I wanted to look at the new Blu-ray Disc release of Story of O (out this week from the Canadian company Somerville House) for two reasons. First, I’m interested in what happens to obscure and cult films as they make their way to the new high-definition formats, and this French sexploitation drama from the mid-1970s certainly qualifies. Second, I know that while Story of O has some kind of literary pedigree (a sort of de Sade pastiche written under the pen name Pauline Réage, the novel broke significant ground for erotic fiction as well as bondage fetishists), the film version in particular has long been a pervy grail of softcore cinema — knowledgable viewers of a certain sexual inclination find this mix of epic skin flick, softcore potboiler, and S&M psychodrama to be in a class of its own.
Even armed with that foreknowledge, I was surprised by the singlemindedness of Story of O. As the titular, otherwise un-named “O,” Corinne Clery spends the majority of the film in a state of partial or complete dishabille, often sporting some variety of light bondage paraphernalia. In the film’s first scene, her boyfriend René (uh-oh — Udo Kier!) drops her off at a mysterious castle in suburban Paris where, she’s told, she will be expected to follow the various sexual orders given her by the surly men in residence. The scene has a sinister edge, but here, as in the entirety of the film, O is offered ample opportunity to opt out of the scenario, which will have her whipped, chained, branded, humiliated, pierced, penetrated, and subjugated. She’s going along with it all to please René, who claims to equate her willingness to do all that he requests as confirmation of her love for him. As it eventually transpires, O’s submission becomes a source of considerable emotional and physical pleasure for her. Long story short, she eventually becomes the property of one Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel, here working roughly the same old-rich-white-playboy mojo as Richard Branson) and schemes to secure the ownership of the pretty blond Jacqueline (Li Sellgren) for her erstwhile partner.
All this is depicted with an aesthetic strategy that falls halfway between the girl-next-door aesthetic of Playboy magazine in the 1970s and the gauzier, pornier style employed by Penthouse around the same time frame, photographed largely on locations that could be leftovers from the glory days of Hammer horror films. I was amused and a little annoyed by the relentless use of soft starburst filters to add a coating of cheese to the image, but this is otherwise solid work by the French cinematographer Robert Fraisse, and it classes up the joint considerably. (He went on to earn an Oscar nomination for The Lover.) Skin tones are ruddy — pinkish, in fact, verging on magenta — and there’s a lushness to the backgrounds, which are accented and expanded with windows, mirrors and greenery. Finally, the music, by Pierre Bachelet, is both gaudy and plush in the well-known Eurocult style.
So while it has plenty of kitsch value today, Story of O isn’t complete hackwork. Director Just Jaeckin already had experience with this kind of stuff, having introduced Sylvia Kristel to the world just a year before in one of the most profitable softcore movies of all time, Emmanuelle, and his further ambitions for this film are in evidence. For instance, screenwriter Sébastien Japrisot was a high-class hire, a French writer who had received international acclaim for his nicely titled novel The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun. (He later wrote A Very Long Engagement, with the result that several of his books came briefly back into print in the U.S.)
Many viewers will be happy with Story of O simply because the vision of multiple nude women, sporting naturally grown breasts and pubic thatches of a genuine thickness not seen much on screen since Bush Senior was in the White House, has not just an erotic pull but, especially for men of a certain age, high nostalgia value. Others will be titillated by the prevailing fantasies of bondage and sexual availability. But it is likely that Japrisot had the theoretical female viewer in mind as he considered the source material, and despite the film’s inarguable male-gaze orientation, he made some effort to add nuance to the proceedings. There’s a chilling moment after O returns home with René from her first trip to Roissy when we see that some of the tiles on the floor of his house are modeled on those in the castle, which bodes ill for O’s future as any kind of free woman — I can’t help but read it as a comment on gender roles in the home lives of the leisure class.
How you react to this will relate in part to your credulousness with regard to the idea that O is fundamentally satisfied with her lot. (She does, after all, manage to maintain a swinging career as a fashion photographer while all this is going on.) I reckon many contemporary viewers will be itching, maybe even expecting, to see O eventually take a run at her smug, douchebag “owners” (with Last House on the Left, the rape-revenge subgenre was just coming into its own). Japrisot doesn’t change the fundamental presumptions of the story. However, he and Jaeckin add a sly coda that suggests O hasn’t lost sight of her own ego.
The film falls into some of the same traps that deaden most ostensibly erotic visual storytelling. The book benefits from a woman’s touch, the more sensual notes of which aren’t adequately represented on screen. The continual exposure of the women in the film works poses an almost comic contrast to the coy invisibility of anything resembling a penis. The first sex scene in which both participants are undressed involves two women; only toward the end of the story, with the arrival of a young male specimen named Ivan who rolls around in bed with O to the accompaniment of rat-a-tat hi-hat cymbal and electric guitar, does anything close to parity between male and female flesh exist. This relationship is another invention for the film; after Ivan falls in love with O, she recruits Sir Stephen’s crop-wielding maid, Norah (played by Laure Moutoussamy, whose character really deserved an exploitation-film series of her own), to help scare the boy away. Ivan’s subsequent sighting of Clery, shackled nude and gasping at the camera with visible welts raised on her body by a recent lashing, is one of the film’s uneasy highlights. An apparently decent man, Ivan turns and runs. The paying viewer is meant, presumably, to have an opposite reaction.
It’s an interesting, and impolite, tension. What makes Story of O watchable is not only its boldness as melodrama but also its self-awareness — that sense that the filmmakers want to pay tribute to the film’s literary roots, to the arguably damaged psychology of its main character, and to an audience that may not be entirely ready to buy into soft-pedaled fantasies of borderline rape, sexist role-playing, and general brutishness. On some level, it’s all quite ridiculous. But for all its shortcomings, it’s one of the most honestly provocative examples of a sex movie I’ve ever seen. B-
I wish I could report that the new Blu-ray Disc release from Somerville House is a definitive version of the film but, alas, serious viewers will be left wanting. Most disastrously, there is the question of language. I was startled and dismayed to realize that there is no English subtitle option, rendering the original French-language version of the film unwatchable for non Francophones. The English-language dub isn’t terrible, as these things go, but of the three sound tracks, the French audio has by far the best fidelity. Spanish is a distant second, and the English is a distant third, with substantially thinner dialogue and music, as well as what sounds like an electrical hum cutting in and out.
Occasionally, subtitles do kick in, as the audio kicks over to the superior French-language track for a scene or two. This phenomenon goes unexplained anywhere on the disc or its packaging, but these subtitled scenes were apparently deleted before the film’s original, English-language release. It’s nice to have the extra material edited into the film — it’s mainly exposition, none of the sexy stuff — but it’s a shame to see the subtitles disappear each time.
The other half-baked element here is the commentary track by director Jaeckin. It, too, lacks subtitles, so you must listen to the original French or to a translator talking over his voice in English. It sounds as if Jaeckin is offering observations on specific moments from the film, but the audio isn’t synchronized to the video, and at one point Jaeckin starts repeating himself, as though he hit “rewind” and took another shot at it. Maybe the recording was never finished, or perhaps it was meant to be synchronized to a short collection of key scenes from the film. Either way, it seems to last less than 24 minutes, meaning the majority of the film has no commentary at all. For what it’s worth, Jaeckin sounds a little defensive. He stresses, essentially, that the film must be understood as a work of imagination — to take it more seriously would be, he notes, “catastrophic.”
The included English-language trailer is an explicit three-minute preview that gives some insight into how this kind of movie was sold to audiences of the day. The on-screen text calls the film “a heartrending cry of love which you may find profoundly shocking.”
Video quality is not bad, although there’s some evidence that digital noise reduction has been dialed in to eliminate the smallest flecks of dirt and dust on the film print, resulting in an unnatural texture to the grain. Because of the film’s soft visuals, I doubt that a whole lot more fine detail would be evident anyway, and this is certainly a step up from a DVD transfer, but I’d prefer the more natural film look, even if meant a somewhat noisier image. Happily, Story of O suffers from none of the problems with stuttering video or improper frame cadences that have marred early Blu-ray releases of other cult films. It’s a decent effort — but that lack of English subtitles still rankles.