Monday, February 09, 2009


There was even one drunken American who, laughing, grabbed her, but when he realized that he had seized a fistful of flesh and the chain which pierced her, he suddenly sobered up, and O saw his face fill with the same expression of horror and contempt that she had seen on the face of the girl who had given her a depilatory; he turned and fled.

There was another girl, very young, a girl with bare shoulders and a choker of pearls around her neck, wearing one of those white dresses young girls wear to their first ball, two tea-scented roses at her waist and a pair of golden slippers on her feet, and a boy made her sit down next to O, on her right. Then he took her hand and made her caress O's breasts, which quivered to the touch of the cool, light fingers, and touch her belly, and the chain, and the hole through which it passed, the young girl silently, did as she was bid, and when the boy said he planned to do the same thing to her, she did not seem shocked.

But even though they thus made use of 0, and even though they used her in this way as a model, or the subject of a demonstration, not once did anyone ever speak to her directly. Was she then of stone or wax, or rather some creature from another world, and did they think it pointless to speak to her? Or didn't they dare?

--Pauline Reage, The Story of O

One of the main reasons the best and most subversive erotic books and films stand out is because they don't settle for a mundane boy-meets-girl, boy-boffs-girl they-lived-happily-ever-after kind of storyline. Indeed, some of the best pieces of erotic literature are positively terrifying, chronicling love and obsession as parts of the same coin, and sometimes making the explicit connection between sex and death. In this, erotica sometimes bleeds into horror. The most terrifying erotic novel I've ever read is Pauline Reage's The Story of O. Oh, it offers up a rich panoply of polymorphous perversion, served up with such an economy of non-dirty words that it would make the Marquis de Sade weep in impotent envy. O loses herself to passion that becomes obsession. She loves so desperately that she loses her identity, her dignity, her self-will, and ultimately (if the hints at the end of the novel are to be believed), her life. I'm not entirely sure of how to take this, actually, but when I first read the book (mumble, mumble) years ago, I took it as both profoundly frightening and vaguely anti-erotic. It made quite an impression.

All of which is almost completely missed by Just Jaeckin's version of The Story of O (1975). Oh, it has more or less the same plot: O's lover, Rene--played by the deliciously creepy Udo Kier--takes her to the Chateau d'Roissy to be trained in the ways of submission. Here, she is dressed (or not) for the pleasuring of men (and women), is punished, etc. What the movie misses, however, is the alarming implications of O's willingness to partake, and it misses the darker aspects of the story's end. And instead of the book's elegant language, Jaeckin has substituted the cliches of soft-core Euro-porn, particularly the tendency to film through filters that look like someone has smeared vaseline on the lens. Still and all, the people in this movie are beautiful to look at. Corinne Cleary was an ideal physical match for O, sexual but naive, but she's not much of an actress. And it's not really boring, the way, say, some Emmanuelle movies are, either. Though I suppose that might depend on your own kinks.

A movie that totally "gets" what one finds in The Story of O is Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967), which in style is completely deadpan (as are most Bunuel movies) but which in substance is totally subversive. Like many of Bunuel's films, this is an epistemological toybox that bobs and weaves between "reality" and "fantasy" at will until it detonates both the real and the unreal at the end of the movie. Here, we get the erotic obsession of O reincarnated as a destructive force and liberating force at the same time: Severine, a frigid housewife trapped in a sexless marriage, spends her days catering to the kinks of a high-end house of ill-repute. This ultimately destroys her, but on the way, we see her sexual hypocrisy crumble, and at the end, we are given to wonder if it's her kinks that destroyed her, or her unwillingness to share them with her husband. The most telling scene in the movie is when one customer is refused service by the other women in the house because of the awful thing he carries in a box; Severine takes him on and afterwards is shown to be completely satisfied, released temporarily by giving in to her baser needs.

But the thing I love the most about this movie is the way it deals with the Catherine Deneuve problem. The thing about Catherine Deneuve is that, left to her own devices, she has the potential to wreck a movie. She's so inhumanly lovely that everything else runs the risk of being completely upstaged by her. One solution to the Catherine Deneuve problem is to submit to her completely. This is the solution usually employed by Jacques Demy, whose Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Donkey Skin bow down and worship. Bunuel, on the other hand, defiles her. He spits in the face of her beauty and drags her through the mud--sometimes literally. The scene that gives this strategy its fullest expression finds Miss Deneuve dressed in a blinding white gown and tied to a stake while her husband throws shovels full of mud at her. I think this is the scene that cemented my own love for Catherine Deneuve for all time.

Among more vanilla films:

Action in the North Atlantic (1943, directed by Lloyd Bacon) is a Bogart film that I've managed to miss all these years, and woe is me. This one's a corker, chronicling the wartime experience of the Merchant Marines as they brave the Nazi u-boat wolf packs. This starts with a bang, as Bogart's ship is torpedoed and the entire cargo of gasoline goes up in flames. This is a bang-up action sequence that lasts for the first half hour of the film. The film sags a bit when Bogart, his captain (played by Raymond Massey), and his crew are rescued and sent home. Things pick up again in the last third of the movie, in which all hands are back on duty as part of a convoy to Murmansk. We get a full-fledged naval battle here, followed by a game of cat and mouse with a u-boat and the Luftwaffe, all staged with aplomb by director Bacon and the Warner special effects department. Sure, the boats look like models, but they don't look more "fake" than the computerized boats in Pearl Harbor, really. And even though it was the result of the movie's slant as propaganda, there's a refreshing cosmopolitan attitude in this film, in which America still thinks that every allied country contributed to victory in the great war. Would that our contemporary nativist superpatriots remember that.

The first film version of The Maltese Falcon (1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth) is an interesting film. On the one hand, Bebe Daniels is a much more appealing femme fatale than Mary Astor, there's far more pre-Code sex and innuendo than in the Bogart film, and Sam Spade is the sleazeball one finds in the novel. On the other hand, Ricardo Cortez is a stiff as Spade. He's "acting" smarm, and it just doesn't work. Still and all, it's fun to watch. Otto Matieson gives almost exactly the same performance as Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Thelma Todd is a knock-out as Iva Archer (with whom Spade is DEFINITELY having an affair), and we get a fun non-horror turn by Dwight Frye as Wilmer (for which he seems perfectly cast). What this lacks, though, is Bogart. Oh, Bogart. If there were ever any doubt as to whether Bogart had the "it" that makes great movie stars, the contrast between this film and his should put that all to rest. There's a weird kind of alchemy going on in the Huston film that this film never once matches. Oddly enough, this is a case where the Production Code did something good, because THIS version of The Maltese Falcon was totally out of bounds, so they had to make another one. And when that one didn't work so well, they made a third.


MoonBaby said...

Re: "The Story of O" - mon dieu. Makes me happy to have read the book, although like you it was a while ago. I wonder how much more I'd understand now, given the advantage of years and life experience? Hmmm.

Soiled Sinema said...

I'd like to read your thoughts of The Story of the Eye.


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