The 70s were an interesting time for sex in the cinema as films that would be considered outright pornos by today’s standards were getting legitimate theatrical releases, being reviewed by notable papers and critics and earning tons of money. Now when one looks back at such films as Behind the Green Door (1972) Deep Throat (1972) and Debbie Does Dallas (1978) we see low budget filmmaking with bad acting and worse direction that are on par with today’s porn films, but over in France the 70s sexploitation boom was quite different than what we were seeing here in North America at the time. Directors with fairly decent credentials were making big-budgeted erotic films that were not only beautifully shot but were populated with talented actors and actresses. That’s not to say there were no high quality erotic films coming out of the states, it’s just they were not the norm. So today we will look at a one French film and one American film made in France of the same caliber of talent and budget and see how they stack up.
First up is The Story of O which is based on the book of the same name by author Anne Cécile Desclos under the pseudonym Pauline Réage and is the tale of the erotic submission of the title character who is only ever identified as “O” and her introduction into the world of sadomasochism and bondage. The movie opens with O (Corinne Clery), a young and beautiful fashion photographer being driven to the Château Roissy, a sort of Hogwarts for BDSM aficionados, by her lover René (Udo Kier) and where she will be trained as a sexual slave. He has her remove her panties and is told that she must obey all within the Château without question and to never cross her legs, always keep them open. O has come here willingly and is completely open to the idea of becoming a sexual object, sadly aside from the desire to please the man of her life we get no real inclination as to why O would be okay with this lifestyle.
O is prepped and bathed by a bevy of beauties that all dress in the standard Château Roissy uniform which is a period dress but one that leaves the bosoms bare. She is brought before a group of men, has sex with them and then is whipped, all while René watches. It seems his philosophy is that when a man gives his women to other men only then does he truly own her.
René then leaves the Château giving the care and training of O over to the staff and residents of the Roissy. Over the next few weeks she is stripped, blindfolded, collared, chained whipped and fucked by any and all men that desire her. The endless narration tells us that because she loves René she loves what is happening to her. We are to believe this is to be some kind of liberating experience but it comes off as kind of creepy.
René returns for her and he takes her back to the “real world” where she resumes her job as a photographer only now she is doing some of her best work apparently due to her sexual experiences at Château Roissy. Her change also leads to her attraction to model Jacqueline (Li Sellgren) and which leads to an interesting dynamic change. René kind of fobs O off on his brother Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel) while he pursues Jacqueline who isn’t all that into him, meanwhile O actually starts to fall in love with Stephen. And because he is French his way of proving his love is to bring O to Anne-Marie (Christiane Minazzoli) who runs another type of S&M training facility but one that also empowers women to take the upper hand as well as to be submissive. This movie is kind like an episode of Three’s Company only if written by the Marquis de Sade.
Director Just Jaeckin presents us with a gorgeous film littered with beautiful women in varying degrees of undress and bondage, it stays fairly faithful to the source material with the few changes made making for a more satisfying story. As for the sex, well this is pure soft core stuff here and really nothing you won’t see in today’s R rated movies, only the subjected matter makes it a bit racy. The strangest thing for me was seeing a young and handsome Udo Kier as I’ve really only seen films from his later years. My biggest criticism is the use of narration which is crutch many films use and can be very annoying and really adds nothing to the story here. Still overall a The Story of O is a well-constructed movie if not always engaging.
Speaking of terrible narration brings us to our next entry the American made bondage film The Image which seems to that director Radley Metzger had looked over and saw what Jaeckin was doing with The Story of O and said “Is that what you call sadomasochism?”
Now this may be an American production but it was shot in Paris, France and is based on the novel L’Image by Jean de Berg which leaves one to believe France must have been one incredibly kinky place in the 70s. The story follows bored playboy Jean (Carl Parker) who, while mingling amongst a group of wealthy socialites at a literary party, spots Anne (Mary Mendum aka Rebecca Brooke), a ravishing blonde and immediately wants to know her better. Also at the party, and looking equally bored, is Claire (Marilyn Roberts) an old friend of his who he approaches to find out about this beautiful and mysterious blonde. Jean is quite surprised to find out that Clair and Anne are an item as he had no idea that Clair swung that way.
Turns out that the older Claire is the mistress of young Anne and she begins to draw Jean into her world of sadistic pleasures. Claire is a strong and powerful force, cold and cruel, while Anne’s submissive nature hides a volcanic desire that hints at who is actually in charge of this relationship. Then there is Jean who is so drab and boring it hurts to watch him on screen. He’s also the one who provides the godawful narration that is so intrusive it’s almost as if you are watching an Audio Book version of a novel.
The nature of Claire and Anne’s relationship becomes quite apparent to Jean when they visit a public garden and Claire orders Anne to steal a rose, hide its thorny stem under her garter and then makes her squat and pee right in front of him. I must say this caught me quite off guard, and not just the kinky act of public watersports, but the fact that we get a graphic close-up of Mary Mendum peeing. This is not softcore porn this is the real deal. Later Claire forces Anne to perform many sexual acts with Jean as well as more moments of humiliation, but when we see the twinkle in Anne’s eyes we know that she is getting more out of this than her tormentors are.
The movie is broken into eleven chapters as we follow the bizarre and somewhat twisted threesome as they bounce from one sexual escapade to the another; playing hide the fruit in a restaurant, oral sex in an alley, and at one point Claire offers Anne to Jean for an outing and he takes her shopping for lingerie which ends up turning into a threesome with a cute shop girl.
The tenth chapter “The Gothic Chamber” is the most intense and the one that may put off some viewers (though if you made through all the graphic sexual acts and humiliations so far I’m betting you’ll make it the rest of the way) as the torture level is amped as Claire chains up Anne, fits her with a rubber bit gag and proceeds to stick her with heated pins. Jean joins in with some brutal flogging but it’s when he has a passionate and sensual sexual bout with her that Claire loses it and attacks him with the whip. Jean tries to restrain Claire as she goes totally bananas but what’s really nice is that Anne steps in and clobbers Jean with a bottle of champagne and he is driven out of the house. “I’m going to leave now,” Anne says quietly to Claire. “But what will I do?” asks Claire. Right there we get a good inkling as to who was really in charge the whole time.
This film is hot, and I mean super-hot. Also not for everyone as the graphic nature of the sex scenes could certainly make some squeamish, and the sexual torture and humiliation puts today’s Fifty Shades of Grey to shame. For me what makes this film a stand-out among films of this genre is Mary Mendum and Marilyn Roberts’ performances as they felt pure and with a level of authenticity one doesn’t expect to see in this type of film. Radley Metzger gave the world one of the best S&M films to date and it would have been even better if they had lost that awful narration.