Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Academic Art Porn: Bringing "O" Back to Boston


Several years ago, I had an external hard drive crash and lost most of the papers that I had written while I was an undergraduate at Emerson College. But when I recently plugged that hard drive into a new PC, every file was somehow restored. Among the fossils in this academic graveyard was an email that I wrote to a professor on November 27th, 2002, just before Thanksgiving break. During that era of my film education, I was entranced by the lost subgenre of “art porn”. When a literature professor asked for suggestions of films that he could show which dealt with gender roleplay, I made an attempt to integrate one of the films that I was most enamored of into the canon of classics worthy of study at Emerson.



I just wanted to send an email to follow up on my suggestion for the film version of "The Story of O" as a candidate for capping off the "Identity" unit of the class. I saw "The Story of O" early this Fall after ordering a copy late this past summer, and since then it has become not only a personal favorite film of mine, but also a frequent topic for discussion; I cannot even count how many people I have recommended it to, or even shown clips to to demonstrate its visual remarkability and sheer brilliance. In fact, the reason that it came to my mind in class today was because just a few hours earlier I had given a copy of the film to another professor with my enthusiastic recommendation.


Although the film is probably available at a number of video stores in their foreign film section, I am not quite positive that it is as easy to find today as it probably was a few years ago. Furthermore, my understanding is that the version circulating in America has been an altered English language edit, which is not only dubbed but trims several minutes of exposition in order to tighten the pacing. As such, I wanted to offer my services in sending you a VHS copy of my DVD of the film, which is the original French language version and presented in its entirety. I live in Massachusetts and will be traveling home tomorrow (Wednesday), so it would be no trouble to me if you would like me to mail this French version to you to watch over the break. I figured that this way you could take a look at the film and determine if you think it would be appropriate, and of course that way you would have a copy to use for showing in the classroom.


The film adaptation of "The Story of O" is a French erotic drama from 1975 based on the classic novel by Pauline Reage. Directed by Just Jaeckin, who is best known for the enormously successful "Emmanuelle", it stars Anthony Steel, Udo Kier, and in the title role Corrine Clery, then a newcomer (this was her third film and first leading role) who is best known to some Americans for later playing a Bond girl in "Moonraker".


I had been familiar with this film for a number of years, though only vaguely, and I knew that it had a following among fans of erotic cinema. I became interested in seeing it earlier this year when I became entrenched in my interest to see the many "art porn films" (as I like to call them) that were released during the 1970s, when adult films were, for a brief but exciting time, being taken seriously as an art form and mainstream commercial venue. Along with the likes of such controversial but highly acclaimed works as Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris", Liliana Cavani's "The Night Porter", and especially Nagisa Oshima's "In The Realm of the Senses", I would consider this film to be one of the true benchmarks of this movement. And like several of the aforementioned films (not to mention dozens of other entries in this subgenre), it enjoyed tremendous commercial success. From what I understand, it performed very well in America, but was a bona fide blockbuster throughout Europe, making its star Corrine Clery a formidable force in European films in the late 1970s.  The one exception to this success was England, where the film was banned until 1999!  (To the best of my knowledge, its being banned was based on the hot button "female domination" issue that made the book so controversial).


I finally saw the film myself this past September, and it is quite frankly one of the best French films that I have ever seen, by any standard. It is visually stunning, overwhelmingly erotic, beautifully scored, and Corrine Clery's portrayal as "O" might just go down as one of my Top 10 favorite female performances, ever. It is not a perfect film by any stretch, and the explicit nature and surreal, fantasy structure of the proceedings makes it a bit difficult to interpret at times, but I think you will like it a great deal. If nothing else, it serves as solid proof that, once upon a time, so-called "adult films" really were made for adults: not only did they intelligently deal with sexual themes, they were apt to provoke thought and incite discussion in a manner that today's Hollywood fodder so rarely does.


To the best of my knowledge, the French cut of this film has never been made available on home video in the US. The DVD I have is from France, and contains the original French language version (which runs about 100 min) as well as a more commonly seen 92 minute English version, which I believe has been the copy seen on home video for years. I have not seen this English edition myself but I have included the French version since it is the one I saw and fell in love with, and can therefore vouch for. Furthermore, the print used for the French edition is in priceless condition, and showcases the gorgeous cinematography in a manner that the washed out English language alternative cannot. More importantly, though, the French incarnation of the film contains exposition that is removed from the English version, thus likely making the film far less effective.


Although I have not read the Pauline Reage novel yet (I have a copy that I plan to immerse myself in over winter break), my understanding is that the film version is faithful to the source material, told in the same dreamy fashion as I hear the book is (complete with the "two beginnings"), and much of the narration and dialogue is identical to the book. However, the ending to the film is a bit different than the book; I like the ending myself, but it is a bit abrupt so I am curious as to how the book compares.


Regarding the inevitable sexual content of the film (certainly one of the reasons that I would have you screen the film prior to class), I would guess that the film is ultimately "tamer" than the book, but it is indeed quite explicit.  However, the movie's most controversial aspect is the violence and perceived misogyny, which of course is the element that makes it so potent for analysis and discussion. As I recall (I have not seen the film for a few months), the number of explicit sexual encounters are few and far between, but all of them are handled in a manner that is distinctly mature: recreating the book's passages, the sexual scenes all prove integral to the story, and specifically to the arc of 'O''s character. They are handled in a classy, artful manner, and are erotic and sensual while never seeming gratuitous; "The Story of O" is an adult film, but ultimately, it is by no means a conventional "porn film". 


As you mentioned in class, I think it makes for an excellent discourse on gender role-play, as it tends to incite passionate debate among people as to whether 'O' is the aggressor or the submissive. Appropriately enough, the film is rather ambiguous about this thanks to Corrine Clery's brilliant, enigmatic performance: her 'O' is shrouded in mystery, and though she delivers a fully dimensional performance, her portrayal is such that one could make a strong argument for either side based on her interpretation of the character. Although I have not read the book and perhaps am not yet suited to judge, I must say that I think she makes "the perfect O".


Whew! I'm terribly sorry for having likely taken up a great deal more of your time than I planned to...as I also told my other professor, when I begin discussing a film I feel passionate about, I tend not to know where to stop! "The Story of O" is indeed a film that I feel passionate about, and whether or not you decide to show it to the class, I hope that you will appreciate it as well, and that it will satisfy your expectations upon reading the novel. I hope this finds you well, and I hope to hear from you later on. However, if I do not, have a great Thanksgiving!


I can’t remember what my professor wrote back in response to this email, but I do remember that he chose another favorite film of mine instead—Asia Argento’s semi-autobiographical Scarlet Diva. I vaguely recall giving him a VHS copy in person on the last day of class, presumably so he could show the next semester’s batch of students. I never found out if he did. Years later I took another one of his courses, for he is an asset to Emerson College and his courses truly facilitated my growth as a writer. But by then, just a few years older and wiser, I was so embarrassed by my audacity in passing along the film that I foolishly acted like I had never met him before. This I regret  far more than recommending Euro-softcore for classroom viewing. 




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