Lars Von Trier has been ducking accusations that he holds the female sex in a rather low regard for as long as he’s been making movies about suffering women. Breaking the Waves set the stage for the next decade or more of his career in grand fashion, with an epic chronicle of female sacrifice that climaxed with the conflation of a woman’s faith and debasement receiving the approval of a watchful God. Arguing on Usenet back in the day, I briefly advanced a crackpot theory that Breaking the Waves was a kind of metaphysical horror movie, an audience’s revulsion at the sexual hoops Bess jumps through in the belief that her promiscuity will somehow help heal her husband’s paralyzing injury meant to be surpassed only by its astonishment that the universe was run by an entity that considered such behavior not only noble but exemplary. For the hell of it, I sent a quick email to an address that I believed to be Von Trier’s, asking, “Does Breaking the Waves have a happy ending?” The one-word response came back overnight: “Yes!!!!” So much for irony.
Ostensibly a jazzy, nonlinear short story about the emotional life of a high-end Manhattan hooker, this latest entry in The Steven Soderbergh Eclecticism Project is less a sexy confection than a sly satire on capitalism. Or, more specifically, a satire on capitalists during a recession. The film takes place in the last days of the 2008 Presidential campaign, as the first shockwaves from the current economic downturn are still resonating. Just about everyone on screen is concerned about holding down a job, from the expensive call girl “Chelsea” (contemporary porn star Sasha Grey) who frets about the new batch of hookers who might be that little bit younger, more alluring, and more obliging, to her less affluent boyfriend, a bottom-rung personal trainer who keeps looking for an entr ée to gym management (though he considers himself too special and unique a snowflake to don the company T-shirt). Even the journalist who interviews her is involved, it is clear, in a kind of commerce. And what kind of job is journalist, really, in today’s economy?
Mounted and directed by the legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille and photographed by the marvelously adroit cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls), The Sign of the Cross is a dispiriting epic that purports to tell the tale of Roman persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, who is believed under some theories to have ordered his men to set fire to the city and then blamed local Christians for the damaging blaze. But despite insistently dull depictions of the monotonous lives of the true believers, who are so dumb they can’t even station proper lookouts outside their secret prayer meetings, what DeMille’s really into is the hedonistic habits of the Roman upper classes. The result is a film whose generous helpings of sex and violence are overwhelmed by its general air of condescension and phony piety.
Let’s see. Half an hour out of the screening and I’m already forgetting what transpired. Severed ear, check. Decapitation, check. An arrow through the head, check. (Did it come out through the eyeball? I can’t quite remember.) Axe, thrown, to the upper back, subsequently shoved through chest from behind, check. Machete to the head, check. (Think this may have been a direct crib from the Savini stunt in the original Dawn of the Dead.) Meat-hook hanging, check. (Swiped from the original Texas Chain Saw.) Death by campfire? Check. Double-impalement coitus interruptus? File under missed opportunities, along with the inexplicable lack of a 3D version. Hockey mask, check. “Sister Christian,” check. Naked tits, check check check check check check.
This cut-rate release from the English studio Tigon, best known as a producer of second-tier horror (the terrific Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw) and sexploitation (Au Pair Girls, which is actually a bit of fun, and the SF-themed Zeta One), has the makings of an enjoyable countryside romp through ritualism and witchcraft, but it suffers from a split personality. Half of the film plays as a surprisingly straightforward nudie picture, with sisters Christine and Betty (Ann and Vicki Michelle, respectively) appearing reliably in various states of partial and utter dishabille. And the other half plays as a somewhat ambitious psychological horror movie about young Christine, the title character, who first submits to and finally dominates a coven of witches holed up in the woods outside London.
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.