LA PUNITION (PIERRE-ALAIN JOLIVET, 1973)
For a brief period of time in European genre cinema, sadomasochistic themed films were all the rage. Jess Franco doled out plenty with his personal touch, Just Jaeckin hit it big with his glossy adaptation of The Story of O, and Radley Metzger even hoped on the bandwagon in true European style with certain scenes from Camille 2000 and the some-what hardcore The Image; and those titles just touch the tip of the iceberg. Many of the films were utter exploitation, and others approached the subject matter with a specific intellectual bend, which was perfectly fitting towards the subject matter.
In 1973, Pierre-Alain Jolivet released La Punition (which translated to "The Punishment" in English). Jolivet had began his directorial career directing an adaptation of a play written by Fernando Arrabel, La Grand Ceremonial. Today, none of his films seem to have any official releases (outside a few VHS releases throughout the world), and throughout my searching I've come across almost no information on the man's career, or his films. To me, he remains a mystery.
I had seen a few still frames from La Punition on a now absent website a few years ago and they managed to stay in my mind. The images showed a decrepit, almost empty hotel room except for a bedframe and a cowering naked woman. The images alone were powerful enough; I made a mental note to try to check out the film. I finally managed to track the film down a few weeks ago, and sat down to watch it tonight.
From what I can discern of the plot (another no English viewing), La Punition tells the story of a woman (played by Karin Schubert, who later went on to hardcore pornography) who gets roped into a prostitution ring while developing a relationship with a man who's involved. She fails to please a trick and her boss forces her into confinement in a room in a hotel that is completely devoid of furnishings except for a bed frame, a locked, white cupboard, and a floor covered with dead leaves (an amazing visual). While in the room she is stripped naked and in a series of tableaus degraded and whipped, forced to fulfill every man who enters desire (hence the title; it's her punishment). While in the room she regularly hears another girl next door howling in fear and pain.
It's a sort of odd film; aside from the fact that I'm obviously missing loads due to my not understanding the dialogue, there's a lot going on here. The film opens (after cutting from a scene that is repeated once again near the end of the film) in a sort of art gallery/party. The room is mostly white, and upper class men and woman mingle around. An overwhelming sound of gunshots sand helicopters drowns out the soundtrack, which is soon revealed to be a game that a man is playing. A pinball machine is shown with legs coming out so that while playing it creates the visual implication of fucking a woman. And then comes dinner; grotesque animal heads and body parts decorate trays of snacks and food, which the men and women greedily devour.
I can't put my finger on exactly why it was, but something about this scene reminded me a lot of the opening scene (after the credits sequence) of Alain Robbe-Grillet's Eden and After in the cafe Eden. It might have something to do with the lack of a character that the camera is focusing on; rather the camera smoothly glides around revealing the people and items in the room, while the disturbing soundtracks creates a sort of nullified divide.
There are also brief moments of intense violence throughout the film which also seem to stem from the grosteque art of the opening scene. It comes rarely and as a surprise, so it's very effective when it does come, and suitably disrupts the mood.
If there's one thing I can say about the film it's that Pierre-Alain Jolivet has a remarkable sense of aesthetics. Almost every scene in the movie is either decked out in subtly bright colors, or, as in the hotel room, the visual aesthetics emphasize the emotional position that the character is in. There is a copious use of red and green lights, and there are many tracking shots that move in truly unique ways around what's being depicted.
The soundtrack is also great, varying from mid-70s party-psych to more harrowing piano chords for the sadistic scenes. The sound effects are wonderful too, from the aforementioned use of sound to put the audience off guard in the first scene to the way that every telephone conversation is heard with a creepy reverb that seems to create a mood of distance and threat.
I can't comment too much on the narrative, as I still feel I'm missing a great deal by not understanding the dialogue (more than normal compared to some of the other films I've reviewed without English options), but overall I believe that this is a film worth watching, and probably revisiting, if for the visual aesthetics alone.