Tag Archives: Erotica

CAPSULE: LOVE RITES (1987)

Cérémonie d’amour; AKA Queen of the Night

DIRECTED BY: Walerian Borowczyk

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A man pursues a prostitute he meets on a train into a web of sadomasochistic mystery.

Still from Love Rites (1987)

COMMENTS: If you’re visiting this site, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Walerian Borowczyk, the brilliant Polish animator turned art-house pornographer. Much has been made of his infamous fall from grace, which began with 1973’s unsettling and twisted Immoral Tales and hit a spectacular climax with 1975’s  The Beast [La Bête], a Baroque passion play of bestiality that flew in the face of all accepted standards of good taste, and left Borowczyk to wander the wilderness making low-budget schlock for the rest of his days.

Or so the story goes. I can’t speak for the rest of Borowczyk’s work after The Beast, but Love Rites, which turned out to be his last film, finds his eccentric brand of perversion still intact, just a bit mellowed by age. A middle-aged clothing buyer, Hugo (Mathieu Carrière) pursues a clandestine affair with Miriam (Marina Pierro), a mysterious prostitute whom he encounters on a subway. After a game of cat-and-mouse and a lengthy conversation about poetry and acting shouted across opposite sides of a train platform, the two lovers take refuge in a church before making their way to a secret boudoir for an afternoon of sexual domination and submission.

From that description, you might wonder about this movie’s weird credentials. Indeed, on the surface, this is little more than a stereotypical French erotic drama, with the first half of the film’s brief running time devoted to tedious intellectual monologues veering between philosophy, religion, and deadpan tales of past sexual abuse–all of which are apparently intended to be titillating overtures for the real action which is surely lurking just around the corner. After all, don’t forget that The Beast begins in much the same way, with a good 45 minutes devoted to a glorified period soap opera with occasional insinuations of a beastly secret that eventually pays off in a big way.

There’s a troubling development here though, away from the cinematic and towards the literary. Once we enter the boudoir of Miriam’s ominous “friend and mentor,” more and more of the action becomes relegated to a narrator—to the point that most of the juicy stuff that Borowczyk is famous for is hidden off-screen. With sophisticated relish, the narrator relates the sordid events taking place just out of view, as if reading from the works of the Marquis de Sade for an audience of horny aristocrats. The action is hidden from view with compositions designed just as tastefully as the narration is blunt and smutty, with visual motifs evoking cages, butterflies and birds. As the action builds into a fever dream of emasculation and perversion, the narration gradually diminishes, eventually disappearing completely as the film reaches its head-scratching denouement.

But while the film’s muted tone can be both frustrating and boring, there’s no denying that Love Rites is pure Borowczyk. Libertine perversion pervades the film, despite its attempts to hide these qualities from view. If Borowczyk’s intention was to deny the audience’s desire for easy erotic payoffs in lieu of something more esoteric, he succeeded. What’s happening out of view, in the margins, remains perpetually out of our grasp. Who is the unseen madame who demands that games of submission be played in her boudoir? What about the mute Cambodian slave who could appear at any second to carry out some inconceivable orgy of torture?

Alas, Borowczyk is not about to give us the answers to these questions, much like Miriam, who teases her male prey with promises of erotic fulfillment but then confounds her client’s expectations, eventually turning the tables and leaving poor Hugo with more questions than answers. For those who enjoy such esoteric mind games, Love Rites might be just what you’ve been looking for. And for Borowczyk historians, the new Blu-ray release from Kino-Lorber offers the uncut theatrical version as well as a shorter director’s cut that cuts some of the flack from the film’s first half (which is chock full of it). But if you’re new to Borowczyk, you might be better served by checking out his earlier, more infamous films, and then streaming this one as an epilogue.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an object lesson in creating a surrealist work of art. The 1987 film exhibits an exacting preoccupation with the specificities of places and objects, while at the same time remaining open to spontaneity.”–Budd Wilkins, Slant (Blu-ray)

18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

 Ching se

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“Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel honoured?”–D.H. Lawrence, “Snake”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Maggie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wenzhuo Zhao, Hsing-Kuo Wu

PLOT: After imprisoning the soul of a shapeshifting spider in a bowl, a monk spares the lives of two snakes, one white and one green. The two snakes take human form, seeking to learn the wisdom of our species. White falls in love with a scholar, while Green is more mischievous and seductive; eventually, the monk regrets sparing the pair, and seeks to banish them to their old forms.

Still from Green Snake (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • As a director, and perhaps even more importantly as a producer, Tsui Hark is one of the key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Hark wrote the screenplay based on Lilian Lee Pik-Wah’s novel, which was itself based on an ancient Chinese legend. In the original tale the Green Snake is a subordinate character to the White Snake, but in the novel and movie they are of approximately equal importance.
  • The same folktale was the basis for The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) with Jet Li, and the recent Chinese animated hits White Snake (2019) and Green Snake (2021).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An amazing moment occurs when meditating monk Fa-hai is bedeviled by lustful demons, who appear to him as bald women in skintight cat suits. Shocked when one appears in his lap, he leaps ten feet into the air in front of his giant Buddha statue, then fights the felines off with a flaming sword while they taunt him.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Monk tempted by pussies; snake joins a Bollywood dance number

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tsui Hark has style to spare, but spares none of it in this feverish epic filled with Taoist magic and Buddhist mysticism. A spectacle for the ages, Green Snake goes beyond the merely exotic into the realm of the hallucinatory.


UK trailer for Green Snake (1993)

COMMENTS: Green Snake gives you everything you could want in a Continue reading 18*. GREEN SNAKE (1993)

CAPSULE: JUMBO (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Zoé Wittock

FEATURING: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon,

PLOT: A young woman falls in love with the newest attraction at the amusement park.

Still from Jumbo (2020)

COMMENTS: Do you believe “inanimate objects have a soul, which sticks to our soul”? Probably not; or of you do, you mean it in a way that’s not nearly so literal as Jeanne. Even Jeanne can’t express her romantic feelings about objects properly: “Have you ever felt something for an object? When you touch them, you might feel something. Understand some things.” Unspecific things, that are impossible to communicate to others.

The thing that Jeanne has feelings for is the Move-It, one of those amusement park whirlygigs, the latest model, with lots of swinging arms and flashing multicolored neon lights. The Move-It (or Jumbo, the pet name Jeanne gives it) apparently becomes aroused as Jeanne gently wipes its buttons with a cloth. Later, it will communicate with her; and after some thrilling conversations, they appear to be getting along, so they move to the next logical phase of their relationship. That is to say, Jeanne strips to her panties in a white void as Jumbo spatters her with, and then submerges her in, his greasy oil, in a sequence that calls to mind a sex-positive version of Under the Skin‘s black goo.

The choice is up to you as to whether you view this as magical realism—Jumbo really has a soul, and a libido—or the hallucinations of an unreliable narrator. The movie has relatively little to offer other than its novel premise and its money shot psychedelic sex scenes. The narrative is essentially a gussied-up coming out tale, with Jeanne slowly revealing her heart to her on-the-make boss, promiscuous mother, and mom’s new drifter boyfriend, most of whom meet her revelations with a mixture of concern and disgust and develop strategies to “fix” her. Machine sex aside, the story goes exactly where you expect it to.

Fortunately, Noémie Merlant is excellent. Through most of the film she is believably awkward around animates; half of the time, she’s verging on a panic attack. Her love scenes are, believe it or not, genuinely erotic. She’s so good that she sells you on her orgasmic abandonment within Jumbo’s metallic embrace, and make a lovers’ spat with a multi-ton hunk of creaking machinery come off as tragic rather than comic. Without Merlant’s performance, Zoé Wittock could not have pulled off this wild ride.

Objectophilia (people who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects) is a real thing; Jumbo was inspired by the story of a woman who “married” the Eiffel Tower. It’s so rare on the spectrum of human sexual behavior, however, that it might as well be Wittock’s invention. Jumbo is not a deep study of the psychological roots of objectophilia, nor is it intended to be. You won’t learn about the cause of the condition, which may result from neurological mis-wiring (it’s correlated with both autism and synesthesia). But understanding isn’t the point. At heart, Jumbo is a prosaic (if important) parable about tolerance and acceptance of those who deviate from the norm—harmless weirdos. That’s a message we can all get behind. The naked girl dripping with oil is just a bonus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s no sidestepping Jumbo‘s recognizable weirdness… Jumbo is a fireworks display of cinematic sensationalism that explodes with feeling, expression, and uniqueness that questions why anyone in their right mind would strive to be ‘normal’ by conventional standards.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (festival review)

CAPSULE: FELLINI’S CASANOVA (1976)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: The dashing Venetian nobleman Casanova wanders around 18th century Europe seducing every woman who catches his eye.

Still from Fellini's Casanova (1976)

COMMENTS: Federico Fellini agreed to direct Casanova before he had read the Venetian libertine’s memoirs, which had only been published in 1960 in their complete uncensored form. After he did, he discovered that he hated the protagonist.

Perhaps that distaste partially explain why Donald Sutherland seems so wrong for the role of the notorious Lothario. The film’s Hollywood backers initially wanted Robert Redford for the part; Fellini vetoed them. Fellini wanted ; the suits vetoed him. Sutherland was a compromise. But, in keeping with his loathing of the character, Fellini chose to outfit Sutherland with a grotesque fake chin and nose, powder his face, and shave his head and eyebrows and replace them with a ridiculously coiffed wig and stenciled brows so that he looked like a rejected contestant from Ru Paul’s 18th Century Dandy Drag Race. It’s hard to imagine even the most desperate Renaissance floozy being hard up enough to willingly lift her petticoats for this Casanova. Perhaps that’s why, in an odd decision that bothers me more than it probably should, everyone in the movie keeps their frilly long underwear on during the manic but completely unerotic sex scenes. Casanova also has a golden wind-up mechanical owl, who pistons up and down and accompanies his assignations with a series of blips and bloops scored by Nino Rota. The lovemaking scenes are supposed to be comic—I think—but they comes across as slightly creepy, like sex scenes choreographed by an alien who’d fast-forwarded through a couple of Eurotrash sex films the night before, but didn’t have human sexual mechanics completely down.

To be fair, Sutherland does look the part of the spent, past-his-prime Casanova eeking out a humiliating living as a librarian for Count Waldstein; and the end of the film is where Fellini, too, finally shows some compassion for the drained rake. But overall, Casanova is overlong, unsympathetic, miscast, and a failure of tone. That’s not to say it’s entirely without interest, however; this is Fellini, so there’s always the possibility that some carnival with a 7-foot woman attended by two dwarfs in powdered wigs is waiting around the next bend. The costuming and set design are superlative. Fellini recreates the capitals and castles of old Europe on Cinecittà‘s indoor sets, including the impressive opener in Venice, where a giant bust of Venus rises from a canal during Carnevale as fireworks splatter the sky. Even the stormy Adriatic Sea is recreated as a sea of rustling black plastic tarps. And you can look forward to such oddities as a dinner party of necromancers, and Casanova finally discovering the great love of his life: a lifelike automaton complete with realistic artificial genitalia.

Although there’s a reason Casanova has been neglected all these years (Fellini once called it his worst movie), it easily merits a guilty peek for curiosity-seekers. In some ways, the scarcely-controlled extravagance and emphasis on mise-en-scène above all else reminds me more of early than it does late Fellini.

Fellini filmed an episode with that was cut from the final edit of the film. (Her name still appears prominently in the credits, and I kept waiting for her to show up to see what Fellini was going to do with her, er, talents).

Despite winning an Oscar (for costuming), Fellini’s Casanova was always a neglected entry in the Maestro’s canon. It didn’t even earn a DVD release in the US. In 2019, Cinecittà restored Casanova in the course of their massive remastering of Fellini’s catalog. Criterion apparently passed on it for their Fellini box set, but in December 2020, Kino rescued the film from home video limbo, sending it straight to Blu-ray.  A thoroughly-researched audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton is the only special feature of this edition.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…much less about the self-proclaimed 18th-century philanderer, his life and his times, than it is the surreal, guilt-ridden confessions of a nice, middle-class Italian husband of the 20th century… I don’t know how else to interpret this strange, cold, obsessed film, which I find fascinating, because I find the man who made it fascinating, a talented mixture of contradictory impulses, and as depressing as an eternal hangover.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who argues “Any question of this film’s weirdness can be directed to the scene where Sutherland performs a bizarre sex-change ritual with two women that involves a candlewax head dress…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SOLVE ET COAGULA (2020)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule

FEATURING: Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule

PLOT: Orpheus’ disembodied head is rediscovered after years of contemplative solitude.

Still from Solve et Coagula (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: An often dazzling combination of text, primal music, stylized vocalization, and surreal imagery, Solve et Coagula defies any conventional standards of cinema.

COMMENTS: A funny thing happened to me as I approached Solve et Coagula. I mentally began my review before even seeing it, planning on flippantly diving into a sea of glib remarks about Europeans, pornography, and art-house. About an hour into my viewing, this urge had morphed into the apologetically dismissive. However, once Orpheus’ head began lecturing a group of followers (and us) about human senses, something changed. My journey to tentative enlightenment only took two hours, but was a handy parallel to Orpheus’ journey. A third journey also took place, on the part of the director.

By any measure, “Defenestrate-Bascule” is a ridiculous name. I can’t believe it’s real, as its approximate meaning is the command, “throw the counter-balance out the window”. Experimental filmmakers are necessarily an eccentric breed, and in his own moniker Orryelle asks us to toss away our calibrated perspective. The request has merit: Solve et Coagula must be viewed unmoored from convention. Some elements are window-dressing (for example, the combination of stop-motion with live action, or the special effects that feel oh-so-very-1990s). What rips his movie from the canvass is the almost palpable energy—with two kinetic climaxes—that emerges from its Homeric narration and stylized repetition.

The first half, preceded by a sexually explicit proem to the goddess Erotica, is told cyclically, with lines expanding upon each other. The sentences are built visually on the screen in the form of the written word, while Orpheus (Orryelle Defenestrate-Bascule) wanders through woodlands, Hades, and a Maenad-infested riverside, speaking the words we see. This section ends with a nebulous cliffhanger: Orpheus’ head, chant-storytelling, floating disembodied along the water. There is some good to be found in this long introduction, but a lack of “punch” and the unwelcome anchoring of obviously real-life camera shots diminish the effect. This was the point that I became “apologetically dismissive.”

Sticking with this guide, however, proved well worth my while. Solve et Coagula is as inspired as it is flawed. Having endured the latter, I was able to soak up the former during the second half. Somehow, a headless Orpheus relating his woe of lacking a body, while demanding of his followers (and us) to use our bodies to make one for him, felt eminently more real somehow. Cinematically, Solve et Coagula hits its stride when it casts the trappings of a narrative framework aside and focuses on the physicality of the human form. In all my years I cannot recall witnessing video as palpably erotic as the long montage of bodies coalescing into one giant body for Orpheus; and the editing for the closing dance is the best job I’ve seen capturing what must have been a truly visceral experience for those filmed. When thinking on my front porch after the screening (a habit of mine), I found my brain bursting with things to talk about–and if that’s not a sign of a worthy work of art, I don’t know what is.

Solve et Coagula can currently be rented on Vimeo (adults only). More information, including details on an upcoming DVD/book release, can be found at the official site.

CAPSULE: THE HUNGER (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: Tony Scott

FEATURING: , Susan Sarandon, David Bowie

PLOT: When her lover of many centuries begins rapidly aging, vampiress Miriam Blaylock seduces a gerontologist to revive him.

COMMENTS: Catherine Deneuve. Susan Sarandon. Ann Magnuson. David Bowie. When your movie features some of the most attractive people around, it can’t help but look beautiful. Tony Scott’s directorial debut is a beautifully shot Eurotrash-style drama whose only parallel to his smash-hit sophomore effort is, perhaps, that it has some flying things: in The Hunger, there is what I dubbed “the Dove Room”, teeming with white birds; in Top Gun, there are some flying machines (and a character named after a bird). There the similarities just about stop—but not entirely. Though Scott’s oeuvre would lean heavily toward action-thriller after he was harvested by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, a romantic sappiness pulsates through his first two films.

The advertising featuring David Bowie is a bit misleading, seeing as his character dies (well, mostly) by the halfway mark. This is really the story of Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve, gloriously vague in a European kind of way), a vampire who originated at least as far back as ancient Egyptian times. Her man-squeeze John (Bowie, young and sexy, until he very quickly isn’t) seems to have lost the knack for eternal youth—a fate suffered by Miriam’s innumerable lovers beforehand. However, their final hedonistic days of early ’80s New York City party-fun-time do slow down enough to allow them to make the acquaintance of Doctor Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon, doing a wonderful job as the smoky-sexy scientist), whose research may relate to the sudden trouble suffered by hapless John.

The Hunger starts in a nightclub, with the camera focused on a goth singer and his band performing behind a caged stage. Intercut with his exorbitantly vampiric lyricising are shots of Miriam and John picking up some gothed-out groupies and draining them dry. The pastiche of club life excess, luxury car excess, and sanguino-sexual excess nicely sets the mood, and acts as an early filter for the audience. If this is not what you want to be watching for the next eighty minutes, then The Hunger is not the movie for you. What follows is a semi-tragic romance, rapid aging in a doctor’s office, and some softcore lesbian sex (if you’re into that sort of thing). Ultimately, Scott’s movie reveals that perhaps the greatest hunger is a hunger for companionship…

This is all very flip, but it’s hard not to be that way when discussing something as cheesy and stylishly overwrought as The Hunger, whose stylized nonsense and hyper-vampire-sexuality predates Interview with a Vampire by about a decade. (On film, anyway: apparently that bit of fluff-core had been in development since the early ’80s.) The only truly impressive element to be found is the make-up work on David Bowie; by the time you see John Blaylock morph from 30-something Bowie into just-about-decomposing Bowie, you’ll understand why Dick Smith’s credited with “make-up Illusions.” Otherwise, this film merely demands you grab some of the butteriest popcorn and reddest wine you can find and marvel at its wet dreaminess.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dreamily photographed by Stephen Goldblatt and cryptically edited together by Pamela Power, nothing in The Hunger makes sense… like in that ludicrous advertisement for Britney Spears’s Curious perfume, sexual desire simply provokes postmodern psychotropic episodes.”–Ed Gonzalez, Slant (DVD)

CAPSULE: MY NIGHTS WITH SUSAN, SANDRA, OLGA, & JULIE (1975)

Mijn Nachten met Susan, Olga, Albert, Julie, Piet & Sandra

DIRECTED BY: Pim de la Parra

FEATURING: Willeke van Ammelrooy, Hans van der Gragt, Franulka Heyermans, Marja de Heer, Nelly Frijda, Marieke van Leeuwen, Serge-Henri Valcke

PLOT: Anton is sent by Barbara to pick up her friend Susan, who has exiled herself in the countryside; the errand goes awry when two of Susan’s housemates murder an American passing through their town.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though it is a perk, having professional opportunities to watch classic lite-porn isn’t the main reason I took up writing for this site. Pim de la Parra and producer Wim Verstappen once again limbo below the bar of “weird” to deliver a quirky, flesh-filled … thriller?

COMMENTS: It’s got a title Peter Greenaway would love (particularly the more thorough Dutch version), establishing shots ripped off from Alfred Hitchcock, and more carefree nudity than you could shake a stick at. (Being very careful, under the circumstances, in so doing.) In fact, other than breezing along a tad too quickly, I have no real complaints about this movie. Even the director’s introduction video for the blu-ray was disarming and convivial, “Please don’t forget: it’s a small movie from a small country, and I am also a very small man, as you can see.”

Our story begins with Sandra (Marja de Heer) and Olga (Franulka Heyermans) hucking rocks at some swans, stopping their mindless fun to flag down a car driven by an American. He’s smoking a big-honkin’ cigar, he’s wearing garish sunglasses, he’s blasting some kind of proto-R&B in his drop-top’s cassette deck (this is 1975, remember). Topping it off, he’s drinking “Bourbon, USA” brand whiskey. He’s an American—and he’s doomed1. Sandra lures him into some car sex while Olga looks on jealously. Smash goes the bottle, down goes the Yankee, and the story begins anew, with hunky-hunk Anton (Hans van der Gragt) zipping up to a farmhouse on his motorcycle on a mission to extract erstwhile model Susan (Willeke van Ammelrooy) at the behest of an unseen “Barbara” who wants Susan back in the city. All the non-Barbara ladies live together (not forgetting, of course, Julie—who is either asleep or helpfully wearing a t-shirt with her name written on it). In fact, there are others lurking about the farmhouse not included in the English-language title. More plot than can fit in eighty-five minutes gets sliced down further to allow for some “romance”.

The whole thing was so strangely whimsical and fun, I regret having put off watching it for as long as I did. As the final release of de la Parra’s and Verstappen’s “Scorpio” production label, it’s also a nice capstone for what was probably the end of whimsical soft-core mainstream-ism. AIDS lurked around the corner, and the Cold War was reaching its awkward, saggy middle. Scorpio goes out with a bang, figuratively, but with My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie it also crams in some psychodrama (just a smidge), a latter-day witch, and rounds out its lilting excess with some nice fiery vengeance for the delight of an audience of corpses. This little movie fills a void I didn’t know existed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“For approximately an hour Parra does different things — which should not be spoiled – that essentially provide his film with a Hitchcockian identity but the humor keeps chipping away its edges, which makes all of the key relationships look a bit odd. However, it all begins to make perfect sense when you realize, like I did an hour later, that the real distraction that throws everything out of sync is actually the Hitchcockian material.”–Dr. Svet Atanasov, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)