**/**** Image A Sound A-
starring Sylvia Kristel, Nicholas Clay, Shane Briant
screenplay by Marc Behm, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence
directed by Just Jaeckin
½*/**** Image A- Sound A-
starring Sylvia Kristel, Christopher Cazenove, Oliver Tobias, Gaye Brown
screenplay by Joel Ziskin
directed by Curtis Harrington
by Alex Jackson Cinematically at least, I view the 1980s as being an entirely pro-cultural period. Black became mainstream--everybody listened to music from black artists and watched films and television shows starring black actors. Gay became mainstream, blurring gender lines. Feminism likewise became mainstream, blurring gender roles. Blacks, gays, and women were not necessarily disenfranchised in the culture during the 1970s, but by the 1980s they defined the dominant culture, creating a new status quo. The '80s were not a carbon copy of the 1950s, rather they were the 1950s dragged through the '60s and '70s; it was essentially a period of multicultural homogenization. There was, then, never a proper counterculture or fringe element. Nobody was an outsider and nobody was "other." Similarly, there was no feeling of liberation, as there was nothing to be liberated from.
The pro-cultural Eighties were not entirely a sterile decade for cinema. Blue Velvet and Blade Runner are easily two of the greatest films ever made and they weren't really reactionary works but rather masterpieces created from whole cloth after the lunatics got the keys to the asylum. But I do think that this proculturalism puts a real damper on the sex: Eighties sex was terrible, and I think it's because erotica depends on subverting social conventions. There was nothing to subvert in the 1980s--pretty much everything was accepted and embraced, so there wasn't any real way to be bad. And where's the fun in that?
Because I haven't seen actress Sylvia Kristel's 1974 soft-core classic Emmanuelle, I feel slightly unprepared to tackle a double-feature of her later work. I've consulted my volume of Danny Peary, however (Cult Movies #1--know that I'm on the lookout for others), in which Peary writes: "It's as if you were in the presence of a beautiful woman who presumably doesn't realize that she forgot to button her blouse, or who hasn't checked her shades before undressing. Sweet-looking Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, as the half-innocent, half-sex crazed Emmanuelle, is a turn-on just moving across the screen, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her casual display of her body is arousing to anyone on the screen or off." Yeah, that's exactly what you don't get in Lady Chatterley's Lover or Mata Hari.
Kristel plays, of course, Lady Constance Chatterley in Lady Chatterley's Lover. Her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley (Shane Briant), returns home from World War I paralyzed from the waist down and rendered impotent. Following a dream of his wife running out of their castle and hugging a tree, crying "I'm possessed!", Clifford decides that Constance must be freed to be with other men, lest her sexual desires "work" themselves within her subconscious and "damage" her. Constance takes her husband up on the suggestion when she sees their "virile and rugged" (to quote the DVD liner summary) groundskeeper Mellors (Nicholas Clay) bathing in the woods. The two begin what I guess you could call a torrid affair, which Clifford discovers and is enraged by. In spite of their verbal agreement and her initial reluctance, Clifford is, as expected, resentful of his wife's infidelity and jealous of any man who has her. But what truly upsets him is that it's his groundskeeper, literally an unwashed peon in his employ, grinding into his wife. And what would happen, God forbid, if this barbarian made her pregnant and he was forced to share his name and wealth with a bastard son of inferior stock?!
Lady Chatterley's Lover doesn't have a whole lot of dramatic tension and even more to the point doesn't have a lot of erotic tension. Part of the problem, frankly, can probably be traced back to the source material, a classic novel by D.H. Lawrence. This is a dumb premise for an erotic movie: The husband permits his wife to be with other men, thus her affair never accumulates a forbidden quality, since the husband is never actually wronged. (Now, see, take Unfaithful, for example: Although not a great movie, it had a little heat because the husband was genuinely cuckolded and his wife was genuinely naughty.) At the same time, he looks down on Mellors's social class, forcing Mellors and Constance to hide their relationship and neutralizing the feeling of sexual liberation that is part and parcel of Sylvia Kristel's attraction. Not only that, Clifford's position is seen, by the film at least, as rather indefensible, and as such sanctions the affair as not only socially permissible, but downright righteous to boot. The liner summary describes a "torturous conflict between duty...and desire" and promises that "the unexpected stirring of passions will rock not only their marriage, but all of society as well." Yeah, right. Clifford is marginalized into a snarling villain and, accordingly, Constance doesn't seem to have to do much soul-searching before she decides to leave him. (Oops, I spoiled the surprise ending!)
Lacking in the conflict that's fundamental in propelling film narrative, Lady Chatterley's Lover moves along in a rather forced, inorganic way. The director, Emmanuelle's Just Jaeckin, cuts scenes short in an effort to simulate momentum and distract us from not caring about what's on the screen. Clifford announces that war has been declared between Great Britain and Germany, only so that he can go and fight in it. And he only goes and fights in it so that he can come home injured and impotent. After his injury sets the rest of the plot in motion, World War I is forgotten entirely. Constance separates from her husband and is sent abroad. About five minutes of film later, she comes back to find that Mellors has been relieved of his position, at which point she leaves her husband for good. It all has a sort of weightlessness that suggests a fundamental naivety about the adaptation process. Jaeckin has whittled down the plot to the bare necessities instead of finding the appropriate angle into the material and taking it from there. He hasn't adapted Lady Chatterley's Lover, he's simply abridged it.
While Lady Chatterley's Lover is hardly a good movie, it has more than its fair share of redemptive qualities. For starters, this may be the best-looking bad movie I have ever seen. Honestly, a scene near the end of the film outside a coal mine evoked the earthy poetry of drudgery in a way that I have only elsewhere seen in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. (There can be no higher praise coming from me.) Jaeckin and cinematographer Robert Fraisse have worked together more than even Jaeckin and Kristel: Fraisse shot almost everything that Jaeckin directed post-Emmanuelle (on which Fraisse served as a camera operator). Jaeckin appears to have focused all his energy on the photographic aspects of filmmaking. There isn't anything else in the process--not acting, script, editing, or sound--that interests him more.
Kristel and Clay actually have some surprising chemistry. You sense that they are on the same wavelength and you feel that they are sleeping with one another for reasons other than to get the plot from point A to point B. And there are bits and pieces of the film that work as camp. The dream sequence is so ridiculous that it's difficult not to be affected; I'm amused that Jaeckin shot it from a very low angle for the sole purpose of drawing our attention to Kristal's jiggling breasts. And Clay is pure frommage: Sporting a thin goatee and a bad Scottish accent, he turns the film into a flashback from the "Highlander" TV series whenever he's around. I have to admit, that's pretty hilarious in and of itself.
At first glance, it looks as though Mata Hari will be even more campy fun than Lady Chatterley's Lover. This is the first film I have seen since National Treasure where the hero decodes a secret message written in invisible ink, and you would think that any film crazy enough to feature a topless swordfight would have to be worth seeing at least once. Alas, the narrative is so complicated that the film works in neither a traditional sense nor an ironic one. Watching Mata Hari is very hard labour and takes a great deal of active attention for what amounts to a very small reward. Where the simplicity of Lady Chatterley's Lover permits us to lose ourselves in the cinematography and ridiculousness, the complexity of Mata Hari actively denies us the privilege of ironic detachment. This is a bad-bad movie.
While Jaeckin is a very talented visual filmmaker who is incompetent in every other aspect of the filmmaking process, Mata Hari helmer Curtis Harrington (a B-movie director who moved on to network television during the late-Seventies and early-Eighties) is a consummate professional consistently mediocre in every respect. The film looks like television, feels like television, and tastes like television--and not just any television, but television of the early-to-mid-'80s. I had a vision late during my viewing of the film: I saw video shelves full of movies just like this, forgotten, for the most part, but lain coiled under the surface all the same. What I saw was but a taste of the tortures that are available to the enterprising cinematic masochist.
From what I understand, Mata Hari was a Swiss erotic dancer and entertainer tried as a German spy during World War I and executed by the French. Over the course of Mata Hari, she beds pretty well every man she encounters, and the sex is pretty nasty. The film features male nudity, cunnilingus, and threesomes, and as all three have tended to be modest taboos in American cinema, their presence helps to give the picture a healthy dirtiness. (Note that there is apparently a more explicit European cut of the film floating around.) But ultimately, the proculturalism of the 1980s effectively derails Mata Hari's aspirations toward eroticism. Far from the passive sexual pawn of Emmanuelle (or so I have read), Mata Hari is a very independent, proactive woman of the Eighties. She initiates the sex and it always happens on her terms. Worse, as inferred by the DVD's cover art, she is depicted as a kind of Eastern sex goddess, giving her a worldliness that translates into multicultural homogeny and a rather sterile wholesomeness. Heroism doesn't lend itself easily to the erotic--and after Mata Hari is martyred at the hands of the French, viewing her as a sexual being goes from difficult to near impossible.
Suggesting that both titles are doomed for the bargain bin, MGM releases Lady Chatterley's Lover and Mata Hari on bare-bones DVDs with 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and fullscreen viewing options decorating opposite sides of their respective platters; only the films' theatrical trailers supplement these discs. Thankfully, Lady Chatterley's Lover's transfer more than does justice to Jaeckin's hyper-aestheticism: It's crisp, potent, and altogether inerrant, while the title's Dolby 2.0 mono audio is clear and distinct, providing ample room for the booming score. Mata Hari fares about the same, excepting an extra layer of darkness over the image. Originally published: September 8, 2005.