written by Yoshiyuki Fukuda, Eiichi Yamamoto, based on the novel La sorcière by Jules Michelet
directed by Eiichi Yamamoto
by Walter Chaw The completion of Osamu Tezuka's "Animerama," a trilogy of early-'70s erotica initially imagined as a tie-in to that era's "pink films" that eventually applied their boundary-testing to its own form and function, Belladonna of Sadness is the only one of the three pictures to, ironically, feature no direct involvement from Tezuka. Instead, longtime collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto takes the reins and, in this loose adaptation of a non-fiction tract on witchcraft and Satanism, produces the headwaters for everything from hentai to Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. It's a template that parallels Ralph Bakshi's dabbling in ani-porn, a thing that runs on evocations of Roman Polanski in not just its function and form, but also the drawing of its heroine, Jeanne, as the very image of Sharon Tate. The fate of pretty blondes is a primary concern of Polanski's in this period--no less so enacted through this saga of a woman, raped and humiliated before, in the end, like Yeats's Leda, she takes on the power of her patriarchal tormentors to exact precise, poetic vengeance.
The artwork pulls from various sources: Klimt, in the moment our Jeanne rises in triumph after accepting a Faustian bargain; Beardsley, in the film's spare linework and stylized angles; Egon Schiele's sexual, contorted Holocaust lines; Tolkein's sketches of Middle-earth, which Belladonna of Sadness reverts to at the beginning of its final story arc, once Jeanne has been betrayed by her feckless husband and cast into the wilderness. The key emotional influence for me is Chris Foss's groundbreaking-in-their-own-way pencil illustrations for The Joy of Sex. The frankness of the picture's eroticism--Jeanne spends most of it in various stages of violent undress--titillates for its own sake, I'm sure, but for me it tickled at pre-adolescent discoveries. Telling too much, The Joy of Sex was my first illicit porn. It wasn't until Belladonna of Sadness that I realized just exactly how integral is its art to my own sexuality. When Jeanne fully succumbs to the Devil at last, the film's influence on Gerald Scarfe is undeniable. Her pubis is represented by a pink wash that dissolves into a thistle in bloom, and then a toothed corridor, and then a full-on tribute to Heinz Edelmann. It's kind of a shock to me, really, that Edelmann didn't do this sequence.
It's in a brief flash early on, though, to Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare," that Belladonna of Sadness reveals its proto-feminism; Fuseli, Mary Wollstonecraft's lover, is a figure in history tied to the irreconcilable association between feminism and femininity. The world that Belladonna of Sadness describes is no different from Hitchcock's late terror-domes for women. It's a work that understands the chips are stacked against women, especially pretty women--that the world tends to punish them for their sexuality, even while trying to suppress it, to control it. Jeanne's vengeance against the society that has tried to destroy her is inextricably tied to her sexuality. As she's burned at the figurative and literal stake for her sin of being powerful and sexualized, Yamamoto looks to the crowd gathered for her dissolution to find it composed entirely of Jeannes. Subtle it ain't. But it's powerful.
Going back, the tale is a simple one. Jeanne marries Jean and the world sees their union as imbalanced. In trying to redress that imbalance, Jeanne is raped, repeatedly, and seduced eventually by promises offered her by a very phallic Satan. Declared a witch when she refuses to expire, she wreaks terrible vengeance until finally she's neutralized by the ruling majority. Her story is equated with Joan of Arc's, but it could have been any martyr to women's causes. Note a glimpse of Jeanne as the Sphinx, rising up and transforming into Maleficent, then into one of Ken Russell's orgiastic nuns--prefiguring, in a very real way, Rob Zombie's brilliant The Lords of Salem. The conflation of Disney (indeed, a late twist introduces the Snow White story) with Nazi flags sporting penis-swastikas, images of sexual thanatopsis, Boschian hellscapes set to psychedelic music, Cronenbergian/William S. Burroughs filth, and Puritans literally exploding in the midst of coitus is, you know, one of those things you forget neither easily nor right away. Currently making the rounds in a beautiful 4K restoration from the fine folks at Cinelicious, Belladonna of Sadness is the gift that keeps on giving.