Crossroads as the frustration suggested in the suggestive final framing of Maigret and Else, the eventual return to civilised norms an exercise in self-defeat.

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1970s, Erotic, Horror/Eerie, Women's Film

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Stephanie Rothman

By Roderick Heath

At a time when women directors were still excruciatingly thin on the ground even in Hollywood’s least reputable quarters, Stephanie Rothman forged herself an intriguing place in movie history. Rothman had proven herself a stalwart operative for Roger Corman and his low-budget movie factory at AIP during the 1960s. She made her credited directing debut when she helped patch together a releasable film from a mishmash of footage left after Jack Hill was sacked from a project that involved splicing new footage into a Yugoslav movie, one of many such cunning retrofits Corman’s crew were called upon to perform. With Rothman’s third hand in the pot, the result, Blood Bath (1966), emerged as an incoherent yet tenaciously likeable, free-form collage of images and artistic temperaments. Rothman was given her shot at handling a film in her own right and after her solo debut It’s a Bikini World (1967), she gained a significant hit with The Student Nurses (1970). Rothman followed Corman to his burgeoning New World studio and producer Larry Woolner asked her to make a vampire movie. Rothman and her husband Charles S. Swartz punched out a screenplay built around Rothman’s idea of making a movie centering on a female vampire, a project that would become The Velvet Vampire.

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Although it was destined to become her most admired and well-known film, The Velvet Vampire was initially a box office disappointment, and it sped up Rothman and Swartz’s decision to leave Corman’s fold and work with Woolner in setting up a rival production company, the short-live but relatively prolific Dimension Films. Rothman managed to direct three more movies there in between overseeing the company’s filmmaking operations, before her career ran out of steam, and she failed to follow the likes of Francis Coppola, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich into more exalted filmic spheres. Now chiefly associated with horror cinema thanks to Blood Bath and The Velvet Vampire, most of Rothman’s works were sexy comedies, chiefly distinguished by the tense but fruitful way Rothman’s unabashedly feminist ambitions blended with the down-and-dirty prerogatives of genre cinema, working to offer equal-opportunity nudity whilst offering spry examinations of the shifting social more the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The Student Nurses kicked off a successful series for Corman, whilst Terminal Island (1973) looked forward to dystopian tales ranging from Escape From New York (1981) to The Handmaid’s Tale in envisioning a future where death row inmates are stranded in a wilderness prison and a brutally medievalist social set-up quickly evolves and then devolves into outright war between the sexes. Group Marriage (1973) contemplated the possibility of an idyllic polyamorous union between an increasing number of people. If the basis for most of Rothman’s films was the comedy of manners translated for the age of Sexual Revolution, The Velvet Vampire redeploys the same idea in a context where the stakes of conquest are much more alarming.

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Rothman quickly announces a real eye with the shot of downtown Los Angeles that opens The Velvet Vampire, a vestigial crucifix jutting high above a precinct of modernist architecture like a remnant of old faith in an otherwise oblivious world. Zoom back to reveal the busy thrum of midday in the city, and then a slow dissolve into the same shot at night, cars and pedestrians becoming ghosts and then fading into oblivion, the buildings readily transmuted into a field of Neolithic standing stones, an arena ready for a primal blood rite. A small squiggle of red strides across the frame upon the pavement: our antiheroine, Diane Le Fanu (Celeste Yarnall). Diane sees a parked motorcycle and correctly anticipates danger. A wild and hairy biker, some escapee of Corman’s The Wild Angels (1967) at war with all civilised mores, quickly obliges as he tackles and tries to rape the chicly dressed lady. But Diane quickly turns the tables, jamming the biker’s own knife into his gut. Diane picks herself up, washes off in a nearby fountain, and casually proceeds on her way. She enters an art gallery where her friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) is curating an exhibition, and encounters a young couple, Lee and Susan Ritter (Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles). Lee and Susan amiably play at being strangers who flirt over the art works whilst trying to fit in with the arty crowd: “I get a lot of sensual energy from it,” Susan comments in regarding a sculpture that resembles the lower half of a bisected female body with legs splayed. Carl introduces them to Diane, whilst old blues man Johnny Shines (playing himself) regales the uptown crowd with elemental tales of evil ladies and demon lovers. Diane invites Lee and Susan out to her home in the California desert with a flirtatious intensity that easily hooks Lee, and the couple, who uneasily fancy themselves swingers, accept the invitation.

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They drive out to the remote locale, stopping for gas and directions at a lonely service station, where they encounter anxiously snooty hippy car mechanic Cliff (Paul Prokop), who’s too uptight over his status as a qualified tradesman to stoop to filling up their tank. The station owner Amos (Sandy Ward) reluctantly gives the Ritter directions to the house they’re after, but their car breaks down on the way. Fortunately Diane appears in her dune buggy to rescue them, and spirits them to her house, where she maintains a posh lifestyle with her Native American manservant Juan (Jerry Daniels). Promising to get their car fixed, Diane charms the couple into staying several days, whilst getting Juan to fetch Cliff from the service station. But Cliff quickly learns he’s been called over to be eliminated, and he finishes up accidentally impaling himself upon a pitchfork as Juan chases him about Diane’s garage. Diane introduces Lee and Susan to the environs about her home, including a remote graveyard where her husband is buried, as Diane explains that although she dislikes the desert sun and heat she feels obligated to remain close to his grave, as he was carefully preserved through a method of the local Native American tribal folk. Juan comes from the same tribes, and Diane explains she grew up with him after her parents rescued him as a foundling. But Juan confuses Susan by suggesting Diane saved him when she was already an adult. Diane gives the couple a tour of an abandoned mine that fell into disuse a century earlier after many murders were mysteriously killed, apparently by some sort of feral beast. Susan freaks out when she’s left alone by both Diane and Lee as they stumble about in the dark looking for each-other, and Diane seems poised to attack Susan from the shadows, but is forestalled when Lee abruptly returns. Needless to say, Diane is a vampire.

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Diane’s designs on Lee are patent, but she slowly unveils her intention to also seduce Susan, as Rothman makes sly sport of the liberated mores of 1971 and their tendency towards double-standards, as Diane practices divide-and-rule between the couple. She takes the direct approach with the husband but makes charged overtures to Susan: “Have you ever noticed how men envy us – the pleasure we have, that only we can have?” Whilst Diane leads Lee off into the secluded aisles of a ghost town to grab his crotch, a rattlesnake slithers upon Susan as she sunbathes, and bites her leg, cueing a moment of sexual frisson as Diane sucks the poison out of her pink, nubile thigh. What neither Lee nor Susan knows, as they bed down for their increasingly strained connubial nights, is that Diane watches them from behind a glass mirror inset in the bedroom wall, measuring their characters, assessing their anxieties, transmitting dreamscapes into their sleeping minds. They both experience the same fantasia in which their bed is transposed into the midst of the desert, gleaming curves of brass and blood red sheets stark against the roiling dunes. Diane is seen in the distance through haze and dust like a Sergio Leone character, only to then step out of a mirror, suddenly switching to a Cocteau film or Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1964) as interlocutor for protean adventures. The dream, which progresses further each night Lee and Susan spend in the house, unfolds in torpid slow motion, punctuated with liquidinous dissolves, sees Lee drawn out of bed by Diane’s commanding presence, but then replaced in bed by her as she claims Susan by carving a cross upon her chest.

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These sequences, startling in their hallucinatory beauty and hearty embrace of surrealist design sharply composed to a degree rare even in the trippiest reaches of the era’s cinema, are surely the essence of The Velvet Vampire’s cult appeal. And yet the entire film is a work of admirable craft and art worked on a low budget and within the parameters of an exploitation film of the early ‘70s zeitgeist and the New World imprimatur. Rothman’s films have gained admiration for the expanse of her efforts to consider the cultural landscape of the day within those parameters, the shifting mores, the quicksands of rapidly evolving laws of sexuality and coupling and the advent of the age of lifestyle as a personal religion. The Velvet Vampire makes mischievous commentary not only on cool-kid gimcrackery but on low budget cinema’s efforts to exploit it, offering up Diane as fashion plate and new age idol, mistress of her domain in her perfectly tailored mod clothes and zipping about in that ultimate period symbol of Californian luxury consumer status in such movies, the dune buggy. Rothman offers Diane as a commanding, intelligent, cultured, motivated woman who, if she wasn’t a ghoul forced to live off other human beings, would stand as an idealised fantasy figure of feminine self-sufficiency. Rothman contrasts her with the Ritters, who both tread the outer edges of caricature at first, with Lee obeying the call of his own dick and Susan, with her high, throaty voice faintly reminiscent of Judy Holliday gone bikini-clad hipster, or perhaps akin to Doonesbury‘s Boopsie getting cast as Van Helsing.

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Miles and Blodgett, who had played the hunky object of pansexual affection Lance Rock in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), are the most awkward aspects of The Velvet Vampire, as both are pretty one-note presences. But their very lack of depth as actors to a great extent suits their characters, with their whiny, edgy, facetious postures as hip and cool young things and appearance as a classical west coast Ken and Barbie set, even as their marriage is badly strained by subtle disconnections, and bit by bit they emerge as well-considered characters. Both retain a certain level of sympathy as we see they’re essentially two babes in the pansexual woods, greedy and needy but fatefully poor at articulating their desires. Susan has a habit of freezing Lee out sexually by rarely being in the mood for his amorous advances, and he acts out by turning over and ignoring her as he goes to sleep. After Susan spies on him and Diane making love in her parlour, he barks in the morning, “All right – I got laid last night.” Ironically, Lee properly committing infidelity actually lets the couple reconnect, in part through Lee’s decision Diane is playing games with them. But Susan can’t entirely resist the chance for payback, and a possible adventure with the alluring Diane, nor can Lee bring himself to resist what Diane is putting down. Meanwhile their host continues to delay their departure by pretending their car can’t be fixed yet even as Lee becomes frustrated he can’t return to the city for necessary business.

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Events begin to build to crisis point as Diane finds herself increasingly unable to control her appetites. Her dead husband’s grave has never been filled in, covered instead with a camouflage of wooden boards hidden under sand, so now and then she can lie upon its coffin lid or even cuddle up to his embalmed body stark naked, an image right out of the visual lexicon of the Decadents and Surrealists. Juan, kneeling by the grave in close attendance, is sympathetic as she confesses to him from the pit, “I need more and more now – something is speeding up inside me.” When Juan offers to help by finding her “one of my people” to feed on, Diane reaches up and pulls him into the grave to dine on him. Diane’s tragedy as Rothman sees it lies in her doom to constantly devour anyone and anything that loves her. Rothman grants her the stature of a pining romantic, still mourning her beloved mate a century after his death, but then undercuts it with the ultimate revelation that she killed him less than a week into their marriage through her bloodlust. Diane is also avatar for the forces of colonial exploitation that crashed upon the American landscape, playing Samaritan to Juan, saving him from massacre and starvation, but also fostering him as subservient and finally, casually claiming his life when Diane’s insatiable hunger proves too great. The same fate lies in wait for Lee and Susan, extending to them the illusory possibility of mutual erotic fulfillment, but doomed only to engage in murder. There’s a note here that’s similar to one Rainer Werner Fassbender would sound the following year in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), in warning of the potential in sexual liberation of reproducing the crimes of dying paradigms by refusing to look beyond the ego’s wants.

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Rothman’s tale has telling similarities to a clutch of other movies released around the same time employing the same essential theme, including Hammer Films’ Karnstein trilogy, Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1970), and Harry Kuemel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), all stories revolving around female vampires with Sapphic tastes. This aspect of the metaphorical had long been visible in the genre since Coleridge’s “Christabel” and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (Rothman makes the connection between her variations on both Le Fanu’s book and Dracula plain enough with her character names), and suddenly, after a brief and furtive flourish in the mid-1930s with Dracula’s Daughter (1935), had to wait until the easier mood of 1970 to suddenly bloom. The appeal of this small continent of queer-themed vampire dramas, most of which have retained a strong following if not usually free of a touch of smirking nostalgia, lay in the way they made incorporating soft-core thrills easy whilst also appealing to horror fans with overtones of the genuinely transgressive, the crackle of outlaw sexuality according perfectly with horror cinema’s beyond-the-pale status. Where Kuemel’s film lolled in a lush conjuration of retro camp whilst contemplating his vampire lady as ageless, parasitical diva, Franco officially defined his as a reborn misandrist, and the Hammer films played Carmilla as a sort of female, antiheroic James Bond offering to all the chance to both get their rocks off and fulfil their death wish. Rothman presents Diana in yet another key, tracing the outer edges of lesbian desire both more delicately in terms of what she shows but also more directly and challengingly in how she states it. There are no languorous lesbian make-out scenes, and Rothman acts on her credo in eroticising Blodgett’s body as much more than then actresses, but also frames Diane’s come-on to Susan as an outright appeal to come to the isle of Lesbos, kingdom of multiple orgasms.

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Islands of peculiar beauty flow by Rothman’s camera from those early frames of the film, with such visions as the frontier graveyard with its crude wooden headstones, and the environs of Diane’s house, where California modern meets Latin manse with plush, décadent overtones. Yarnall’s hypnotic, cut-glass beauty and cool charisma – curiously unexploited by any other filmmakers subsequently – gleams over the brim of her crystal goblets, and burns white against the red Rothman often swathes her in, hovering like a desert rose against sandy environs, or else lounging a naked, pale sylph against her husband’s body. Yarnall, whose best-known role apart form this is probably an episode of Star Trek she guest-starred in, struts across Rothman’s desert landscapes with sombrero cordobés perched upon her head, reminiscent of the way Rothman’s fellow Corman alumnus Monte Hellman costumed Millie Perkins in his desert trip-out, The Shooting (1965), and inhabiting the same role as death incarnated in beauty. Indeed, there’s a curious synergy between Rothman’s approach to her version of horror cinema, with its desert vistas and sense of sun at once stark and hallucinatory, with the vogue for “acid westerns” around the same time, and suggests potential for overlap between western and horror cinema where the few other directors who have tried finding common ground between the two resolutely usually fail utterly.

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Likewise Rothman sees no disparity between the open, light-flooded surrounds of the desert and the hard geometric forms of modernism when the film returns to the city: there are wildernesses devoid of human life and those filled with it. Amidst sequences of Diane stalking Susan through bus terminals and malls of LA, Rothman’s eye finds cold abstraction in the rows of telephone booths and escalators, places that seem to mimic the mystical portals and planes of her imposed dreams. Rothman’s eye betrays traces of Michelangelo Antonioni’s imprint throughout, the whole thing could be read as another sun-struck daydream of the protagonists of Zabriskie Point (1970), whilst also mediating between him and the way other eyes like Alan Pakula and Sydney Pollack would read a similar incongruity and alienation in the implacable forms of the new urban landscape. The brief but pathos-charged scenes involving Cliff and his girlfriend evoke the fallout of the Easy Rider (1969) epoch, countercultural exile Cliff desperately trying to stick up for his hard-won status as a mechanic still served up as lunch, and his loyal girl (Chris Woodley ), who swears black and blue that Cliff was off the dope for good, makes a valiant effort to track him down but meets the same fate of being assaulted and sucked dry.

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Susan manages to fend off Diane once she finds Lee’s vampirised body in her bedroom, and escapes her villa, fleeing back to LA on a bus only to find Diane has beaten her onto the transportation and silently hovers behind her all the way into the city. Susan finally defeats her tormentor by learning she’s vulnerable to two classical traits of a vampire, fear of the crucifix and pained by strong direct sunlight, and so encourages a mob of spaced-out hippies to aid her in cornering Diane and exposing her, a task the crowd takes to in dissociative enjoyment as if it’s a schoolyard game. Rothman’s cruel sarcasm here sees her worldly and powerful antiheroine, avatar of ages, felled by giggling dopers and crucifixes from a street vendor’s stall, broken by the very real shock of the taboo still wielded by such objects in spite of their mass-commercial debasement, and the devolution of a revolutionary moment and its actors into paltry anti-climax reminiscent less of any Hammer horror finale than of King Kong (1933), which also saw its great monster exterminated by motorised insects. Susan defeats the vampire, but soon finds herself possibly at bay before another, as she visits Carl only to see signs he might well have been Diane’s comrade or acolyte. Perhaps vampirism is about to be the new big thing in bohemia.

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1960s, Auteurs, Drama, Erotic, Fantasy, French cinema, Romance

The Immortal Story (TV, 1968)

Histoire Immortelle

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

An adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen published under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story is also a story of two immortals, Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau. Welles’ career as a director had long since become a victim of his own clarion work Citizen Kane (1941) and the stature it had gained him the film world. For too many, Welles was more valuable inhabiting the role of defeated hero, the great artist and colossal talent defeated by commercial concerns, than he was as a working director. Many of the films Welles had made since Macbeth (1948) had been pieced together over years, funded from piecemeal sources including his own earnings as an actor, and sometimes abandoned altogether. A brief return to studio filmmaking with Touch of Evil (1958) had concluded in box office failure, and by the late 1960s Welles, who had long been a footloose creature with artistic roots planted on either side of the Atlantic ever since he bluffed his way into working for the Gate Theatre in Dublin in the early 1930s, had essentially become a European auteur. Even then he could not gain traction even as he had found new champions in younger critics and filmmakers like those of the French New Wave.

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Chimes at Midnight (1966) was to be the last of Welles’ completed and released full-length, fiction feature films, but not for lack of trying. Amongst a clutch of projects that finished up as piles of unspliced celluloid, there was his long-gestating version of Don Quixote, the thriller The Deep, a film version of Blixen’s The Heroine, and the perpetually promised The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ final works completed to anything like his satisfaction proved to be the deliriously entertaining and inventive documentary-cum-conjuring act F For Fake (1974), and another Blixen adaptation, The Immortal Story, financed by a French TV channel although also shot with theatrical release in mind. Welles had intended this as the first part of a Blixen anthology film, but Welles’ unease over the second instalment’s looming shoot in Budapest eventually saw him abandon the project, leaving The Immortal Story as a curtailed but viable effort. Welles had collaborated with Moreau on The Trial (1962) and Chimes at Midnight, where she had played Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress, the first of her two roles for Welles that see her playing whores who snatch at sources of affection in a degrading world. Blixen’s story must have instantly appealed to Welles, a work treading the edges of what we know call meta-fiction in the way it is both the act and art of storytelling and also a contemplation of these, an inward-folding story about stories, about how they mimic and make life sometimes, formed as they as a mimesis from the stuff of life both waking and dreamt.

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Welles approached it with a cinema raconteur’s own understanding, turning it in part into a mystical burlesque on the arts of the director, a Promethean act that give strange semblance of life to fictions. At the same time it’s a bite back at the forces that had harried Welles and constantly thwarted his creativity in the medium that suited him best, however much it might have frustrated him. The protagonist of his testimonial work is the sort of figure Welles visited again and again, a man of great power enthroned in his Xanadu, but stripped of the fascinating qualities and fluid natures that made earlier variations on this figure, like Charles Foster Kane, George Amberson Minafer, and Gregory Arkadin something like tragic figures, or at the very least charming devils. Here the tycoon figure is Mr Clay, an American businessman who has made his fortune in Macao and now resides in a house built for his former business partner, a man named Ducrot. Clay lives entirely alone apart from employees, and now that’s he’s dogged by gout and ill health at the age of 70, all Clay does now is sit around whilst his sallow and shy clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads him old ledger books.

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One night, when Levinsky realise he’s read the same ledger to Clay before, the ponderous old businessman suggests Levinsky find some other sort of material to read. The clerk immediately learns the problem with this suggestion: Clay despises any sort of fiction or material that does not relate to immediate matters of sense and profit. He reads Clay a scroll containing words of the Prophet Isaiah, given to him by fellows Jews when they were being chased out of Poland by a pogrom, but clay irritably dismisses “prophesies.” Instead, he begins to narrate a story he heard on his one voyage, the one that brought him from America to Macao: the tale of a young sailor once picked up off the beach by a rich but decrepit old man, with the offer of money if he’ll spend the night with the rich man’s much younger wife on the chance it will provide him with an heir. Levinsky shocks Clay when he finishes the story for him, before patiently explaining he heard the same tale, only from four different mouths on four different voyages, a commonplace fantasy with strictly delineated rules and form and courses of events. Clay is infuriated to learn that he’s been taken in by an untrue tale, and his immediate solution to his vexation is to make the story take place. Obviously cast by providence for the role of rich man, he tasks Levinsky with finding someone to play his young wife, before they then head out to locate a real sailor who, when presented the same apparent facts necessary to the story’s essential form, will then be able to recount it as true history.

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From its opening images of Macao’s streets, through which Erik Satie’s piano music echoes in ghostly strains, The Immortal Story wields a strange effect, like a tale told underwater, submerged and echoic, as if being remembered and experienced all at once. Welles manages this feeling of dialogue between hazily remembered past and equally hazy present without need for the elaborate mechanisms of flashback and framework he had utilised on Citizen Kane, instead conveying his disorientating mood through the gently insistent music and the concise yet elusive flow of his images. Welles, who amongst his many gifts was also an enthusiastic magician, dressed up areas in and around Madrid, where he was living at the time, and staged The Immortal Story as an elaborate conjuring act, a visitation to a time and place both authentic and legendary. In The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Welles’s Irish sailor hero had referred to Macao as the wickedest city in the world, an idea The Immortal Story revisits as if with a mind to explaining the comment, identifying the island city as a place between places, a locale of veritable myth where old forces still reign, and the wickedness he had in mind was not so much one of petty vices so much as the possibility of calamitous gluttony of the spirit too often mistaken for success and power. Welles had always balanced schismatic sensibilities within his increasingly great girth, the brash American who kept all the world’s culture at his fingertips, a leftist artist who found himself utterly transfixed by spectacles of power and greed and offered half-willing empathy for men caught out of time, dreaming of vanished romantic and hierarchical pasts.

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The longing for the past and the unbearable state of the present defines the collective of exiles who play out the tale – the Chinese citizens of the city are glimpsed only as servants and street faces, the appeal of colonialism for those who practice it seen as the chance to become petty emperors. Only Clay has no apparent nostalgia, but he ironically is in complete stasis. Only the triumphs and losses of the past, recorded and described through cold lines of numbers, have any meaning to him. The house he inhabits, intended as a home for a family, is a captured castle. Clay purposefully bankrupted and destroyed Ducrot in the course of his business dealings, purely to lay waste to just another rival. Ducrot, before killing himself, set to work on the house with the nihilistic ferocity of a biblical patriarch, removing every feature and piece of furniture save mirrors affixed to the walls, to reflect Clay’s monstrousness back at him in occupying the mansion, the familial happiness they had once reflected left as corrosive background radiation. The legend of the house is reported by a random onlooker in the street (Fernando Rey), to other men like him, a revisit to the chorus-like groups who flock in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to contemplate the heroes and villains of their time. Kane, as he had surrendered to the gravity of his own fatuousness, had like Clay become cocooned by similarly yawning spaces and mocking, infinitely self-perpetuating mirror images, but unlike Kane Clay never seems to have fought the temptation, who seems a psychopath who kills and orders with money rather than knives.

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Certainly Clay seems indifferent to all symbolic curses, and probably unaware of them. Levinsky, coolly described at one point as “another Wandering Jew,” has memories of being flung out of his homeland and now wants nothing more than to entirely retreat from the world without the pressure of having to speak to another soul. In this regard Clay suits him as a boss perfectly, but his new assignment pushes even the most detached yes-man to think Clay is about to commit such an act of hubris it will destroy him. Nonetheless he sets out to be play casting agent for Clay’s opus, nominating for the role of young wife the not-so-young Virginie (Moreau), the mistress of another one of Clay’s employees. Levinsky soon finds he’s accidentally stumbled upon a far more perfect actor in this farce than he thought at first, as Virginie reveals to him, after initially flinching in offence at his job offer, that she was Ducrot’s daughter. Her father had made her vow never to set eyes upon Clay or enter their stolen home, and when she realises that’s exactly what Levinsky wants her to do she slaps him and walks away. Nonetheless Levinsky convinces her to break the vow in the hope of regaining something like her former station with her pay.

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Levinsky’s courtship of Virginie for her ready-made role takes up much of the film’s first half, a study of personalities at once tellingly similar and fascinatingly oblique. Both are people thrust far out of their original lives, subsisting in cheap rented rooms. But whereas Levinksy’s space is absent personal details in his desire to erased from the eyes of men, Virginie’s is an islet of tatty splendour, where a photo of the Empress Eugenie fills in for her own lost and fondly imagined mother. Clay’s house, her father’s construction, stands taunting amidst its splendid grounds on the far side of town, a lost inheritance like the Amberson mansion. Virginie recounts with bitter sarcasm the myths of her childhood as her father had raised her on promises she would become a great lady and equal of royalty, as she now subsists as kept woman in a city utterly indifferent to her fate. Virginie is the ultimate nexus of so many of Welles’ obsessions. Like Bernstein in Citizen Kane, she’s a person haplessly locked into reminiscing on a past idyll (whilst Levinsky resembles Bernstein as dwarfed yet oddly happy toady). Like the Ambersons, she’s toppled royalty, doomed to forever to wander darkening, spreading streets of alien cities. She’s Tanya, the wearied sortilege of Touch of Evil, given backstory. She’s Duncan and Prince Hal, the avenger of her breed.

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Moreau had never exactly been an ingénue in cinema, having made her name on the stage for the Comédie-Française, and she was thirty when she became a movie star proper, in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), fully-formed as, at once, muse of filmmakers and entity existing within and slightly apart from their labours, flicking the odd dubious gaze at the cage of fantasies about her. This late-to-the-party quality was part of her unique allure. She inhabited the post-war French spirit expertly – glamorous but kicked around a little, gnawed at by subtle but constant discontents. She stood between the plebeian, insolent humour and knowing cosmopolitan scepticism of her predecessor as queen of French film, Arletty, with a more open sensuality and a wince about her large, urgently expressive eyes, conveying wary, wounded gravitas and fathomless soul, and the blank jet-set chic of Catherine Deneuve. Moreau wandered further from home more often than either. She was existential adventurer for Malle, Tony Richardson’s embodiment of the cauldron of the irrepressible, a brittle and raw-nerved exemplar of the occupied era for John Frankenheimer in The Train (1965), the symbol of culture bowing before industry in Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), and, eventually, a director herself of personally-inflected, self-reflexive dramas like Lumiere (1979). Her most famous role as the mercurial, waywardly sensuous yet insubstantial Catherine in Jules et Jim (1962) for Francois Truffaut had nonetheless not been a typical part for her. Moreau’s provocative wit and air of louche desire were earthier, and yet somewhere in there was a wounded nymph. She is both spirit of air and creature of earth in The Immortal Story, wafting into frame swathed in tight white clothes like a breeze through a window curtain, in shots filmed by cinematographer Willy Kurant with sunlight deliriously bright on her white clothes, confronted by Levinsky in his black top coat, butterfly and beetle dancing through the stony old streets that have shrugged at a thousand such dramas.

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Virginie’s face itself is a map of crushed dreams and loss borne and partly masked for the needs of survival. Like an actress, Virginie is in the business of looking perpetually youthful under powder and rouge. Levinsky’s smooth, wan, untroubled visage contrasts her vividly, detached from all apparent care, in conviction of its hopelessness. Virginie finds him impossible to shame as he asks her to do the most shameful things. The peculiar atmosphere imbued by the Spanish locales dressed to look like a never-never Chinese shore exacerbate the sensation of peculiar linkage to Sergio Leone’s westerns. Although in story and style it’s hard to think of more diverse creations, nonetheless like Leone Welles here grasps for a world on the fringe of the memory, the tattered fever dream of a genteel age, the last echoes of the Gilded Age and the belle époque, eras to which Welles so often looked in pining. Another peculiar similarity is with Italian gothic maestro Mario Bava – the haunted, shattered streets of Macao, the tatty remnants of nobility and caverns of monstrous egotism, as well as Welles’ evocative colour palette, call to mind Bava’s labours on works like I Tre Volti della Paura (1963) and Operazione Paura (1966). Like Bava, if in less overtly supernatural and generic terms, Welles tells tales of people caught in traps of time and memory. Welles’ meteoric ascent as a youth had been the partial result of essentially losing his family at an early age, his brilliant inventor father ruined by alcoholism and his mother dying when he was nine, and even from Citizen Kane onwards it obvious that as the avatar of mercurial youth Welles was constantly looking over his shoulder at the past. Here he cast himself ironically as the embodiment of all forces that rob people of their own innocence, whilst Virginie is the robbed. She sits down with tarot cards, trying to divine the future, but as Levinsky promises, as far as she and anyone else in Macao is concerned, there’s only one deity to pay homage to and look for favour from. Her self-consciousness over her inability to fit the role of young and virginal bride proves a strange felicity for the project; the same act of arch make-belief will transform her for the part.

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One defining characteristic of Welles’ cinema until his last few works was his brusque indifference to the usual niceties of pacing and parsing of effects found in Hollywood film. His films come on instead as delirious visual ballets where the images and sounds often seem to be battling like horses in a race to beat each-other to the finish line. His first two Shakespeare adaptations, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), are both dazzling and jarring for precisely this quality of discord between the experience of listening and that of seeing, vision always winning out except when Welles purposefully reduced all vision to rippling mist for the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech in Macbeth. The vertiginous effect of Welles’ cinema was sometimes enforced by the catch-as-catch-can manner in which some of them, like Othello, were shot and patched together like action collages. This is part of their great and eccentric worth, of course, but also readily explains why Welles was constantly frustrated in his efforts to regain his standing – they’re works that refuse to wait for the slow kids to catch up. By the time of Chimes of Midnight however his temperament was cooling noticeably and The Immortal Story sees balance restored, to the point where it fits a cliché, as an aged master’s melancholy and contemplative summative work. Indeed, it might well be the most perfect example of it in cinema. There’s a deceptive aspect to this, of course. The Immortal Story marches along with a deft and precise sense of image flow allowed by the story’s thrust and the brief running time that requires no padding or subplots, an aspect that allows the simplicity of the plot to retain its quality of subtraction and abstraction.

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The Immortal Story was also Welles’ first work in colour. Welles had disdained colour in the past, arguing it took something away from performances, and besides, his filmmaking style was based in the expressionist model of cinema, a style etched in the stern, textured yet authoritative monochrome. To think of Welles’ cinema in general is usually to envision works filled with riotous configurations of chiaroscuro light and dark, alternating looming, carved faces and environs turned into cavernous dreamscapes. And yet the use of colour in The Immortal Story has a care to it that ironically makes a superlative case for colour as a medium, sometimes desaturated to a nearly monochrome degree, but at other times lacing the images think as perfume. Scenes in Virginie’s apartment offer a space where shades of amber yellow, saturated red, and sickly green battle with corners of darkness, suggesting her attempts to maintain a fecund little bole of private subsistence turning fetid and corrupt. These scenes contrast the later consummation of the project as Virginie assembles herself and her settings to create a florid and rapturous space amidst glass and gilt, flowers and gauze, perfect cradle for a virginal bride, ironically in what surely was once her bedroom and potentially the actual scenes of such nuptials, deep within Clay’s mansion. Exteriors are largely bled of colour, save the bold hues of bill posters and signs covered in ideograms, as the outdoors areas here are arenas where people are exposed and preyed upon.

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Many of Welles’ shots obtain a virtually diagrammatic simplicity and implicit meaning, in a manner aptly reminiscent of Chinese scroll painting. Barred gates seal off the levels of admittance to Clay’s imperious, solitary grandeur, through which Virginie peers from far off and Levinsky much closer but just as alien from the centre of worldly motive and theistic power. Perhaps the film’s wittiest and most crucial shot comes when Kurant pans up from the tarot cards Virginie urgently lays out, urgently looking for a future, to the sight of Levinsky watching her from the square below, standing stark upon the pale, dusty earth, the bringer of that future in sleazy, inescapable garb. Levinsky walks through deserted streets like the last man on earth, a carrier of scraps of the Torah into distant lands and the deaf ears of gnome kings. Later Levinsky finds for Clay the last player in his gruesome play, a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul, his clothes bedraggled and filthy and his hair bleached by salt and sun, is only too perfect a heroic young ingenue, who’s not only beached and broke but has just been rescued after spending months alone on a remote island, where he was stranded after his ship sank. Paul is a romantic and quixotic figure, spreading out the collection of shells he accumulated on the island before Clay’s feet as if it’s a sprawl of treasure greater than anything Clay has, and quite obviously it is, a trove harvested from nature, each item invested with totemic lustre. Paul, like any good member of the audience, quickly begins to deduce the story he’s faced with here, and starts to walk out the door, only for Clay to draw him back with the same method, more bluntly delivered, his underling used: fulfil my dream and the wage will buy yours.

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It’s hard to remember that Welles was still only 54 when he made The Immortal Story. Life was starting to catch up with the version of himself he often constructed, ageing, grizzled, corpulent, a figure not of youthful bravura but premature worldliness. The caricature then rapidly encasing Welles cast him as a once-great figure too easily seduced now by fine things, immobilised by indulging incidental splendours, and the part of Clay stoops to make use of the image. Welles’ heavy make-up turns Clay’s American visage into a Noh mask, fierce but rigid and somnolent, as if Clay is fossilising by the minute. Casting himself as the manipulative “director” of events, imposing his lurid fantasies on actors only to leave himself calcified and impotent, seems all too apt a self-burlesque. But of course, just as Welles could make a movie like this and then come back a few years later with a work as effortlessly energetic and spry as F For Fake, Welles refuses to be just one thing. And here he stands behind all the characters at hand. He is as much hurt and dreaming Virginie and Paul laying out his glistening baubles before disinterested pragmatists and philistines and Levinsky hoping for an escape from expectation, as he is mouldering puppeteer. It’s hard to escape the feeling Welles ultimately agrees with Clay in thesis if not intention, that to make a film is crudely and hubristically turn imagining into crude form of reality, a reality created by the actors inhabiting roles and a mastermind orchestrating events, in defiance of nature and obedience instead to the fancies of the mind, a recourse for artists who engage in cinema as in no other. Harry Cohn had once purportedly been furious with Welles for marrying Rita Hayworth on the grounds he wasn’t good-looking enough to be paired with the woman he set up as fertility idol for all. Welles knew what it was like to be miscast in life. Clay is imposer and mediator of fantasies, mogul rather than the artist, constructor of weary pornographies, an appetite that enervates in being satisfied.

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And yet Welles had made the careers of many actors he’d worked with over the years, and likewise Clay’s conjuration ironically gives his actors a chance to become better versions of themselves. Virginie and Paul, thanks to a few hazy drapes and smoking candles and aspects of frustrated desire within themselves, readily become the heroes out of fable they’ve been appointed to play. Welles finds not falsity but truth in the night Virginie and Paul spend together, after the young sailor uneasily treads into her bedroom, glimpsed through veils that soften the hard edges of Virginie’s face. Welles makes a splendid miniature rhapsody just before this, out of the simple act of Virginie stripping naked and blowing out candles, the cutting suddenly turning fast, the framings pressing in but the images becoming vaguer and softer, the act of setting the stage a transformative moment, replete with magical inferences. Virginie’s nakedness is of course also Moreau’s, and there are few moments where any actor seems as utterly exposed and vulnerable as Moreau does as the moment of performative truth approaches. And yet Moreau pulls off the ultimate conjuration that even Welles can’t contrive: she becomes a woman ageing in reverse, rediscovering the blanched and virginal girl of the story. Is The Immortal Story perhaps in part an exploration for Welles as to what is preferable, the lordly art of directing or the intimate and protean one of acting? It seems his answer is acting, all the way.

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Virginie rattles the seemingly unshameable Levinsky when she starts to strip down before them, kicking off a tantalisingly erotic sequence in which the clerk hovers at the door to her bedroom set, the clerk’s own deeply suppressed and eternally disappointed erotic side stirred – after all, did he not cast her for his desire for her? – but also merging with hers as she stands on the other side of the door, the two of them commingling in the half-dark. In such moments Levinsky seems much more the director, symbiotic creature with his actor, collaborating to remake the world. Levinsky’s plots the play out with meticulous detail because he half-hopes, half-fears it will bring about Clay’s downfall, the grotesque old tyrant a force of gravity that, like it or not, makes everything else happen. Part of the immortality of a story lies in its inevitability – Achilles will always kill Hector, Macbeth will always grasp his fate and fall victim to it, Lizzie Bennett will always marry Mr Darcy, Superman will escape the kryptonite and keep hope alive – in a way that defies the obsession today with “spoilers” and the illusion of novelty, for it is precisely the moments that are not surprises, the pieces that click into place with most telling finality, that strike with most profundity. The Immortal Story plays out in perfect obedience to the precepts of the story Clay lays down, but in dimensions beyond what he saw. The young enact the basic business of the young to replenish the well, allowing the old to die. It’s immortal because it happens over and over again, even without Clay’s postures of godlike design, because the names of the parts imposed upon the story are mere guises in themselves, for the role of youth and age, death and birth.

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Levinsky sees a flash of the divine in the events that unfold, theorising that possibly Isaiah strikes down Clay for failing to heed his prophecy. The difference between myth, even religion, and mere story lies in there somewhere, in the aspect of the inevitable, the pattern that returns inexorably to its starting point. Either way, the aftermath of the night of magic is the fresh dawn where mist rises amidst parkland trees, the fleeting lovers kiss and part, and the triumphant tycoon savours his victory and then expires. The mood of morning is quietly ecstatic and expectant: lives have been renewed, connections made, will reclaimed. Paul presents Clay with a shell to give to Virginie, unaware the man is dead, a trinket of rubbish that carries the music of the sea with it, retrieved by Levinsky as he settles to down before Clay’s cold bulk to contemplate the meaning of it all. “It’s very hard on people to want something so badly,” he murmurs, considering Clay’s success: “If they can’t get it, it’s hard, and if they do get it, it’s even harder yet.” It’s a line that echoes one in in Citizen Kane, just as the dropped shell recalls the snow globe in that film: “If I hadn’t been really rich, I might have been a really great man.” There’s a basic contradiction torturing us all, Welles so often inferred, that to achieve and gain is a basic drive of life but also a bane, for to gain too much is to lose what drives. For Welles, and for any artist truthfully, perhaps even any human, it is only the struggle, the act of becoming, the always doomed but ever-perpetuating state, that has reality.

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1970s, Erotic, Experimental

Pink Narcissus (1971)

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The Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2017

Director/Screenwriter: James Bidgood

By Roderick Heath

Pink Narcissus is a relic of cinema that has journeyed from virtual oblivion to belated appreciation in a corner of the cinematic world that long hungered for elders to respect. The story of how it came to be unearthed and its worth today is bound up in who made it and why. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, James Bidgood arrived in New York in the early 1950s aged 17. Like many young gay men then and now, self-described farm boy Bidgood was surely on the search for a tenable existence and a community, and he carved out his place in the city’s queer underground as a drag queen and night club dancer. He found commercial success as a dress designer prized for his opulent debutante apparel, as a window dresser, and as a photographer. This last passion became increasingly compelling to Bidgood, and through the 1960s his homoerotic studies were popular in the “physique” magazines that allowed a little soft-core gazing to gay readers; at a time when most of their pictures were flat and trite, Bidgood gained attention by bringing his decorative and compositional gifts to bear. Bidgood sarcastically referred to his Hell’s Kitchen apartment as Les Folies Des Hommes, in tribute to the Folies Bergeres, as that tiny abode doubled as his studio and theatre of creation, and he soon started using it as a pseudonym when publishing his photos. Soon Bidgood began trying to make a movie, shooting entirely within his apartment confines. Bidgood’s partner of the time, Bobby Kendall, a former hustler, became the epicentre of his attempts to inscribe in pure cinematic terms an obsessive fascination with his lover’s body and, beyond that, to create a total work dedicated to celebrating his aesthetic fetishes, in a film encapsulating a series of fantasy sequences built around what Bidgood himself described happily as “gay whack-off fantasies.”
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Bidgood worked on the film off and on for about seven years, eventually spending about $27,000 on the project. He utilised friends and acquaintances as actors, including Charles Ludlam, who had founded the landmark avant-garde “Theatre of the Ridiculous” movement, which has been credited with a powerful influence on later expressions of camp aesthetics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The time it took Bidgood to finish his dialogue-free, highly experimental movie testified to his fastidious dedication and creative verve, but also foiled what ambitions he harboured for the result. By the early 1970s, following the Stonewall riots and the explosion of the new liberationist era, gay culture was just starting to claw its way to the surface of modern life whilst also developing a taste for more direct and hard-edged self-portraiture. If Bidgood’s film had come out a couple of years earlier, it might have seemed radically frank and a pivotal artwork. Instead, it was dismissed as a kitschy, already dated hunk of amateur showmanship. Bidgood’s obsessive points of reference, encompassing a brand of lush, artificial expressiveness beloved of vintage camp enthusiasts including old Hollywood fantasy films featuring the likes of Maria Montez, belonged to a mode then falling out of favour. Not helping matters was the decision by Bidgood’s distributors, who, having invested money in his never-ending project, eventually decided to finish the editing and release it without his permission. In retaliation and fond hope, Bidgood took his name off the film, on the off chance this might lend it an inscrutable aura on the underground movie circuit. He was right, as the film did begin to slowly accrue a cult following, and many fans theorised its director might be Andy Warhol. Over the next few decades Pink Narcissus had occasional revivals, but it wasn’t until the writer, and fan of the film, Bruce Benderson set out to finally solve the riddle of its creator that the link was made between the movie and Bidgood.
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The sheer level of craft and ingenuity often on display in Pink Narcissus for a work made in such conditions is worthy of admiration purely in itself, but the real quality of delirious artistry Bidgood achieved is quickly evinced even in his opening shot, with his camera tracking through dense, obviously fake jungle. The full moon shines through the leaves, orchids bloom at night, and a butterfly emerges from chrysalis. All is touched with a quality of hand-made magic thanks to Bidgood’s reverence for a certain brand of artificial yet pellucid beauty and mystique, and his utilisation of basic yet difficult cinematic effects like stop-motion animation. Pink Narcissus wears some of its inspiration in its title, a twist on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946), as Powell’s films were a potent influence on Bidgood’s ardour for intense colour and drenched optical effects, and their method of bending established melodramatic narratives and exotic trappings to their own purposes. Pink Narcissus’ title is also a statement of plain subject, as Kendall’s central character is presented as both a love object and a narcissist, captured in all his self-love, which is also the love of the camera-filmmaker. The story, such as it is, finds Kendall’s young and insouciant male prostitute, referred to as Pan by most reviewers because he’s first glimpsed dressed up like that god of nature, lounging around an apartment presumably paid for by his sugar daddy, who occasionally phones up to make sure he’s there. Pan seems to leave the apartment for a quick adventure, or perhaps only remembers doing so. He finds it in a tryst with a leather-clad biker in a toilet block. Back in the apartment, Pan idly masturbates whilst ranging through a series of fantasies in his head, including being served up as a dessert at a Roman emperor’s orgy, being the favourite in a Sheikh’s male harem, and escaping into green fields and jungle night.
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Pan’s encounter with the biker is a great example of Bidgood’s fearsome cinematic energy and his will to express erotic furore with unique concision, as Pan dips in and out of fantasy transformations of the event in contrast to the gritty immediacy of actually getting a blow job from some random dude in a toilet. He sees himself as a matador, waving his red cape for the biker riding his motorcycle who transmogrifies into a very horny bull. Bidgood puts across the idea of fellatio without quite showing it as the biker, mouth welded to Pan’s crotch, is submerged in a bath of foaming water, filmed in orgasmic slow-motion, sexual thrill rendered as amniotic immersion and painted over with jets of ejaculate-mimicking soap foam. Pan’s nasty streak emerges as the encounter turns violent: he knocks the other man to the ground and enjoys the sight of him squirming in both pain and auto-erotic pleasure. Pink Narcissus reveals itself at such moments to be about the very urge that drives Bidgood’s filmmaking, the tension between a sordid reality and a transformative vision that can constantly remake that reality in an ever-shifting series of guises. Artifice isn’t just a method but the essence of the work, as Bidgood painstakingly creates a series of little worlds, totally invented zones of being and imagining where caprices cordoned off from the main flow of life can bloom in private domain.
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Not that the fantasies are esoteric. Indeed, most have easy analogues with common straight fantasies, particularly that of the harem. But that passage appropriates the oh-so-common dancing girl scene of historical epics and disposes of the barrier of enjoyment so many gay fans found in such movies. Indeed, the commonality of the fantasies here seems very much part of the point Bidgood was trying to make, to synthesise a clear and recognisable shared ground, trying to map out the coasts of a hitherto largely uncharted continent. Pan exists as male houri kept around purely for convenient moments of sexual pleasure. His is a little uterine world of pinks and reds, gilt frames and mirrors where his own image lurks like some wistful spirit fascinated in his person looking in from a more real world as he lounges through the day. Pan is a satire-cum-inverted celebration of the great cliché of Orientalist art, the lounging odalisque – a figure embodying all voluptuous sensual potential happy enough to exist purely for that end and frustrated only when they cannot indulge it. This lineage is also clear in the harem sequence, where Pan and his master and fellow slaves watch a male belly dancer, whose shimmying fills the screen in images layered one upon the other, his penis shaking like a fire hose under diaphanous silk. Bidgood’s frank enjoyment of eroticising the male body – or to put that another way, his delight in great butts – is in constant evidence throughout, as Pan’s mental peregrinations drag him through various settings replete with fantasies of sexual wealth. But he’s also subject to another pull, away from other people, to imagined scenes of lounging in fields and forests, jerking off on the grass and inseminating the earth.
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Pink Narcissus betrays evident influences, or at least precursors, from the history of experimental and underground film added to the stew of images harvested from popular cinema. There’s a similarity to Joseph Cornell’s fetishistic appropriation of Hollywood image-making and two-bit exotica, Rose Hobart (1936). Kenneth Anger’s imprint is powerful throughout, in the use of double exposures for dense and oneiric incantation: the shots of the mystic moon strongly recall those in Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon (1950) and the belly-dance, with its hallucinatory historical kitsch and double-exposed images, is reminiscent of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Equally Anger-like is the employment of music, ranging from surges of high-romantic classical music to harvested movie scores to electronica-tinged avant garde racket. When Bidgood makes occasional forays into the world outside Pan’s apartment, he does so only with extremely stylised models and sets that hark back to silent Expressionist cinema. The imprint of Powell and Pressburger lurches to the fore again as Bidgood’s use of highly stylised, purposefully theatrical approximations of reality often resemble those found in the grand ballet sequence of The Red Shoes (1948), all painted imps and cardboard sets. When his camera drifts out the window to survey the city night, Bidgood fills the soundtrack with audio harvested from radio and television, sarcastically portraying that world outside Pan’s onanistic bubble as one of droning advertisements and flim-flam – in short, another bubble contained by infinitely less personal yet equally masturbatory aesthetics than those exhibited in Pan’s existence. Bidgood relishes not just the garishly colourful reaches of Pan’s room but also the grimy fecundity of such sights as graffiti decorating the men’s room wall, and the litter collected in a urinal rises on the swirl of flowing water and urine filmed the way other directors might survey some deep space nebula.
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Pan, true to his name, repeatedly leaves behind his invented lovers and overlords for wandering in forests and lounging on hillsides, escaping into nature, although even that can be feverishly eroticised, as when he gets caught up in reeds that he finds he has to please in a phallic manner, whilst drenching rain falls on him. At other points, Pan lies on a grassy patch of ground, playing with the butterfly seen hatching at the start, an emblem of furtive sexuality itself, in a state of constantly becoming. Pan’s connection with nature suggests a part of Bidgood’s mind pining for the lazy sensuality and beauty of a boyhood on the farm, caressing himself all over with a blade of grass in shots where Bidgood renders Kendall’s nipples or navel as universes in themselves, which indeed they can be on such a sensual, nerve-sense level. In actuality, Pan tries to match the imagined/remembered sensation by pouring champagne on himself. Bidgood’s camera strives to record sensuality in such moments on an intimately physical level, communing with his audience through sense-memory stirred by vision: it’s hard to think of more intensely sensual moments in cinema. Bidgood’s hunt for such electric visual similes for sensatory experience also sees a bundle of pearl necklaces caressed in phallic manner during the belly dance scene. This image leads to a climax, in both sense of the word, for the sequence when Pan’s sadistically stoked excitement demands the belly dancer be executed by the Sheikh’s bodyguards. The dancer is hacked down with scimitars, whereupon Bidgood fills the screen with a colossal penis jutting at the camera, squirting spunk both real and gleefully animated in pearl-like globules shooting through the air.
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Bidgood’s confrontational streak is gleefully unleashed here, depicting ejaculation as the natural end of all these pictured labours, a fillip of hardcore footage offered not as mere punctuation for the sex act as in pornography but as a totemic event. The way Pink Narcissus proceeds from primly hiding away shots of genitalia to scenes in which extras stand around with their dicks out and increasingly direct sexual expression like this offers a telling incidental depiction of Bidgood responding to the loosening sense of what he could get away with during the laborious process of making the film. When Pan comes, he comes all over the presumed viewers, implicating all in the spectacular pleasure but also examining its strangeness, a wild, flowing vision of galactic panspermia. The death of the belly dancer, as in a slasher horror film, suggests the act of climax can only be matched and correlated in the remoteness of cinema with the spectacle of violent death, one form of violation of the body offered in lieu of another; it also a cyclical moment, the touch of Thanatos lending its perpetual spice to the cause of Eros. Although Pink Narcissus becomes increasingly brave in what it shows, it stands aloof from pornography in the sense that it’s a film trying to purvey an aestheticized essence of experience rather than reflect the viewer’s wont back at them. The only scene that actually describes Pan having sex with someone else, the blow job the biker gives Pan, is both cleverly illustrative but discreet in that regard, and this grandiose celebration of coming is as wildly amusing as anything else. No wonder the film failed to go over with the Times Square beat-off crowd.
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Ejaculation might briefly exhaust Pan’s frustrated libido but it also signals a shift in the film into a different realm. An epic, dazzlingly bizarre sequence sees Pan phoned up by his keeper (Ludlam), who is exploring a downtown scene where the flotsam of the city night reel by and rough trade comes out of the woodwork. This sequence is a triumph of Bidgood’s artisanal world-crafting, as he recreates the reaches of downtown Manhattan from its heyday, as glimpsed in movies like Midnight Cowboy (1969), as a place littered with human refuse, reconfigured as a guerrilla theatre playpen. Amidst all the wandering hustlers and cruisers, Pan’s first meeting with his lover is described, an act that Pan is all too aware saved him from selling his body out there. Johns lurk like dapper neo-Bluebeards in their frock coats and bowler hats, satiric visions of classy conformity out seeking their own personal big-dick id-beast for kicks. The prettiness that dominates the rest of the film here is transmuted into a no less aestheticized but far harsher evocativeness. The languorous mood imbued by the orchestral strains on the soundtrack earlier in Pink Narcissus here gives way to spasmodic and grating scoring, approximating the cityscape’s collective nervous system as a schizoid beast. The turn of seasons is noted with cardboard ice, the pavements are haunted by twisted wretches selling flowers and newspapers, and shaggy, filthy wastrels. Rival hustlers try to catch eyes with ploys like pouring mustard on their pricks.
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Pink Narcissus is quite often described simply as a perfect gay fantasia, a luxurious decorative object not unlike its hero. And yet Bidgood’s statement about the lot of queer sexuality in his time deepens and becomes more critical here, setting up a new tension that resolves in a series of brilliantly effective images at the very end of the film. Mutual exploitation is in play here, and Pan’s narcissism is much a rebellion against the exigencies of the situation where he plays love object at the convenience of another man as it is against boredom and solitude. And yet this theme is also eternally subject to Bidgood’s engagement in alternations of exterior admiration and interior imagining, invading the object of gazing with an urgent, ferocious desire to possess the very quality of indifference. Pink Narcissus could be the deepest, most fiendishly obsessive and morbid dive into the essential problem of trying to know the lover in American art since Poe wrote about Morella and Ligeia, and yet its urges run in the opposite direction, away from the grave and towards the explosively sensuous. Bidgood opens up vast yet intelligible schisms between the lives we lead and the ones we imagine, and sees the way the two are rarely easily teased apart, as the acts of imagining, contrasting, masking, and discerning, are deeply enmeshed with all experience. The last phase of Pink Narcissus sees Pan, purified of sexual urge by ejaculation but plunged with new intensity into the wandering through his dream life, traversing formless landscapes, entering the jungle where the vegetation slaps against his body and torrential rain falls upon him, as if the very earth itself is intent on ravishing him, and Pan wants to dissolve into world-spirit, assailed by fluttering petals beating at his body, wandering in floods of hallucinatory colour.
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The knock at the door must come inevitably and drew the stud out of his fantasia. Except that when his lover comes into the apartment, Pan sees him with his own face, simply incorporating him into his fantasy life, contained as another doppelganger. But the infinite mirror is cracked in the end, the screen itself breaking under the strain of such much looking and the young man’s projections can only stretch so far before he too will be an old man buying love. The crack becomes a spider’s web, glistening in the jungle night again, the place where all dreams well and wane. One prominent modern filmmaker who might well have absorbed something of Bidgood’s vision, or at least displays some telling intersection with it, is Nicolas Winding Refn, whose work often feels like it’s taking place in a similarly subliminal realm, particularly his Only God Forgives (2013) and The Neon Demon (2016), similarly exploring environs of clashing, supernaturally rich colour, replete with dangling beads and boles of mysterious and engulfing, eroticised settings, offering up the sign-play of sexuality as a series of masks. As is so often the case, the out-of-time quality that prevented Pink Narcissus from gaining much favour in its day now seems like its greatest quality, the conjuration of the world the mind can contain. Certainly many will still be turned off by Bidgood’s unabashed depictions of gay sexuality, but they’ll only be missing out on a genuinely unique and mesmeric cinematic experience.

Pink Narcissus can be viewed for free on YouTube…

and for a small fee it can also be viewed on the BFI’s Dailymotion site.

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1960s, Auteurs, Erotic, Fantasy, Historical, Italian cinema

Fellini ∙ Satyricon (1969)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.
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Fellini had first moved beyond ’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.
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Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.
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Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.
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Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.
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Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.
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The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.
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Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.
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Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.
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Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.
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And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to ’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.
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Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.
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One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.
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In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.
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The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.
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Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.
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Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence.

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Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.

 

Standard
2000s, Comedy, Erotic, French cinema

How Much Do You Love Me? (2005)

Combien tu m’aimes?

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Director/Screenwriter: Bertrand Blier

The White Elephant Blogathon

By Roderick Heath

Bertrand Blier was for a long time a strong commercial and creative presence in French cinema, thanks to his reputation as a maker of droll, lippy, often outrageous films about that eternal French topic, l’amour. His work evoked prime-era Woody Allen’s fascination for urban manners and morals, but also blended with a delight, reminiscent of Louis Malle and Pedro Almodovar, in officially transgressive but actually commonplace human behaviours. He often took on taboo topics, like an affair between a married woman and teenage boy in his Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978) and a widowed man negotiating his young stepdaughter’s crush on him in Beau Pere (1981). Going Places (1974), depicting a pair of male buddies who share women and go queer with each other when there’s no other recourse, was the cornerstone of his career and the film that made Gérard Depardieu a star. Later, he started to gaze back in at the nature of cinema and audience expectations—expectations he had become famous and feted for meeting. Les Acteurs (2000) sported just about every major French movie actor playing a version of themselves in a game of filtered insider self-regard. How Much Do You Love Me? takes a different tack in turning the sign-play of cinematic genres inside out, but it still certainly represents Blier playing a jolly game with his viewers in a way that recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est une Femme (1961) rather strongly. Although it won the Best Director prize at the Moscow Film Festival, How Much Do You Love Me? was received by many as a severe disappointment, even a disaster, to an extent that almost ended the director’s career: it took Blier five years to make another movie, and I presume therein lies the reason it came my way in this blogathon.

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One of Blier’s recurring topics was the macho bluster of French masculinity constantly found wanting in the face of randy, liberated femininity. Here he partly inverts the theme, as he offers a hero who has been emasculated by life making a play for erotic fulfilment beyond his usual means, a notion usually reserved for Blier’s female characters and eventually asserted here as his heroine makes a similar play to meet him halfway. François Baron (Bernard Campan) is first glimpsed on cold, empty Pigalle streets gazing in on Daniela (Monica Bellucci), a pricey, drop-dead gorgeous Italian courtesan who sits in the window of a hooker bar surrounded by neon light and red velvet. François, a luckless and lovelorn office worker, goes inside and has Daniela sent to his table. He informs her that he has recently won the lottery and has nearly €4 million to waste. He makes her a proposition: he will pay her €100,000 a month to live with him until he’s broke. Daniela accepts with some conditions, including that he’s not allowed to abuse her, and he accompanies her to her apartment where she’ll pack some clothes and belongings. François folds up on the staircase and Daniela calls a doctor. François admits that he has a heart condition, and his organ is being stimulated to a dangerous pace by mere proximity to Daniela. Once ensconced in François’ apartment, Daniela promises to “go slow” with him so as not to kill him, but still operates according to her presumed brief as hired pleasure object, laced with ironic role-playing, as Daniela plays the lusty lady trying to keep her man from going off to work. When she asks what François’ actual profession is, he replies confusedly, “I don’t know. I’m an office worker…I contribute to my country’s economy.” Daniela groans to herself after he leaves, “This will be a barrel of laughs.”

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The opening scenes are reminiscent of Leos Carax’s Lovers on the Pont-Neuf (1991), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), or Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002), films replete with themes and images of romantic-erotic melancholy: François gazing in at Daniela from chill, deserted streets, painted in clashing hues of cold blue and uterine warmth and chic textures; silk stockings and high heels and crisp business suit trousers are isolated in one framing in a synopsis of high-class sex business. But this quickly gives way to broad sexual satire a la Friz Freleng or Frank Tashlin, for example, the latter’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). François’ best friend, similarly weary, middle-aged, clapped-out doctor André Migot (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), keeps tabs on his pal’s state of health with suspiciously cocked brows and eyes all too ready to drift over Daniela’s form. At one point, whilst lecturing Daniela to be careful of François’ ailments, André slips into a near-trance and imagines gripping and caressing her breasts.

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Occasionally, when his characters slip into moments of charged intimacy or act on internal desires, Blier suddenly changes his visual texture, turning low-lit, lushly coloured scenes bright and pastel, as if suddenly swerving into Tim Burton’s celebrations of kitschy nostalgia. Airy opera is suddenly heard on the soundtrack, as if mocking the traditional affectations of European art cinema. How Much Do You Love Me? continues to unfold in this manner, alternating moods and modes of filmmaking even as Blier’s story proceeds in a relatively straightforward, even archetypal manner. The basic plot has evident similarities to Pretty Woman (1990) and Something Wild (1987), but tonally seems at first to be heading into the same territory as Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (2003) and other Frenchified studies in erotic disaffection. Blier doesn’t subvert his film to make it a merely playful lark: How Much Do You Love Me? slips and slides between tones and styles with Brecthian attitude, trying to highlight the way an audience understands a movie through an accumulation of cues, and then suddenly, wilfully changing those cues.

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Dining with the couple after they return from erotic adventures by the North Sea, André interrogates them for exact details of what they’ve been up to that could have upset François’s heart, so they report in detail whilst André tests François’ blood pressure. Finally, André is called to their apartment; he assumes it’s to treat François, but finds upon arriving that Daniela is the one feeling ill. When she slips off her nightgown so he can examine her, André promptly drops dead from a heart attack. André’s sudden demise comes as tragicomic antistrophe after his own peculiar romantic crucifixion has been described: filmed against a blank, grey background addressing the camera as if suddenly segueing into one of Alan Bennett’s talking-head TV plays, he tells François and Daniela about his own girlfriend, a nurse name Gisèle who’s dying of breast cancer. Soon after, Blier reveals André in his apartment speaking to the empty bed that was hers, the indentation of her head still in the pillow. François and Daniela learn at André’s funeral that Gisèle died five years before. François sits in a stunned and saddened contemplation of mortality, bereft of his only friend. Daniela, stirred by the spectacle, strips down in the background and invites him to come take a “trip to Italy.” Blier could well be commenting on his own sense of impending mortality—he was 66 when this was released, the age when death’s impermeable nature often becomes an immediate anxiety to be coped with, and unsurprisingly for a director obsessed with the way sexuality asserts itself against all barriers, the potency of the sex drive becomes the binary opposite and compensating force in the face of decline.

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François blooms with Daniela: Blier offers the image of the man admiring himself in the camera/mirror, alight with sensual satisfaction and renewed vitality. Daniela comes up behind and joining him in a magazine ad pose, asks, “See how beautiful you are with me?” The film veers back to screwball comedy as Blier depicts François at his workplace where his coworkers, fascinated by his changed disposition, gather in a mass at his desk and then follow him back to his apartment to get a gander at his new woman like a comic chorus out of a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges movie. At their mass insistence, François takes them to his place to see Daniela for themselves, only to find she’s left the apartment, and when she doesn’t come back he sinks into a funk. He goes back to the bar where he found her, and sees she’s returned to her old place in the window, looking as disconsolately sphinxlike as she did before. When François confronts her, she tells him there is another man in her life, her pimp Charly (Depardieu), and that he should forget her. A younger prostitute in the bar, Muguet (Sara Forestier), swiftly attaches herself to François when she hears about his fortune and tries to convince him to take her to the Caribbean. Daniela encourages him to do just that, stating, in her forlorn and defeated fashion, “She’s young…she’s not damaged yet. I’m damaged.” François leaves with Muguet and ignores Daniela as she cries out to him from the door of the bar, but he soon returns, his reflection hovering ethereally in the glass of the window, and Daniela leans forward until her image and his conjoin.

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The clean, graceful, occasionally oblique stylistic lustre in which Blier wraps the film pays off in some intensely affecting visualisations like this, and moments of strong pictorial concision recur throughout, with Blier often using his widescreen frame in multiple planes, suggesting unheard conversations and internal sensations as he cuts Bellucci off from her cast mates. Blier’s capacity to consider and render subtle emotions is constantly evident. Such artful crystallisations sit at odds with the overall tenor of the film, with its skitlike segues and narrative self-sabotage; the more traditional method seems to sit far better with Blier’s abilities than his gestures toward Godardian deconstruction. Yet the messiness of form and intent is part of the charge of weird élan I got from the project as a whole, which finds Blier anything but lazy or clapped out. Blier melds familiar, simple narrative precepts and sentimental characterisations—the put-upon man rejuvenated by the love of a woman who would usually seem beyond his reach and the whore redeemed by a good lover. The very familiarity of these essentials seems to intrigue Blier. At times he wavers toward the almost spiritual aura of Frank Borzage or the classic French poetic realists, filmmakers who often told such tales, and the piss-elegant, ultra-refined late work of Claude Sautet, whose A Heart in Winter (1992) and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1996) defined a certain internationally held ideal of what sophisticated French filmmaking should look and sound like. But then he swings back to sex farce and on into New Wave-esque modal games. How Much Do You Love Me? is at once intensely romantic and deeply sarcastic, and Blier seems to be trying to say something about himself and his own sensibility as much as he commenting on genre conventions. It’s possible that Blier, who had been a risk-taker in the ’70s but had become a respectable, well-liked mainstream artist by the time he made this, wanted to regain a cutting-edge lustre by borrowing the work-in-progress fragmentation of something like Charlie Kauffman’s script for Adaptation. (2002). But his guiding idea here seems closer to what fired much of Luis Buñuel’s filmmaking: just as the protean force of human need and affection bends people out of shape, Blier tries to capture that same lawlessness in the very texture of his cinema.

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The cast expertly bridges the chasm of conceptualism. Bellucci, in particular, plays both the walking sex-ed film and the anguished, fracturing demimondaine, rendering both coherent facets of the same persona, her moony beauty a canvas of dexterity, whilst Depardieu is characteristically excellent, spitting out Blier’s rapid-fire lines with wicked force. The notion that matters of sexuality have long been subsumed into a capitalist hierarchy, with female attractiveness mere coin of the realm, is not a new one. Blier’s basic story conceit could be a metaphor for everyday exchanges, the male anxiety that they must busily construct a nest of prosperity to attract and keep a desirable mate, with the added dimension of aspiration fostered in a world filled with celebrity constructs that stir a constant sense of dissatisfaction with the everyday. Either way, the film is built around Bellucci in the same way La Dolce Vita (1960) revolved around Anita Ekberg, not only capturing her physical beauty, but also making it the very linchpin of all this business, presenting her as the essence of desirable femininity. Blier wrote the film specifically with Bellucci in mind, and Blier’s “prostitute” could be relabelled “movie star” and make nearly the same point, as sexuality is commodified and used to entice and frustrate the audience.

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But what does desirable femininity desire? As How Much Do You Love Me? unfolds, it shifts from being François’ tale to Daniela’s, explicating her transfer of allegiance to François. When Daniela returns to his apartment after their encounter at the bar, it’s with a new understanding, but Daniela’s noisy love-making brings down the ire of François’ neighbour (Farida Rahouadj), a book translator, who bangs on their door and angrily suggests any woman making such a racket in the sack must be faking it. François has to hold Daniela from attacking the translator in anger, during a funny scene where the two trade insults based on their mutual lustiness (“I’m from the south!” “I’m from even farther south!”) and the translator recreates her own “earthquake” orgasms. François subsequently confronts Daniela and tells her to stop faking.

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Problem is, once Daniela turns off her practiced act, she can’t turn it back on again when Charly reclaims her. Charly, who also proves to be her husband as well as pimp, visits François’ apartment along with two goons and tells François he should make him an offer, like handing over all of his lottery winnings, if he wants to keep Daniela. Charly is “a man who counts” in François’ parlance—a rich and powerful person, not to mention a scary one, except that he constantly needs to assert his aptness for the role he plays as bringer of bad tidings. “I’m a bad man,” he tells François, and, with his heavy physical presence and clipped, businesslike manner, drops hints about the Sadean extremes he can he go to; he starts to tell a story involving his last, unfaithful girlfriend and some rats that drives Daniela, who’s already heard the tale, to demand he stop talking, frantic with anxious loathing. Charly himself is as utterly defeated by his affection for Daniela as the other men. François seems to choose his money over Daniela, telling Charly he’ll buy a house in Provence instead, an idea Charly likes, too (and suggesting an in-joke aimed at Depardieu’s role in Jean de Florette, 1986), and Daniela leaves quietly with the gangster. Blier dissects another fond pop culture canard here, the image of the gangster as sexually potent overlord: in spite of his imperious posturing, Charly is actually a terrible lay, and as lovelorn in his way as François ever was. With Daniela returned to his swank apartment, and after he escorts her into his private bedroom and instructs her to “make it a boudoir,” Charly has sex with her, but his own sensuality-free humping style pathetically fails to revive Daniela’s professional courtesy. She describes François as having “grazed” her, and reflects that he did the greatest thing a woman in her profession could imagine: “He gave me back my modesty.”

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Charly is so confounded by such statements that first he ushers his goons in to entertain themselves with her, but then shepherds them out again when she screams, “Try to understand instead of playing Godfather— can’t you see I’m losing it?” and he realises what he’s up against: the same force of unruly human will to which he is equally subject. So Charly lets her make up her own mind in a fit of “generosity” whilst warning “it won’t last.” Daniela is free, but when she returns to her new home, she finds François already rutting furiously with the translator. Having unleashed the great lover in François, now he’s become community property just like her (“We’re just being neighbourly.”). Daniela orders him to take a shower and wash off her smell, reclaiming him. But François has one more curve ball to throw at her, revealing that he never actually won the lottery and has simply been using his wages to pass momentarily as a high-roller, never imagining things would play out as they had—he couldn’t have bought Daniela off Charly even if he wanted to. François can barely even keep a straight face as he admits this, knowing it makes no difference between them now anyway, even as Daniela accosts him in anger. He’s right. The couple spend two weeks locked up in the apartment making love until finally François’ coworkers show up at the door, wondering what’s happened to him. Finding him fortified in his pleasure, they invade his apartment at Daniela’s urging and start an impromptu house party.

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This party forms the last chapter of Blier’s creation, and here he veers even more wildly between attitudes as he ends the film four or five different ways according to the viewpoints of different characters. At first, Blier seems to commit the film to the realm of joie de vivre comedy, as Daniela dances in her newly liberated happiness. She’s even delighted by François scuffling with his ogling pals in defending her honour even though she’s happy to acknowledge what they already know, that she’s a prostitute, because it’s all so utterly normal. And yet the line, “Beware of parties, they often end in tears” drops from a character’s lips. François has already signed off without concern to her state and the idea that she might still retain her wantonness. Charly turns up halfway through the party to sink into a chair and gaze wistfully at Daniela, and the translator slips in amongst the dancers, immediately gathering all of the unattached males close to her in interest, including Charly, who flirts with her: “What’s under your pants?” “A thong.” “And under your tight sweater?” “A push-up bra.” “And in your head?” “Turmoil.” Blier takes a poke at national cliché as one of the men protests when the translator slaps him for touching her derrière: “Asses are meant to be touched—this is France.” Charly gets angry and pulls out his gun, declaring he has evil inside him and could kill everyone, but then joins in lockstep with the others as they begin deadpan boogying to the music. The movie breaks down as the characters move swiftly through islets of action from different genres, from stage farce to melodrama, the settings becoming overtly theatrical.

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François catches Daniela making out with one of his pals along with the rest of the partyers, one of whom notes, “He’s taking his punishment” in confronting the inevitable result of his acquiescence, whereupon Charly guns down Daniela, before looking to the camera and saying “I could have done it, if I wanted to.” This is one ending, the tragicomic one, the one that others seem to want, the one where Daniela is an untrustworthy tart after all. Blier reboots: Daniela merely wanders the party in seeming detachment from her surroundings, maybe having absconded to make out with someone else and maybe not, perhaps doomed to feel separate from everyone except her boding, tolerant lover, and settling down for a cigarette of sisterly conciliation with the translator. Choose your own reality. Blier chooses his, not quite losing his wry smirk as he depicts Daniela and François planted in some neorealist’s idea of connubial bliss, the stairwell of the apartment block strung with flapping laundry and Daniela transformed into a flat-soled, polka-dot-dressed housewife, with François’ heart healed. Any or all of these endings might come on, because in storytelling Blier seems to think the same thing as he has one character say of la femme: “There is no never with women.” Is it all just a put-on on Blier’s part, a jivey recourse into po-mo postures to cover creative crisis, or a smart and witty and rebuttal to the idea a film can’t be both ironic and emotionally direct at the same time? Perhaps, again, it’s all of these. To answer the title’s question, though: I loved it, just a little.

Standard
2010s, Erotic

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

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Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

By Roderick Heath

Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel by pseudonymous writer E .L. James, has become that rarest of contemporary phenomena—a novel not aimed at children or young adults that is a true pop-cultural totem. It’s also a very old-fashioned kind of hit, the scandalous bestseller everyone snapped up just to see if it was as deliciously filthy as they hoped. This was no anodyne, run-of-the-mill romance novel, journey-of-growth memoir, arty feminist artefact, or any other chick lit cliché, no, this was an outright erotic novel, harking back to the glory days of The Story of O. and Emmanuelle. And it was not just an erotic novel, but one in which sadomasochism is a crucial theme. The novel broke many rules about what should gain precedence in popular appreciation, not just in subject matter, but also in genesis. The work began life as fan fiction on an online site—the slime ponds on the edges of the great ocean of literary culture—built out of the archetypes presented in Stephanie Meyer’s equally popular, equally derided Twilight novels. Initially published as an ebook and then released in print when it became clear it was going to be something big, Fifty Shades shattered publishing records.
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Whatever magic spot Meyer’s creation had located with her essentially sexless tales of deathless romance, James found, too, and filled in what was missing, providing counterbalance and revelling in the filthy adult side of the fantasy. Nothing particularly original there: erotic spinoffs from popular artworks have long been covert currency, and have gained a powerful online presence since some dirty mind let go with the notion of Kirk and Spock gettin’ it on, giving birth to so-called “slashfic”: since then just about any fictional character you can think of has been in the sack with any other one you can think of in some fetid corner of the internet. James eventually rewrote and expanded her daydream smut to arrive at its current form, but as far as many are concerned, it never quite escaped the status of troubling, parasitic growth on the underbelly of an already embarrassing property.
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As with any cultural phenomenon, What It All Means had to be pinned down, and in the case of a work that disturbed a tenuous balance of acceptability, safely disposed of. Pundits opined, ideologues worried, experts pontificated. Sexy stuff being sexy doesn’t cut it. From my perhaps all-too-male perspective, the book’s success represents both a triumph and a failure of feminism in a dichotomous manner that, far from aberrant, is rather commonplace today. It plays with the old-school fantasy of meeting a rich, handsome guy with issues just dark enough to both alarm and appeal, but also offers a frank, fearless interest in erotic pleasure and questions of agency that are utterly current. The special contempt many saved up for the Twilight tales was merely a manifestation of a certain vestigial, preadolescent contempt by a boy’s club commentariat for things women like compared to the serious business of turning stories where men in spandex punch each other into grand movie epics. Some of that was certainly turned on Fifty Shades, too, combined with the fact that BDSM will inevitably still be a subject of confusion and hostility to many long after we’re all dead. Of course, the book was bad (full disclosure: I tried to read it, but lost interest, ironically, when James reached the stuff everyone else was reading it for). But that was perhaps part of the point. The banal, conversational, pseudo-interior monologue style of writers like Meyer and James has annexed fields of readership long detached from fancier fare, working like mental glycerine.
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Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s debut film Nowhere Boy (2009) was an intelligent, but frustrating work, mostly because of a low budget that hampered its sense of period, one that suggested her intimate, ambivalent understanding of the stranger routes of desire. When it comes to Fifty Shades, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t quite seem to approve, which is both what makes her film intriguingly contradictory and frustratingly indecisive. It goes virtually without saying that Fifty Shades hardly represents a descent into the darkest, most decadent depths of Sadean frenzy. The way James exploited this turf lends itself immediately to filming because it identifies S&M as such a visual style of eroticism. All that shiny latex and metal looks so damn good, and it is about the perspective of watching things done to the body in a way that can be read by a cinema audience in a manner not so different to the animating spirit many have found lurking in slasher films, where the body is violated to release a certain frustration in the viewer. Just watching two people happily hump in the normal fashion is as dull as dishwater cinematically because the pleasure is exclusive, perhaps as big a reason for the decline in mainstream movie sex after the late ’80s as any of the other cited causes, like AIDS anxiety and resurgent moralism. But Fifty Shades goes all squishy when it contemplates BDSM as an art that involves inflicting and receiving pain, however interlaced with pleasure; the sensatory reality of it all is still a challenge. All of this, now that I think about it, might be largely irrelevant to Fifty Shades of Grey as a standalone work of cinema. For one thing, the film deemphasises the spectacle of transgressive kink almost to the point where it feels like the cherry on the top of the cake, as opposed to the book, where it was the cake.
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Fifty Shades establishes its erotica bona fides quickly, beginning with the arch character names Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Ana is a lit major attending university in Vancouver, WA, and working part-time in a hardware store. When Ana’s roommate and pal Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism student working with the college newspaper, falls sick when she’s scheduled to interview Grey, Ana does her a favour and travels to Seattle to do the interview for her. Grey, a young but hugely successful tycoon in the field of something-or-other who’s going to be delivering a speech on their graduation day, stands ensconced in his soaring tower (don’t let us think he’s compensating for anything).
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The moment he and Ana lay eyes on each other, something kindles: Ana, with her doelike eyes and crudely cut bangs worn like a protective helmet against the world’s interest, couldn’t be more different to the Aryan ladies Grey has on staff, which is perhaps part of the appeal. Ana’s intelligent streak sits at odds with a deliberate lack of worldliness—she’s a virgin essentially by choice, having resisted all overtures thus far, including from her photographer pal José (Victor Rasuk). Christian begins to insinuate his way into Ana’s life, visiting her workplace to buy lots of items that don’t quite make sense for home improvement, including cable ties and duct tape, none of which makes the penny drop for the clueless Ana. A rendezvous later over coffee is ended prematurely and confusingly by Christian, who sends her a set of Thomas Hardy first editions as an apology. Ana gets drunk and bold when out partying with José and Kate. She calls up Christian and insults him, which only proves a magnet that draws him to the bar. He sets his adopted brother Elliot (Luke Grimes) on Kate to keep her occupied, and intervenes self-righteously to give José an aggressive shove when he clumsily puts the moves on Ana before whisking her back to his hotel for a chaste night’s sleep.
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After a few vulgar displays of wealthy generosity, Christian has soon swept Ana into his life, but then he introduces her to his dark secret: Christian is a BDSM dominant who wants a relationship with Ana, but only as his submissive who obeys a strict set of rules. The tension in the narrative comes in the uneasy suspension between Christian and Ana’s obvious and powerful everyday attraction and his resistance to the normal constitution of relationships. He tells her, with stern seriousness, “I don’t make love – I fuck – hard,” can’t stand being touched, and insists on sleeping apart from her. After making her sign a nondisclosure agreement, Christian gives her a legally binding contract—I’d like to know how he plans to enforce that over a woman whose total assets to risk amount to a Volkswagen Beetle and a set of used textbooks—that will define their relationship.
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Quickly, however, some of his hard limits start to dissolve as he wrestles with his genuine, calming affection for her, even as Ana is required to start erecting her barriers. He confesses that 16 women have come and gone from his life, perhaps because they couldn’t hack it or, more likely, because they were only too willing to please Christian, who seems torn between the desire to corrupt and a need to find his way back to normal pursuits. Ana, after reacting queasily to a bit of online research, calls for a business meeting with Christian to argue over the specifics (no fisting, vaginal or anal, etc.), and successfully resists his seductive attempts just to prove she can. But resistance has its limits. Christian “rectifies the situation” by taking Ana’s virginity in a sequence that suggests sexuality filtered through high-class perfume ads. Then he introduces her to his “playroom,” his exquisitely appointed torture chamber outfitted with all the accoutrements the up-to-date, upstanding sadist might need.
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In this scene, I felt the pull of something fascinating going on in Fifty Shades of Grey. Where the film plays as a jet-set fantasy with more wealth porn than anything other kind up to this point, the entry of Ana into the playroom had the potent whiff of entry into another, far more primal realm of experience that lies deep within and beyond the lifestyle fetishism. That feeling is exacerbated by Taylor-Johnson’s careful contrast between the visual scheme of the outside world, all steely hues and pastels, and the saturated reds and browns and blacks in the playroom, part Japonaise minimalism and part neo-Victorian nook, as well as the correlation and distinction between the hard-edged modernism of Christian’s favoured environs and the implements for inflicting pain on soft flesh in the playroom. It’s easy to dismiss the covert appeal of Fifty Shades because it is based in the simple, retrograde fantasy of women who want to be swept up by a paternalistic Prince Charming, but here I sensed that wasn’t quite the whole truth, that somewhere within all this fudge is an interest in the strange extremities of human desire.
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In any event, the figure of the rich, remote, intimidatingly formal master (or mistress) with a penchant for arcane speech patterns is one of the key clichés of erotica. The appeal of Fifty Shades, and Twilight, too, with its self-restraining demon lover, lies in the acknowledgement both make of the ways sex is still far more dangerous for women than men, not the least of which is man himself, with both works pleasing on the teasing proximity of anxiety to stimulation. Fifty Shades aims to present outright what most other takes only offer tangentially or through heavily veiled metaphors. This blatant and unashamed approach, and the fact that Taylor-Johnson has crafted a bondage erotica film that seems set to be an actual blockbuster, makes me want to cheer it simply for being.
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Moreover, Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have tried to craft a real film out of James’ infamously ditzy prose and narrative absurdities, tracing the tale as one of Ana’s growth from repressed college girl to a woman strong enough to tell her billionaire boyfriend to fuck off. Part of this serious intent, ironically, expresses itself through a certain level of self-mocking humour used to disarm before getting down to business. At first, the film plays as a toey romantic comedy with a kinky MacGuffin, constantly dropping wry, audience-goading in-jokes (that might well only work if one already has some idea what to expect from this) about what’s in store, woven into Ana and Christian’s duels of words and temperaments. Later, as the dance of desire becomes outright orgy, the tone shifts to one of dark, boding intensity scored to slow, thudding music. Probably the best scene in the film is Christian and Ana’s “business” meeting where they negotiate the specifics of the contract in a boardroom with low mood lighting and burnt-orange décor that suggests a rejected set for an ’80s Ridley Scott thriller, perfect setting for a sequence where the characters square off in tense verbal by-play that deflects their erotic shenanigans. A lot of terrible dialogue from the book makes the transition, sadly, though not without a certain wryness: “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” Christian murmurs at one stage. I heard a young woman laughingly chide her mother for chuckling at this behind at the screening: “This is serious stuff you know.” Some have said this sort of things points to the fact Fifty Shades’ strong female following is coloured with an ironic fascination, and I can believe that.
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And yet Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades will never become a cult camp classic a la Showgirls (1994) or Mommie Dearest (1982) despite certain similarities because the film is handled with far too much straightforward finesse. Erotic filmmaking is a difficult proposition at the best of times, and with all the strictures of censorship and marketing upon her, Taylor-Johnson has been forced to be shy to a silly extent about some things. Somehow Fifty Shades manages to get to its end credits not only without a single glimpse of penis or even pubic hair (yes, that’s right, there’s more dick in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007, than in Fifty Shades of Grey). The approach to the messiness of sexuality is absurdly naïve and prim by comparison with John Waters’ later works that sneakily managed to portray utter deviancy as commonplace whilst scarcely showing anything that a censor could get properly hot and bothered about. In fact, I wish Waters could have made this, but he would probably have had Ana and Christian finish up in bed with Kate, Elliott, Ana’s mother, and the Seattle Seahawks in the finale.
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Yet Taylor-Johnson does create some effectively sexy moments, mostly of a vanilla variety, and a montage of stuff the couple get up to once the playroom is put to use, gathers real, if not particularly sensual, power thanks to the strong, rhythmic, trancelike cutting by a team of editors including Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)! Elsewhere, risibility strikes, like during the first sex scene when Dornan is required to slowly unbutton his shirt and reveal his ripped torso with wait-for-it relish: the image of Homer Simpson doing the same thing flashed into my mind, not the sort of epiphany from which many movies can recover. One of the problems with transferring erotica from page to screen lies in the fact that erotic narrative is rarely realistic, but rather a construction of arousal detached from normal limitations and references. In S&M fiction this problem is especially marked because it facilitates the role-playing so often key to the experience, telling tales of unholy pacts, enslavement, abuse, transformation, in which one person becomes the property of another, often in tales that look like horror stories from a slightly different perspective. In short, it’s usually a deliberate rejection of the morally instructive quality expected from artworks (not for nothing was de Sade’s Justine subtitled “Good Conduct Well-Punished”), and inherently anti-PC. Fifty Shades of Grey represents, however, an uneasy compromise between bare-boned erotic fantasy and actual drama. The drama had possibilities as far as that went: the story has a strong similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), as dark, marauding gentleman ensnares a lady he’s fascinated with and wants to dominate, albeit with Marnie’s own hang-ups and culpability removed— and, of course, Johnson is the granddaughter of Marnie herself, Tippi Hedren. The cliché must hold fast: female innocence versus masculine experience. Ana, for all the good work Johnson does in trying to portray her as an intellectual frustrated by the inability of her mind to conquer her body’s kindled needs, strains to be anything more than a one-dimensional Cinderella.
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Another common trope of this sort of thing, perhaps best exemplified on screen by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1978), and Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), is that of a folie à deux that forms, combusts, and pushes to ever more dangerous and uncontrolled behaviours, entering an Oedipal whirlpool that might only touch bottom with death. Polanski’s film took the same essential plot to a fascinating, but potently nasty place as the older roué introduces his young girlfriend to increasingly intense perversions, only to turn her into a monster who reduces him to an impotent cripple and then makes him watch as she takes his place as destructive seducer. Fifty Shades of Grey initially mimics this structure, but eventually rejects it: it has no intention of losing control, and after all is said and done, doesn’t have any particular sympathy for the lifestyle it exploits. Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem so much disapproving of S&M so much as James’ indulgence of the fantasy of wilful disempowerment, but the two are far too entwined in the way the story plays out. James annexed the idea Meyer plied so shamelessly, the idea of a transcendental, magnetic love that works something like animal imprinting and must have its way in denial of the good sense of the people beset by it—which is adolescent schlock, of course, but it’s hardly shocking to see it still has a place in our collective daydreams along with fantasies about sailing the ocean blue or sword fighting with Vikings. Taylor-Johnson, for her part, has tried to inject a little adult level-headedness into things and emphasise the degree to which the tale is a dance of attraction and repulsion. The idea of playing schoolgirl fantasy against problematic reality could have yielded fascinating stuff, but James’ source material is too in love with the initial posture of its characters to analyse the divide.
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It could be said that what we do get is just a variation on that old schism—she wants love, he wants sex. Except that she really likes the sex she gets, and we’re told repeatedly that Christian feels unusually drawn to Ana in a manner that sounds like love and wants to be around her because he can feel her healing him. We watch a quiet wrestling match of wills with both Christian and Ana giving and taking. Eventually, however, Ana halts at the threshold of joining Christian in his kink. The degree to which Fifty Shades is actually a deeply square piece of rubber-necking becomes clear in time. Far from being a story of forbidden pleasures, it’s a shallow relationship drama, where the arguments over the demarcations of their union start to feel less and less like preludes to erotic deliria than a vision of the way modern relationships are negotiated enterprises. Although eventually we get some hot sex in the playroom, the bondage is pretty tame, enacted between characters who don’t seem to know they’re stick figures. Moreover, the shift from comedy of sexual manners to psychodrama that defines the second half is inherently weak, in part because the film has little psyche to dramatize, with no intention of spelling out the hints it’s given about Christian’s formative experiences. This might be for the best, because the hints we get point to the lamest kind of pop psychology: Christian was possibly mistreated as a child, ergo, he’s a control freak and S&M fan. There’s stuff about his uncomfortable relationship with his adoptive family, with Marcia Gay Harden earning an easy paycheque as his patrician mother, and a conversation about the mysterious older woman who initiated Christian into the BDSM lifestyle when he was a tender 15 years old, whom Ana dubs “Mrs Robinson.”
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In this aspect of James’ tale, Taylor-Johnson may well have found her special mojo, considering that Christian readily recalls her conceptualisation of young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy as a natural-born heartbreaker whose own damaged personality will be cosseted rather than liberated by great success at a cost to the women in his life. But one major problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that, like everything else these days, it’s been franchised to the max: James penned two sequels where this stuff gets worked out. This leaves the movie with scarcely any plot and without the kind of spiralling psychosexual lunacy that might fire things up. After a while, the story completely jams up, marking time with a pointless digression to Georgia, as Ana visits her mother and Christian follows her, and a sequence where Christian takes Ana gliding, replete with tedious thematic underlining: oh look, Ana’s lost her fear of flying. I’d like to hear what Erica Jong’s got to say about all this. The film cannot countenance either the possibility of Ana finding fulfilment cocooned in leather and kept in a box in Christian’s playroom, which would be one extreme of the fantasy, or the idea that she might become a domme herself, and one day turn the whip on Christian’s pasty ass, another extreme.
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The film does reach a kind of conclusion, one that also suggests an inescapable recommencement, but also inevitably invites coitus interruptus quips, as Ana, frustrated with this eddying state they’ve found themselves in, gets Christian to try out his tastes at full force. Ana is shocked as she realises that Christian has a need that has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with transferring a deeply humiliated rage and sorrow onto someone else. This precipitates a break-up that forms the film’s surprisingly abrupt coda, which I found reasonably effective, as it suited Taylor-Johnson’s take on this fare; everyone else around me groaned in frustration, which is also understandable. It’s the old story. Boy meets girl, boy flogs girl on the rump with a belt a few times, boy loses girl. By movie’s end it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Fifty Shades of Grey has simply upped the ante on Cecil B. DeMille’s winning formula for servicing the audience’s id by letting it get a good gander at forbidden fruit, whilst also reassuring us that we remain superior and that our judgement and moral vantages are right and good.
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Dakota Johnson is the film’s focal point and its real buoy. Johnson portrays the slow bloom of Ana, which stems from both resisting and indulging her temptations, with great skill. The scene where she manages to draw Christian into dancing for a few moments, and then breaks away from him to twirl on her own in gauche, girlish happiness, is the sort of moment that crystallises star careers; it’s such a pity that this moment shows up how facile and lugubrious much of what’s surrounding her is. Likewise, her subtle register puts across the key moments where Ana is confronted by just how difficult her new love life is to explain to others. Dornan made an eye-catching debut as the thinking woman’s stud muffin in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) where he played the titular queen’s lover Axel von Fersen. He’s competent as Christian: his regulation hard body is matched by the seemingly permanent half-smile affixed to his lips, which suggests no matter how dank things might get, it’s not so serious. But he’s the one left holding the bag here, because the film has all but neutered Christian: the sense of imperious entitlement and emotional numbness the character requires has been toned down as far as possible. Whilst this undoubtedly took some of the edge off the character’s most arrogant, intrusive acts that might look awfully like stalking from a less buff, charming billionaire, it essentially leaves that character without any bite and thus no real reason for existing. It’s easy to imagine Robert Pattinson in his David Cronenberg-ised persona from Cosmopolis (2012) as a perfect Christian, but casting him would surely have been too meta. The ultimate frustration of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s neither gleeful camp festival nor genuinely interesting tale of sexual gamesmanship, but stuck between the two. Much like its heroes, its own scrupulousness has doomed it to eternal dissatisfaction—at least until the sequel.

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