Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Story of O (1975)

          The 1954 French novel Histoire d’O, written by Anne Desclos under the pen name Pauline Réage, is notorious because some admirers regard it as an erotic exploration of what later came to be known as BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism), while others disdain it as a vile exercise in sexual objectification. It’s unsurprising that a movie version emerged in the ’70s, when changing social mores allowed for mainstream distribution of films with previously taboo content, and it’s unsurprising that the movie version prioritizes sex over psychology. Corinne Cléry stars as “O,” a Parisian photographer who proves her love for René (Udo Kier) by agreeing to become a sex slave for a group of men living at a country estate; the story then explores how the couple’s relationship changes when René “gives” O to another man, Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel). The film’s director, Frenchman Just Jaekin, previously scored at the box office with another libidinous literary adaptation, Emmanuelle (1974), and he takes a similar approach to The Story of O, combining acres of female nudity with evocative locations, glamorous photography, and insinuating washes of Vangelis-lite synthesizer music.
          The film’s fetishism of the female form and the cast of emotionally blank actors belie the posh presentation, however, revealing that Jaekin’s movie is nothing but soft-core porn with artistic pretentions. The film’s third-person voiceover does most of the heavy lifting in terms of explaining the plot, while also providing lurid commentary like “O wondered why she found her terror so delicious.” In addition to lacking substance, The Story of O flops as erotica, because the innumerable vignettes of men and women fondling, groping, mounting, and whipping Cléry quickly become tiresome. The abuse scenes are unpleasant (especially the branding bit—ouch!), and the movie is so cold that it’s impossible to get caught up in O’s journey. It doesn’t help that most of the dialogue sounds like it was either dubbed or looped. Cléry, who later appeared as a Bond girl in Moonraker (1979), is very beautiful, very naked, and very patient with the people who paw at her privates throughout the film, but even her charms fail to sustain interest once the movie devolves into tedium.

The Story of O: LAME


Barry Miller said...

Apparently "lame" enough for Stanley Kubrick to have become obsessed with both the novel and this film for many, many, years....and inspiring him to undertake "Eyes Wide Shut".

The problem was that in 1975 it was daring enough just to get it made, even with it's compromised ending and softcore sex; virtually none of the symbolic and allegorical content of the novel using sadomasochism as a metaphor for a ferocious attack on Christianity, The Church, and the notion of original sin (self-flagellants as holy penance for all human sexual desires, the instutionailized religious notions of purity, cleanliness, virginity, innocence, chastity, and martyrdom being equated with the divine, when instead it is the ultimate expression of evil, rather than the "moral" goodness it pretends to be and enforces through all societal/authoritarian forms of human relations) and hence The Owl Mask of truly sexually debauched wisdom rather than the phony lie of The Sacrificial Lamb. The château of Roissy is a Gothic castle where the inhabitants, both men and woman, dress in what looks like a blend of Renaissance and 18th-century attire and the social structure is clearly patriarchal. The Samois mansion, on the other hand, is matriarchal and its inhabitants live as if in the Victorian era. These are two historical periods in which European society and culture were, to all outward appearances, at their most sexually repressive.

Barry Miller said...

To elaborate: none of the anti-religious subtext of the book was used to augment the film beyond itself as mere mid 70's softcore porn; what was needed was hardcore explicit sex with a clear understanding of the book's complete anti-clerical revolt and it's original ending of sexual martyrdom as a mockery of the Christian sacrifice for the sins of mankind: the whore as sacred and divine, the johns as both worshippers and hypocrites in their worship: the Madonna/Whore complex writ large. All of this deeper symbolism has never been conveyed in a film version. So....pornography as art for the genitalia AND the mind, which made the book a masterpiece of erotic literature for the ages and this film a noble failure, but not worth deriding as empty-headed trash.

Barry Miller said...

To answer the knee-jerk "feminist"/"woke"/MeToo accusation/condemnation: why would a women willingly submit herself to such horrible abasement? Because her sexuality is divided within herself; she is both the perpetrator of social repression and the victim of it's false morality: her self subjugation is an attempt to find wholeness.("O") The men are invited by her to punish her for her hypocrisy as they themselves are hypocrites for rejecting her once she fully embraces the very notion of their principle of a ubiquitous and consistently yielding sexual receptacle for all men (or women) at any given time: she can no longer be "romantically loved" for the complete sexual freedom she now has finally granted herself at their relentlessly orgasmic urging. The Story of O is a tragic fairy tale, a fantasy of a pagan utopia that once it meets the Judeo-Christian world of reality, instantly dies. In that sense, it is a deeply moral and spiritual work; pornography as art if not absolution.