Sunday, July 01, 2007

PRIVATE COLLECTIONS (JUST JAECKIN, SHUJI TERAYAMA, and WALERIAN BOROWCYZK, 1979)





For a brief period in film history, anthology genre films were all the rage. Most often recognized in the horror genre, with examples ranging from the notorious made-for-TV Karen Black vehicle, Trilogy of Terror, to the Amicus omnibus House That Dripped Blood, among countless other examples. It was a format that worked decent with horror; allowing three (or more) films to be packed into a maximum runtime, allowing the films to approach the actual HORROR quicker, and not have to worry half as much about filling a 90 minute runtime. It could be said that if the directors were really into an ~40 minute time frame, they could have just made short films. But a short film isn't as financially viable as a feature film, so the anthology film was a compromise, allowing filmmakers to work with smaller time slots while still allowing for general public exhibition.

Private Collections is one of the only films that I can think of to apply this structure to "erotica" that's not a farce or comedy (like Vittorio De Sica's Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow). And it's uniqueness extends even further by the directors who were involved: Just Jaeckin was more or less internationally famous for his glossy adaptations of Emmanuelle and The Story of O, Shuji Terayama was a true aesthetic rebel who was not so internationally known, and even known in his native country as Japan mostly for his poetry and plays, and Polish director Walerian Borowczyk was more or less critically panned after he abandoned his groundbreaking animations in favorite of erotic feature films. In fact, it's such an odd combination of talents that it's hard to imagine exactly what the producers were thinking, but nevertheless, the film is a nice example of varying strains of erotism in the cinema.

The first segment of the anthology is Just Jaeckin's Isle of the Sirens. It begins with Benoit (played by Roland Blanche) falling of his ship due to a cyclone, waking up on a seemingly abandoned island. For a few days he does all he can to survive, trying to draw as much attention to himself as possible. One day he thinks he sees a beautiful woman (played by Laura Gemser), but she disappears after a few seconds and he blames his sighting on the intensity of the sun. However, the next morning he wakes up he finds a basket full of fresh fruit left near where he was sleeping. He then sets off to find the enigmatic woman. Eventually he does, and as he finally encounters her, he hears a boat approaching the island. He decides the beautiful woman is more important than his rescue, so he hurriedly tears down his flags and goes to her. For a while he is living in an island paradise, with four beautiful nude woman caring for his every whim. However, as time drags on he begins to suspect that things are not quite what they seem, and that a terrible fate may await him...

Jaeckin's trademark soft-focus cinematography is on full display here, highlighting the rich hues present on the beautiful, tropical island, and the beautiful curves and skin of the four "native" women. It's also interesting to note that the ending of this short comes closer to approaching "horror" than anything else Jaeckin has ever done. Unfortunately the "shock" at the end is fairly cliche and obvious. The violence at the end is also followed by an annoying "it was just a dream" coda, but this coda also allows for the viewer to interpret the events as some sort of bizarre fantasy, as it is rooted in simpler, base animalistic desires.

For what it is, it's a very brief enjoyable piece of Eurotica. As I mentioned before, it's beautiful to look at (Jaeckin was trained as a fashion photographer) and Pierre Bachelet's score is just as up to par as it is in any of his other collaborations with Jaeckin. The narrative also comes to fruition with minimal dialogue, and virtually no clear communication between Benoit and the island's mysterious inhabitants. But, it brings nothing new to the table, and aside from aesthetics barely transcends mere entertainment, which admittedly isn't a bad thing in itself.

The next segment is Shuji Terayama's The Grass Labyrinth, which, unlike the other two films in the compendium, had a release of it's own, outside of the film, in Terayama's native Japan. The film is the tale of Akira as he searches high and low for the lyrics to a nursury rhyme his mother used to sing when he was a child. He abandoned his mother as a teenager, and he has found out she has since died, so he cannot ask her himself. The past and the present become contingent as Akira recounts events related to his obsession with the rhyme, a red ball, and his relationship with his mother.

The first thing to note is that in this anthology, instead of just subtitling the Japanese dialogue for the French audiences, a French narrator was added over the film; so instead of listening to any dialogue the film is told like a story, with one voice for all the characters. I had originally seen the film in it's original language with English subtitles, devoid of the French narration, so it was interesting to compare the two. The French version spells things out a little more, as the narration relies on one omnipotent story teller instead of what's actually happening in the story. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on your outlook. I prefer the original method, as it allows the events to unfold slowly, and draws more upon the actual emotional implications of what's happening in order to tell the story, whereas the French narration more or less straight up just tells the story (as opposed to the original version showing it). Regardless of how it's watched, one thing doesn't change, and that's Terayama's amazing symbolic and surreal images.

Above everything else, the color red is utterly dominant in the film, taking prominence in every single frame, and helping to elaborate the emotionally important elements of whatever memory or event is on screen; an hair comb, Akira's mothers dress, a window, a ball. Terayama's trademark color filters are also on display, saturating, desaturating, or dividing the frame into brilliant surreal colors that add an air of the fantastique to events that are already bizarre. There is also a careful rhythm in the film; between the plotting, the images, and J.A. Seazer's brilliant score-- the film begins slowly and builds in tempo until it literally climaxes (although it's more like an orgasm, or a wet dream) with a bizarre surreal dream that is both all encompassing of the events leading up to it and utterly confusing, revealing as many answers as it begs questions.

But such is the nature of a Terayama film, and this is definitely that. It works as a sort of microcosm of the themes that Terayama would explore again and again throughout his career, whether it be in film, photography, poetry, or theater. Two very dominant traits that are ever-present throughout Terayama's oeuvre relate to family dynamics; the father of the protagonist (who is generally male, as most of Terayama's work is at least vaguely auto-biographical) is always absent, and the mother is controlling and manipulative. The film is also very similar to Terayama's 1974 feature Pastoral: To Die in the Country. It explores similar themes in a similar location in a similar method, so it's almost safe to view Grass Labyrinth as a sequel or continuation.

The third, and final, segment of the film is Walerian Borowczyk's The Cabinet. It tells the tale of a lonely upper class man at night who, fearing the onset of sadness, decides to go to the theater and pick up a whore for the entire night so he doesn't have to sleep alone. He meets a woman and gets her to agree to spend the entire night with him, instead of the normal half hour or so. He heads back to her apartment and makes love with her, afterward manipulating her into telling of her first time. Eventually he realizes that somebody else is in the room...

A period piece that is beautifully lit, Borowczyk's segment is decorated with details; something that Borowczyk carries off with ease. His camera gently glides from the couple making love to the border of a wooden bead frame, and this fetishistic eye helps to heighten the elegant, erotic tension. While ostensibly both Jaeckin and Borowczyk work within upper class eroticism, they handle it remarkably differently. Jaeckin's is more loose and glossy, like a magazine ad, whereas Borowczyk's is direct and studied, allowing for a more subtle atmosphere to develop in order to enhance the sexuality.

Early in the short, as the man is visiting the theater cum bordello, Borowcyzk shows his genuine skill in directing chaos, carefully allowing enough details to create a sensual atmosphere that will introduce the rest of the events on screen. It's interesting, however, that the main plot of the story ends on a melancholy note, then once again returns to the chaos that began the film. It's creates an emotional dichotomy; we see that both of our main characters have been, for lack of a better word, touched, yet both return to the same routine the next night.

As a whole, Private Collections is pretty disconnected. There are really no connections between any of the shorts outside of the fact that they all include sexuality as a primary plot progression. The films all stand up fairly well on their own, but there's absolutely nothing that makes them better viewed within the context of the anthology. Not that I'm complaining, I happen to be a pretty big fan of all the directors involved here, so to see them together is a very nice thing, even if the films don't interact with each other at all.

I guess one thing postive I could say about the anthology context would be that it serves to introduce core themes and ideas between all three directors oeuvres. Jaeckin regularly makes glossy softcore erotica that is almost always style over subtsance, Terayama creates enigmatic, memory-ridden 'trips' that rely regularly on sexuality to progress, and Borowczyk works mainly in period erotica pieces with a careful eye for detail. If you want an hour and forty minute introduction to three of the best figures working in the erotic in the 70s, this wouldn't be the worst place to start.

3 Comments:

Blogger Cinebeats said...

It looks like an interesting film and I like the stills you posted.

For some reason I find anthology films really fascinating. My favorite is Histoires Extraordinaires, but there are lots of others I like as well even though they rarely work that well as a whole.

Private Collections is one of the only films that I can think of to apply this structure to the erotic film

Erotic anthology films were actually hugely popular in Europe during the sixties and seventies. I don't think many of them were as interesting as the one you just described though. A lot of them were comedies, but once in awhile you'll come across more dramatic films as well.

btw - I thought I should let you know that The House That Dripped Blood is actually an Amicus film. Amicus made a lot of the best horror anthologies during the sixties and seventies.

12:00 AM  
Blogger mike said...

Thanks for the corrections! I guess my mind just blanked as I was def. aware of the erotic/comedy anthology films, as I've got several... bah!

Also thanks for the correction on The House That Dripped Blood; another thing that slipped my mind... maybe I shouldn't try to get so many posts out in one night ;)

8:58 AM  
Blogger Jeremy Richey said...

I just saw this recently and really liked it. Borowczyk is one of my favorite directors and I really admire the other two as well.
I liked all three of the films, the naratation in the second threw me a bit but otherwise I found them all to be pretty solid, if not among their best works.
Another well written review...and God, how beautiful was Laura Gemser in this? Great still of her...

Histoires Extraordinaires is my favorite also and I share Kimberly's fascination with anthology films, I really miss them...

8:37 AM  

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