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Barbet Schroeder has always been interested in human obsessions and the dynamic of relationships, but when he got the idea to make Maîtresse he added something rather strange: Comedy. If you have never seen his infamous 1975 film, you should be aware of several things prior to watching it. The first of which is that this is essentially a very dark comedy about an unlikely love between a professional Dominatrix and a somewhat dim-witted would-be-thug.  The second is that it is probably the closest a film has come to capturing the true idea of BDSM as something more than a simple desire — for Ariane (Bulle Ogier) and her clients, it is a true obsession. While she might attempt to keep her professional life hidden in the strange world isolated in a cloistered series of rooms beneath her apartment, it becomes clear that this world is more than a way to earn money. Elements of her sadism have already worked their way into her sunny world.

Stylish lady with some secrets... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Stylish lady with some secrets…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Like her clients, this is an obsession meant to be hidden from the rest of the world to see. The third is that Maîtresse is a very graphic film. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The final and most important general statement about Maîtresse is that it is a highly artistic and well-crafted film. While it does not deserve to be listed or thought of as Shock Cinema, it is a most certainly highly provocative work. Schroeder is an intellectually restrained artist, but he is most certainly putting himself in the role of provocateur when it comes to this unforgettable and odd movie.

When Barbet Schroeder began production of Maîtresse in 1974 he knew he was creating a provocative film, but he had no idea just how difficult it would be to secure distribution in 1975. It would be more than a couple of years before this infamous film would be seen much at all. The film was essentially banned and censored for over six years after the initial debut. The UK would prove the toughest nut to crack. Interestingly it was not so much due to the exploration into the world of a French Dominatrix which included graphic depictions of BDSM activities, nor was it actually due to anything tied up in fetish and kink and it certainly wasn’t the horrific visit to a Paris horse meat slaughterhouse. The bottomline reason Schroeder’s film was refused release into the UK was because it featured the back view of a vulva.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975

To give the British Board of Film Classification their due — they were smart enough to actually state that the film’s refusal was related to the “excessive” degrees of fetishism. The real reason BBFC denied release to the film was not because a person was being whipped, it was because the audience could see her vulva. The board did not mind that the audience could see a penis being severely mistreated. They were upset that the man seemed to enjoy having his genitals mistreated.

Maîtresse was screened and received a limited release in the US. The distributor assigned the film an X-rating on its own. So limited was the release that very few film critics actually reviewed it. The New York Times quite liked it. But the film became notorious with relatively few people having ever actually seen it. That all changed when The Criterion Collection remastered and released it to DVD in 2004.

Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Criterion Collection, 2004

Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Criterion Collection, 2004

While the uncensored theatrical cut of Maîtresse had been released to the UK via DVD starting in 2003, the transfers were not solid. Under their Flipside Editions, The British Film Institute released it to Blu-ray in 2012. Blu quality enhanced, the BFI release is actually superior to the Criterion Collection pressing. There has been some very loose rumors that Criterion may give the film another image/sound boost to re-issue to Blu-ray, but it is rather unlikely. The film’s graphic scene filmed in an actual horse slaughterhouse is truly horrific to watch. This scene is most likely intended to act as a sort of metaphor for a powerful beast being reduced to a powerless victim ultimately utilized as food. The scene arrives in the story when the leading man is feeling powerless and emasculated.

Even playing "footsie" takes a turn... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Even playing “footsie” takes a turn…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Note: Even by 1975 horse meat had already become a taboo form of food in more than a couple of countries. However it should be noted that while it has dramatically shifted away from favor, there are still butcher shops in France specifically reserved for the sale of this meat. All the same this is an alarming scene that will most likely put off a good number of people. As an FYI, Schroeder’s use of the footage is almost tame when compared to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s use of Goethe recitation as the audience is led through the horrors of a slaughterhouse in 1978’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Fassbinder employed this form of human brutality to create a metaphor for fascism and despair. Unlike Schroeder’s movie,  Fassbinder’s film is not even remotely a comedy. Still both films carry a repugnant reputation for screening graphic screening of animal slaughter. Consider yourself warned.

All the same, it is annoying that the Criterion transfer is inferior to the one released by BFI Flipside Edition.

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer. Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 BFI Flipside, 2012

Wig and make-up perfected as well as an enhanced transfer.
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
BFI Flipside, 2012

While one might expect a 1975 French film to be dated, it really isn’t. Even the clothing is not particularly 1970’s tacky. Let’s not forget that Karl Lagerfeld was in charge of costume design. …And the line between S&M to Lagerfeld is fairly short in distance.

And speaking of Sadomasochism, Maîtresse is one of the few films to actually craft a realistic depiction of this subculture. While many speak of Sadomasochism, the reality is that a true Sadist is not going to derive much pleasure from role-play. And while one might think of a Masochist as passive or willing victim, the true master of S&M role-play is always the Masochist. In other words, there is a very dark side to the games that many adults play. In Maîtresse the role playing is most definitely in action, but the games are being played with the rules loose and usually hidden. During the first half of the film it would appear that  Ariane takes no particular pleasure in what she does in the lair beneath her bright apartment, but Schroeder slowly begins to reveal aspects of her true nature as the film moves forward.

Going down below to a domestic torture garden... Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Going down below to a domestic torture garden…
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Ariane seems to take true delight in feeding a collection of venus fly trap plants. Her high-scale bathtub has been crafted to include a bottom chamber that she has filled with water snakes or eels who feed off small fish which she her maid/assistant pours into the mix. And of course as the battle of the sexes ensues we see examples of her need to remain firmly in the position of dominance.

Tighten up the gimp... Bulle Ogier & Client Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tighten up the gimp…
Bulle Ogier & Client
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The film’s perspective belongs to leading man of the story. Gérard Depardieu’s Olivier appears to be a harmless sort of guy, but it only takes a small opportunity and he is ready to take up the grift as burglar. And it only takes another moment or two before we realize that this burly young man is a criminal. The film’s plot begins as Olivier and a pal break into what they think is an empty Parisian apartment. Like voyeurs, we follow these knuckleheads into a creepy dark space. With only a flashlight to provide limited perspective, we understand within a few seconds that this is no ordinary apartment. The small light reveals gimp masks, gas masks, latex & rubber suits, a hanging noose, a sinister looking dental chair, something like a torture rack, loads of odd surgical type equipment, dildos, baby bottles, diapers, a wide variety of torture tools and a terrified naked man shivering in a dog pen.  This might all read a bit funnier than it is. I first saw this movie in Cambridge back in the 1990’s and it was and remains a genuinely creepy opening sequence. Soon these two thugs find themselves handcuffed together and to a radiator as Bulle Ogier’s Ariane tends to her clients.

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin... Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Sexual attraction, crime, money and a battle for control is about to begin…
Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

This is a filmmaker’s movie. Gerard Depardieu is well cast in the type of role for which he was best known in his youth — a sort of primally sexy gentle giant. It is really through Olivier‘s eyes that the audience sees the film. While this man is far from innocent, he clearly has no understanding of the world to which he has entered. But it is both comical and interesting that he finds himself deeply attracted to Ariane. His desire for her begins as she one-up’s both he and his pal by managing to cuff them together with no hope of escape. His attraction only builds as she offers him a chance to make some money and leads him further into the dark corners of her domestic torture garden. As they approach a man dressed in female bondage gear, she demands that the client get on all fours. She straddles him and positions Olivier directly in front of the masochist’s face. Olivier looks more curious than shocked. She unzips her burglar’s fly, pulls out his penis and demands that he urinate in the client’s face. Olivier‘s eyes never leave those of Ariane. As we hear the urine release he shares a passionate kiss with her. Suddenly this brute of a man is in love.

And now we begin your punishment... A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

And now we begin your punishment…
A Masochist Client & Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

After a night of what appears to be romance funded by Ariane, the two lie in bed. There are no professions of love, but it is clear it is there. Schroeder’s screenplay and Bulle Ogier’s careful performance require no words for the audience to understand that much of her attraction / fondness for Olivier is grounded in his mix of dull intellect, brutish but placid assertions of dominance. Of course the deal-sealer for Ariane is that this man is unabashedly almost worshiping in his adoration. There is also no need for discussion regarding Olivier‘s confusion regarding the downstairs world of his love’s professional life. All Depardieu need to do is offer a glance and we know that he is even more confused than those of us in the audience.

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment...

And this must be the naughty girl in need of punishment… Bulls Ogier / Wealthy Clients / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When Ariane essentially tricks him into visiting a friend in the country, he has no idea that she is leading him into a Dominatrix scenario involving a group of wealthy devotees. Confused, unsure and fearful of being judged as less than a man Olivier agreed to remove his belt and whip the pretty and only female player in the chateau. It is clear that he simply does not understand why a tough whipping would provide pleasure. Eager to demonstrate his abilities to his new lover, he opts to softly tease the masochist’s vulva. Of course this only demonstrates his misunderstanding of this type of desire. The wealthy clients are amused as is Ariane. But Olivier and the audience are confused and worried that he is being used and reduced to some sort of walking joke.

When I saw Maîtresse for the first time back in the 1990’s I had been informed that it was a dark comedy. At this time it was hard for me to accept it as comedy. It seemed to me that the film was aiming far deeper than one anticipates from the genre. Despite my own desire to interpret the movie in a different way there were elements that simply did not seem to fit the action on the screen.

Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified...

Néstor Almendros captures our Mistress in perfect frame to emerge with a halo for the man who will become obsessed. Meet the Whore-Madonna concept personified… Bulls Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Carlos D’Alessio’s musical score seemed odd. It is a rather charming bit of work that never fits into the world we and Olivier are exploring. In addition some of the darkest moments contained within the movie have no musical accompaniment. Seeing the film again after it had been added to The Criterion Collection, the comedy of Maîtresse hit me. Certainly not a comic experience that generates laughs as much as amusement — this is more a sense of bemusement. This is, of course, a French film. I love French cinema, but no one else presents comedy quite like the French. This level of dark comedy or comédie de l’ cruels has become more familiar outside of French cinema in the past decade. John Magary’s recent brilliant independent American film, The Mend, presents an incisive and rage-filled study of two brothers as the sort of dark comedy one might expect from France. Serious studies of humanity taking a turn toward the comical is not so odd to most of us anymore. Despite all of the transgressions and darker elements of identity, Maîtresse is most certainly a comedy.

Watching love's persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend.

Watching love’s persona and identity change presents more than a little confusion for the boyfriend. Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

A key to understanding Maîtresse is to know that nothing we see is eroticized. This is not an erotic film.

When we are given glimpses into the Maitresse’s world of punishment and humiliation it is either directly related to Olivier‘s sneaking around peaking or listening. Schroeder spent a good deal of time researching the subject matter of the film as he felt no connection to the world of S&M. Much of Bulle Ogier’s character is based on an actual dominatrix. He gained her trust and she agreed to allow she and several of her clients to be used in the film itself. Long before the idea of digital effects existed, Schroeder carefully placed the actual dominatrix in relation to his actress/wife’s positions. The actual members of the 1970’s Parisian BDSM Underground wear masks to protect their identity, but they are willfully accepting their mistresses’ punishments. All is filmed to make it look as if Ogier is the one applying nails, needles and other manipulations. Filmed without typical movie lighting or other stylings, these transgressive acts are presented with only the sounds that were occurring at the time of filming. The result is often jarring and more than a little shocking, but never eroticized.

Nothing is ever explained beyond the most limited of discussion. Like Olivier, we are left with only what we see and might already understand separate from the film. Unlike Olivier, we are hopefully not quite so simple in our thinking and reasoning. And let’s hope we are not male chauvinist pigs. Olivier has a deep-seated need to dominate his woman. Having grown into a world of cruelty and crime, he has no trouble formulating the idea that his girl is a prostitute in need of a strong pimp. He wants the role of her pimp. And he wants to find a way to help her earn even more money. Because it is all about money. Right?!? 

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it... Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

One simple bully who has met his match without even fully realizing it…
Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Tragically for Olivier, he is unable to grasp that Ariane needs no protecting and certainly no pimp. Ariane never states an opinion, but it is clear that she does not identify as a prostitute and would never even consider the idea of pimp in her existence. As Olivier becomes more and more obsessed with understanding what Ariane does and why people pay her to do it — he becomes even more determined to know all of her secrets. The identity of a certain person constantly being mentioned in relation to money either with her maid or on one of her two phones consumes Olivier.

It is at this point of the story that we fully begin to understand the depth of Ariane‘s own perverse sadistic urges. It would not take much for her to simply explain it all to Olivier, but she has far too much fun watching him struggle for his grounding and fret over the details of her life.

Even when Olivier’s tendencies toward domestic abuse begin to flare up, she maintains her sense of control.

He's just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now?

He’s just royally screwed a lot up, but there is simply too much joy to be found in his desperate need for her love and forgiveness. Who has the power now? Bulle Ogier / Gerard Depardieu Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

When he puts his huge hands around her slender throat she plays it off as if a game. Poor Olivier doesn’t even pick up that he has failed to scare her. Later when he finally pushes things too far and our Maîtresse has had enough, she head-butts Olivier so hard blood begins to pour from his nose. Clearly shocked by her strength, his reaction is to attempt to warn Ariane that she too has been harmed. He is concerned. Ariane is unbothered by the self-damage inflicted by her head-butting. She is seething with anger.

It is the dim-witted Olivier who is emotionally crushed. This is not the first time we have seen this rough and huge man fall to pieces over his girl.  Control and cruelty are needs and that refuse to stay in that dark cave of torture secretly adjoined to her private home. These needs are not being fully satisfied by respecting most of her clients’ wishes and safe words. A Sadist wants real control and a victim. She is happy to play along with Olivier‘s limited view of women for the pleasure his pain provides.

She may look the part of angel, but this aspect is in appearance only.

Another key scene involves some personal and rather rough role-play between Ariane and Olivier. Schroeder wisely shoots this scene in a particularly ambiguous way. It looks like a violent public fight between the two characters as reality with the looming threat of rape. When the two end up in a garden shed of an elderly woman we hear Ariane‘s screams. As the poor old woman rushes to come to the aide of the petit blond woman, Olivier emerges with a switchblade pointed to kill. When Ariane walks out of the shed she is still pulling up her skirt. We might expect that she would feel empathy for the elder woman, but instead she merely leans into Olivier and mockingly suggests he leave the poor “old dear” alone. She skips away without even waiting to see what Olivier might do.

We never actually  know if this was a bit of role-playing or a real scenario that Ariane has manifested / navigated for some sadistic fun.

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man. Bulle Ogier  Maîtresse  Barbet Schroeder, 1975  Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Punishing a key client, this is not a woman who needs or wants the protection of a man.
Bulle Ogier
Maîtresse
Barbet Schroeder, 1975
Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Despite the dark elements of the on-screen actions, this is a story about the battle of the sexes. It is also an odd 1970’s twist on Feminisim. The key word here is “odd.” In many ways it almost seems a mistake that Barbet Schroeder opted to sculpt a very twisted romantic comedy from the BDSM clay of his story. There are so many aspects of Bulle Ogier’s Ariane it seems a bit of a waste of a great actress that she is unable to explore them. As I’ve stated several times, not much is ever explained about the title character.

Forever lingering with mystery...

Forever lingering with mystery… Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

The subplot of Ariane‘s situation is only mentioned in passing. I’m not sure I even fully noticed it upon my first viewing some 20 years ago, but it is wrought with dramatic potential. La Maîtresse is the mother of an elementary school age child.  An older gentleman (who may or may not be the child’s father) appears to have taken custody of the child. We may not know the full story here, but it would appear that Ariane is fine with this arrangement and most likely has intended it to be this way. When we see her with her child she clearly feels a stronger bond to her Doberman Pinscher. A beloved pet she has named Texas and claims to have trained to kill upon demand. We do not know if this is true, but it seems likely to be an accurate claim. Her young son appears to attempt to gain his mother’s attention, but Ariane is far more interested with Texas. When the boy walks off with his guardian/father, Ariane appears bored, but fixated on the dog. We never learn the name of her son, but she is more than happy to sneak away and join Olivier on a very strange drive in which the battle for power takes a surprising turn.

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?!

Orgasm without brakes! Hey, who is really driving this car anyway?!?! Gerard Depardieu / Bulle Ogier Maîtresse Barbet Schroeder, 1975 Cinematography | Néstor Almendros

Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse is an uncomplicated film about some very complicated people. The choice to keep it unexplained and unexplored is intentional. And as it turns out this was a very clever and wise decision. Maîtresse pulls us in just deep enough to make us squirm but never so far out that we need to grasp for air. It also prevents the film from slipping into a psychological realm that would ultimately prove disappointing.

Why?

Well sometimes life’s complications and the obsessions to which it leads are too murky to actually articulate.

Matty Stanfield, 1.28.2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if John Carpenter had filmed his own script of Eyes of Laura Mars. It is a rather silly question as he did not film his own script. Instead that duty was assigned to the skilled filmmaker, Irvin Kershner. The only director bold enough to stand his ground against the likes of George Lucas while shooting his film for the Star Wars franchise and the director who was able to assist Barbra Streisand tone it all down to play a very believable housewife in a very surreal experimental film of the early 1970’s, Up The Sandbox.

"And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever I can't escape. One minute's so sincere. Then you completely turn against me. And I'm afraid..." An Iconic Movie Poster Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978

“And your eyes say everything. You wanna keep me here forever
I can’t escape. One minute’s so sincere.
Then you completely turn against me. And I’m afraid…”
An Iconic Movie Poster
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978

Up until 1977 he had never directed a horror film. It is clear that the under-appreciated film artist was less interested in the terror aspects of Carpenter’s script than in using it to focus on the problematic trend of mixing sex with violence as a form of subversion or perverse eroticism. One merely has to glance at only one of Rebecca Blake’s photographs taken for the film to understand that she is carefully constructing slick photographs in the vein of Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. Interestingly, these provocative and aggressively misogynistic photographs point toward where Karl Lagerfeld would be headed later on.

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph | Rebecca Blake

Is Laura Mars really only selling shampoo here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph | Rebecca Blake

John Carpenter’s original screenplay is fairly simple: A Post-Feminist (???) fashion photographer takes controversial photographs which capture not only the erotic elements of the female form in stylish clothing, but acts of brutal violence and murder. Violence and murder usually aimed at women.  Her work is highly profitable and has made her a bit of a celebrity. As a coffee table book collecting some of her most infamous photographs hits the stores, people close to her begin to be murdered in horrible ways that always culminate with their eyes being gouged out.

Even more disturbing, the photographer begins to lose her own vision only to be replaced with the POV of the killer for the duration of each murder. Amping up the horror is the fact that the pop culture princess of fashion photography discovers that all of her photographs mimic a number of brutal and confidential police shots of actual murders. Hence, it would appear that Ms. Mars is somehow psychically linked to a serial killer. It is the psychotic madness of a killer who has been inspiring her art. Art that many are eager to purchase and admire.

Eventually, the killer sets his sites on Laura Mars herself. As the killer tries to kill her she is put in the chilling position of POV limitation — she can only see herself as the killer goes after her. Essentially blind with only disorienting and panicked visions of her own body as target, she is a prisoner of the killer’s eyes ...and her own.

Taking aim... Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Taking aim…
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

John Carpenter deserves a great deal of credit with coming up with an original and scary concept. It is unlikely he viewed as any sort of cultural or pop art commentary, but the circumstance of the imagined situation opens that door. Enter the decision to hire Irvin Kershner as the director. By securing the respected film director, the already infamous producer of the project was able to seal a deal with Faye Dunaway to play the lead character. In 1977, this was a casting coup. Dunaway was at the height of her cinematic power in the mid to late 1970’s. A beautiful and respected Academy Award winning actress, Ms. Dunaway was sought after.

Initially Jon Peters was rumored to have wanted to talk his then Life Partner, Barbra Streisand, into taking the role. The script was too violent and dark for Streisand’s taste. She did agree to sing a theme song which turned out to be a surprisingly rock-driven song. The esteemed Conrad Hall was rumored to be first choice to serve as the film’s cinematographer, but Kershner wanted Victor J. Kemper. He got him.

Several gorgeous models were hired to serve as models and actors. Tommy Lee Jones was secured for the leading male love interest. And thanks to a large paycheck, several respected actors were cast in supporting roles — most notably Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. This was an A List Production out of the gate.

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak. Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Armed and ready to take aim at herself. So to speak.
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

When the results of the finished film screened in 1978, viewers were presented with a cinematic cornucopia of ideas and images. Some of these worked. Others failed. Mixed together — Eyes of Laura Mars became a largely mixed experience for film critics and an often vexing one for the audience. The film was a hit. Though filled with tension, the movie failed to actually be scary.

While Laura Mars‘ photographs are violently and sexually graphic, the film is surprisingly restrained. Most certainly the violence and amount of nudity earned the film an R rating, but there was a loopy sort of immature logic holding the film together.

Some did find the movie disturbing. Some found it to be a fun ride with more than a few unexpected twists. Others were just left a bit confused.

A male's smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

A male’s smackdown on a beautiful woman is intended to sell cologne.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

37 years later Eyes of Laura Mars continues to entertain. Sadly, much of the entertainment grows out of unintentional camp.

This is not to say that this odd bit of big-budget 1970’s filmmaking does not hold some merit. But the film’s merits are easily over-powered by the strange plot, Dunaways’s soap-opera like turn and some deeply campy “stupid model” moments. The movie is a fun, pretty and ungrounded mess. And over the past decade it has developed a sizable cult following.

Most view Eyes one of those “So Bad It’s Great” cinematic guilty pleasures. While I can understand ascribing this uncomfortable thriller to that genre, I’ve never been certain that it should be regarded as a bad film.

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A glam but deadly car crash in Columbus Circle, but what is being sold here?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

I grew up in a fairly small town in Texas. We were not too far from Houston, but we did not always get movies when they “opened.” More often than not, movies arrived to our town several weeks or a month after the movie had already been in circulation. This was the case with Eyes. It opened late into its run at our fairly new mall cineplex.

My father had no understanding of what was or wasn’t appropriate for a child. He took me with him to see this movie. The woman who sold us out tickets already knew me as the kid who she would often pull out of a movie to ask where my parents were. I’m not sure if it was before or after the time my father took me to see Eyes of Laura Mars, but this theater manager pitched a fit when my father took me to see Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Hurry! I Need more film! I'll push my skirt up further while you take care of that! Faye Dunaway Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Hurry! I Need more film! I’ll push my skirt up further while you take care of that!
Faye Dunaway
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Her attempts to prevent my father from taking his little boy to see adult movies always failed. Mr. Goodbar was a traumatic experience. But Eyes was not one. In fact nothing I saw made my jaw drop or caused me any real confusion.

The thing I most remember about seeing this movie was that my father was forced to really get his shit together because no one was admitted after the first ten minutes of the movie’s start. My father had the annoying habit of arriving at the middle of a movie and then staying to see the first half at the next screening. But he had to arrive on time for Eyes of Laura Mars. I also remember noting that he was truly glued to the screen. It seemed like the casually naked models and the violent photographs interested him.

I was not scared by the movie. While I had not yet become educated in filmmaking, I did know who John Carpenter was — and I was frustrated that the Halloween dude wasn’t making a movie he wrote.

"This is Lulu & Michele! We're not home so go to Hell! But if you're not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!" Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

“This is Lulu & Michele! We’re not home so go to Hell! But if you’re not a horny creep, leave a message at the beep!”
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars is not a truly bad movie. It may not be scary, but it has its share of intense moments. It also offers a rather lucid capture of 1970’s NYC and its fashion scene.

Sony did issue the film to DVD, but the HD download currently available via iTunes is far superior to the non-remastered print that the ever-cheap Sony put on DVD. One major thing about the Sony DVD is that it features a film-length commentary from the late Irvin Kershner. In that commentary he speaks of not having had much knowledge of the fashion world at that time. He was surprised when he heard female models talking, disrobing, doing drugs and giggling like school girls.

A staunch liberal, Kershner was also more than a little repulsed by discovering that there seemed to be a misogynistic attitude toward women by an industry devoted to women as their focal demographic. This concerning misogyny would change the film’s tone. No new comer to the Sexual Revolution, he was very much surprised by the attitude of the female models he encountered as well as what he saw as The Studio 54 Culture. Clearly this is what motivated Kershner.

Oh, the model's life and selling cars while being abused and killed... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photography by Rebecca Blake

Oh, the model’s life and selling fashion! No prob with nudity or killing or being killed. But they do have problems with the color of the dresses… Sex, violence and Misogyny Sells Clothing!
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photography by Rebecca Blake

At the time of the film’s release more than a few critics were annoyed by the ample use of casual nudity and the constant stream of violence against women. Kershner explains that he didn’t need to include all the nudity and explicitness of the faked photographs, but these aspects of the plot tied to the world of fashion greatly disturbed and interested him. These aspects seemed to signal that this once simple slasher movie could serve as something a bit deeper in the form of societal and cultural commentary. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t so much the clothes that the photographers were wanting to capture as the sexuality of the models. And the models were more than happy to comply. Sex was their commodity and it was taking on a sinister tone from Kershner’s perspective. The non-actor models didn’t need to be asked or walked-thru to be nude for the film. They treated their scenes as they would a provocative fashion spread. Off came the clothing and on went the vapid conversing and drug-taking.

Kershner saw and attempted to capture a world in which the female model had no issue with being nude or posing as a victim, but their psyches were challenged when they had to wear “pink” or any color that they didn’t like. Carpenter’s original screenplay was re-crafted to “realistically” capture this world. A intriguing idea in theory does not always manage to fully morph onto the screen.

A lovely book for the late 1970's coffee table? Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

A lovely book for the late 1970’s coffee table?
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Kershner was very careful not to discuss too much about Faye Dunaway. It is no secret that she became frustrated with the making of the film but also the way in which it was promoted. This was really the first film in which Dunaway failed to connect to the production.

A deeply stylized and theatrical actor, Faye Dunaway always had a 1940’s sensibility about her — hence her success in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Towering Inferno and Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. She had managed to take her style of acting to a whole new level for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network and won the Oscar.

As Laura Mars Faye Dunaway appears to be a bit lost. It often feels as if she is fighting against what Kershner wanted. Continually dressed in flowing robes or gowns, Laura Mars seems to edge toward Gothica. She is power-dressed with purpose and that purpose is not to be sexy.

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models? Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Glam Gothica with a pretty flower hat, how is Laura Mars to compete with her abused models?
Tommy Lee Jones has to decide where to look as Faye Dunaway emotes for her life…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Surrounded by The Beautiful Elite of the modeling world, Dunaway is constantly subverting her assigned wardrobe to a new purposes. It seems almost comical to watch her photographing a fake car crash tragedy with her models either playing dead or cat-fighting in undies and minks. Kershner’s commentary avoids much discussion, but it seems an odd choice that Dunaway’s Laura Mars opts to hike up her skirt and do a Old-School Hollywood leg reveal as she shoots her pictures.

Decidedly not sexy, it just seems uncomfortable. Dunaway strictly refused any nudity in her love scenes with Tommy Lee Jones. But one suspects she desperately wanted in on some of the semi-nude cat fights she was left to “photograph.” The audience is less interested in Dunaway’s Laura as they are in the barely clothed fighting beauties amidst the wreckage.

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura's eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The killer probes the ice pick into Laura’s eye on the cover of her slick new book of KINK.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Eyes of Laura Mars gets the late 1970’s NYC Fashion World down correctly. The clothes feel and look very much from the 1977 era. The fashions being photographed look legit. And the wealthy photographer may edge toward the dramatic, but her clothing is clearly upscale and in style.

Kershner also captures the feel and look of the true 1977 NYC. Hell’s Kitchen, Columbus Circle and the Fashion District look like they are from another reality compared to now. This is most assuredly an on location shoot. The grime and grit plays a key role to the film. And although he did not shoot there, one of the movie’s early moments features a PR party given in honor of Laura Mars‘ work and new book that could easily be mistaken for a Studio 54 event.

At this event, Kershner makes no excuses for the vapidity of models like Lulu and Michelle, but both Darlanne Fluegel and Lisa Taylor are comically believable in their roles. It is in this early scene we are given a glimpse into their characters’ personalities.

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura's killing portrait... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Disco music blaring, the models pose in preparation for Laura’s killing portrait…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

The director is also to be credited for showing the importance of gay male culture within the world of Laura Mars without falling into homophobia. Little is actually articulated, but we know these men are gay. Rene Auberjonois delivers a solid performance as Laura’s close friend and business manager. We not meant to make fun of him.

And while both Raul Julia and Brad Dourif are wasted, they put forward great work here. Tommy Lee Jones is also strong except when pitted against Dunaway’s convulsively confusing turns. Jones is playing the role as realistically as possible, but he often finds himself in bad soap opera territory when kissing or making love to his leading lady. This is not his fault. Dunaway’s work here often feels like that of an insecure fading movie star who is afraid of losing her place at the table. Sadly Kershner didn’t seem to be strong enough to talk her down. This is of particular surprise given his track record for getting the best out of his actors. It is safe to say that Dunaway’s finest work has been given under infamous duress with tempermental directors.

Roman Polanski or Barbet Schroeder anyone?

Art crime? Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Art crime?
Faye Dunaway is probably more covered than comfortable amidst all this beautiful flesh. And murder.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

While it was most definitely a fail on the part of Kershner to not better execute the horror of a film that was obviously intended to be a slasher flick, I doubt we would really remember this film if it had followed that path.

It should be noted that one of the few genuinely creepy moments in the movie is when we are limited to Laura Mars‘ POV which is trapped in the POV of the serial killer who is chasing her at full speed with intent to kill. Arte Kane’s musical score is manically-pitched and when edited into this threatening but non-violent scene, it does illicit a good deal of tension.

Even still, there is a major bit of let down when acts of actual real-time murders happen. Thanks to the musical score and the trippy use of POV there is some suspense, but the cinematic pay-off in these slasher scenes feel like something you might have seen on Charlie’s Angels.

Well, minus the nudity.

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance! Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Learning how to shoot a handgun and ready for romance!
Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

This is very little gore in this film’s violence. Of course the film’s Big Reveal which Columbia Studios built up by closing ticket sales after the first ten minutes of the movie, has never seemed at all shocking to me. Even as a child I had figured out the identity of the killer before the film decides to reveal it.

Even still, it is a nightmarish situation that is interesting when compared to the “fashion art” our heroine has been crafting with her stylishly perched skinny leg and handy Nikon camera. This is perhaps the film’s most winning turn of horror — it is the film’s use of murder as fashion and violent death as eroticism that leaves a queasy sort of taste on the cinematic palate.

Killing to sell a car... Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Killing to sell a car…
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Irvin Kershner’s take on Carpenter’s script may not have gone to the logical horror route of the Slasher Film, but it’s twisted turns guide the audience to a surprisingly gruesome walk toward the pop culture of the future.

And Faye Dunaway’s odd performance does leave an impression.

It should be noted that this performance does not straddle an artistic line as her work in the ill-advised Mommie Dearest. Instead her work as Laura Mars is consistently up-ending itself. The manic and insecure diva-ish turn has, over the years, added a level of paranoia.

This paranoia plays well into both schisms of the infamous movie: The Uncomfortable and The Cult of Camp.

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked. Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Putting her best leg and high heeled foot forward. A promo shot of Faye Dunaway which she would later claim she disliked.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Photograph by Rebecca Blake

Perhaps it is unfair to lay Dunaway’s failure all on her. She is given some very strange dialog:

While in a post orgasmic embrace she murmurs:

“I can’t understand. [slight pause] how it’s possible. [slightly longer pause] to live your whole life. [pause ] without someone. [slight pause] and be doing more or less OK. And then suddenly you find them. You recognize them.”

cue lush love theme as Tommy Lee Jones plants a big smooch on her face.

What do those words even mean?

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful Eyes of Laura Mars Irvin Kershner, 1978 Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Faye Dunaway gets and gives more than an eyeful
Eyes of Laura Mars
Irvin Kershner, 1978
Cinematography | Victor J. Kemper

Perhaps Eyes of Laura Mars is a bad movie. Or maybe it is simply flawed. It doesn’t matter. Once you see it you will never forget it.

Matty Stanfield, 12.4.15

 

In the final act of William Friedkin’s 1973 iconic film, The Exorcist, the film’s struggling priest and his wiser elder discuss the nature of evil, how to address it and how to understand it’s logic:

Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that – do not listen.”

Why her? Why this little girl?  Max von Sydow The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Why her? Why this little girl?
Max von Sydow
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Why her? Why this girl?”
“I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.”

The Exorcist first arrived to cinemas in December of 1973. This film’s reception and the reactions it caused are of historical note. Financed and distributed by Warner Brothers the movie caused fear, panic attacks, a couple of heart attacks, repulsion, anger and accusations of “blasphemy.”  While The Exorcist is essentially a Supernatural Horror Film, William Friedkin’s epic film was approached with a level of realism and artistry that could not be refuted. It was a highly artistically-valid film. As for being an exploitive use of a child actor and blasphemy, well The Vatican gave this film the seal of approval. It was even blessed for “realistically depicting demonic evil.” Cue priests, nuns, ministers and most God-fearing people line up and see it.

Marketing The Exorcist was challenging for Warner Brothers. It was clear to everyone that this was more than just a horror film. This early poster was rejected.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

Marketing The Exorcist was challenging for Warner Brothers. It was clear to everyone that this was more than just a horror film. This early poster was rejected.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

If one is able to take pause and look at Friedkin’s film independent of it’s source novel and The Vatican, this movie also offers an interesting spin on the state of American Culture at the beginning of the 1970’s.

Another "mock-up" idea for promoting that felt a little too After School Special for most at Warner Brothers.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973

Another “mock-up” idea for promoting that felt a little too After School Special for most at Warner Brothers.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973

It can easily be summed up as metaphor for the feeling that parents had lost control of their children amid the emergence of “Anti-Establishment Movement” to “Sexual Revolution” to “Drug Culture” to the ever-increasing power of Rock rebellion.

Eureka! And Warner Brothers creates an iconic marketing campaign by using an "altered" shot from the movie itself.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Eureka! And Warner Brothers creates an iconic marketing campaign by using an “altered” shot from the movie itself.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Both the novel and film also indirectly address the tragic side of becoming a priest. The film conveys that Jason Miller’s Priest is something more to his best priest buddy. While his friend seems to be able to repress his sexual desires, it appears to be bit more of a strain for Miller’s “Father Karras” a repressed and guilt-ridden former boxer who has escaped into the Priesthood as much to do good as to escape his all-too moral desires. Interestingly, the self-proclaimed Atheist mother find it easier to accept that her daughter might be possessed by The Devil than this conflicted priest. This film is also examining the impact of repression and the reasons men decide to become priests. Granted, it is in a somewhat passive way, but it is there.

"Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker." Whether it by taunting into Father Karras' most repressed fears of self-identity or by picking at his guilt for not having cared for his mother the way he feels he should have -- this demon knows the priest better than he knows himself.  Subliminal Experimental Editing - so fast you can almost mess it.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

“Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker.” Whether it by taunting into Father Karras’ most repressed fears of self-identity or by picking at his guilt for not having cared for his mother the way he feels he should have — this demon knows the priest better than he knows himself.
Subliminal Experimental Editing – so fast you can almost mess it.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

No matter how you want to interpret or view The Exorcist – the power of this infamous film is beyond denial. I remember sitting in sold-out huge Boston cineplex auditorium in 2000 to see the “Restored” and the “Version I Had Never Seen.”  I was actually curious to see how a modern day audience would react to this early 1970’s film. I think I was expecting that we would all find the movie darkly comic. I was wrong. This was the normal “cineplex” audience. You know, the one that freely converses, talks back to the screen and generally rude masses. True to form, as the commercials and previews screened children were screaming, teenagers were tossing candy at each other and all sorts of mayhem that will ruin a movie viewing experience for me. But as soon as The Exorcist started, the entire tone of the packed auditorium changed.

The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

By the film’s midpoint you could have heard a pin drop. Almost 30 years later, this movie was freaking us out. And it still shocks.

Which brings us to one of those long pondered questions which forever escaped logic. How did WB’s The Exorcist secure an
“R-Rating” by the MPPA in 1973? How did it reclaim that same rating 30 years later? Other far less sadistic or graphic films had been slapped with an “X-rating” and by 2000 we had seen the arrival of the dreaded “NC-17” label. Why would the MPAA give an art film like “Henry & June” an “NC-17” and “The Exorcist” an “R-Rating?”

One of the tamer blasphemies of Holy Icons The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1971 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

One of the tamer blasphemies of Holy Icons
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1971
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Granted, neither or films for children, but if I were a parent and asked to pick which of these two films were “less appropriate” for a child under 17 years of age — I would select The Exorcist. I think most would.

A sweet little girl transformed into murderous and blasphemous monster.  Linda Blair watches her Exorcist die a painful death with a mix of interest and annoyance. She didn't get his soul.  The Exorcist William Friedkin, 1973 Cinematography | Owen Roizman

A sweet little girl transformed into murderous and blasphemous monster.
Linda Blair watches her Exorcist die a painful death with a mix of interest and annoyance. She didn’t get his soul.
The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
Cinematography | Owen Roizman

Or maybe not? I’m not a parent. Maybe I have it wrong.

To put The Exorcist‘s “R-Rating” in perspective, in the same year the MPAA rated The Exorcist as “R” it slapped the dreaded “X-Rating” to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. In comparison this rating makes no sense. Luckily, Nicolas Roeg’s film had Paramount behind it’s distribution. Somehow the MPAA rethought it and relented an “R-Rating” for Roeg’s experimental film. But only two years earlier the MPAA assigned Ken Russell’s The Devils with an “X-Rating.” And, this was after WB required Ken Russell to cut out a significant amount of footage. Warner Brothers held on to two copies of Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut. While Russell’s The Devils is a provocation, it never goes anywhere near the level of having a 14 year-old girl defile herself with a crucifix.

"Hell will hold no surprises for them!" Warner Bros marketing campaign for  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971

“Hell will hold no surprises for them!”
Warner Bros marketing campaign for
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971

Interestingly much has been made about William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist novel having been based on an actual and true incident involving a teenage boy in the 1950’s. However, when one actually looks into the “true story” much more of what actually happened is unclear. In most ways, this “true incident” appears to be largely lost within the shadows of marketing and urban legend. As grim and horrifying as The Exorcist is, both the 1973 and the 2000 versions offer the audience “hope.” This is a hope grounded in faith and the power of good over evil. There is nothing at all wrong with that. But it does seem a flimsy excuse to let it pass with an “R-Rating” when Friedkin’s more recent independent movie, Killer Joe, was given an “NC-17.”

Interesting to note that until the MPAA introduced the "NC-17-Rating" -- The official "X-Rating" was actually less restrictive in number of states. It was left to individual states and cinemas to determine the age restricted. News to me.

Interesting to note that until the MPAA introduced the “NC-17-Rating” — The official “X-Rating” was actually less restrictive in number of states. It was left to individual states and cinemas to determine the age restricted. News to me.

In Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary, This Film Is Not Rated, hidden cameras and a number of covert activities were utilized to break in to the odd world of Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system. The documentary revealed several things, but only one was surprising: Every screening held by the individuals who are “chosen” to serve as raters is blessed by both a Christian Minister and a Catholic Priest. While neither is supposed to lecture or push any decision of the raters, they are free to include whatever they wish in their blessings.

And here is the answer to the mysterious reasoning behind The Exorcist rating. It is Vatican approved.

Father Granier's use of The Confessional is questionable to say the least.  Georgina Hale / Oliver Reed The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Father Granier’s use of The Confessional is questionable to say the least.
Georgina Hale / Oliver Reed
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

It may contain graphic and obscene scenes of blasphemy, but it has a Catholic Intent. The priests fix it all! Or at least it seems to be thought.

The intent of Killer Joe is to satire the impact of greed on marginalized lower-class family dysfunction.

As for Ken Russell’s The Devils? The intent is aimed as satirizing both politics and religion. It depicts both fundamental aspects of most human life as opportunities for corruption, greed, ambition and power.

Graham Armitage as France's King Louis XIII performs for Cardinal Richelieu, his assistant nuns and a slew of The French Royal Court's most depraved. The Catholic Church doesn't mind The King's sins, they just want to share in the power and the wealth... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Graham Armitage as France’s King Louis XIII performs for Cardinal Richelieu, his assistant nuns and a slew of The French Royal Court’s most depraved. The Catholic Church doesn’t mind The King’s sins, they just want to share in the power and the wealth…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Oh, and unlike The ExorcistThe Devils is actually based on “historic fact.” I only put that in quotation marks because I am referring to 17th Century French history. However, the sources and descriptions of the events that Russell fictionalizes in The Devils tie much closer to what he shows us than anything of truth connected to The Exorcist. This means The Devils depicts a very scary moment in both French and Catholic history in which greed and power not only “suggested” nuns to blaspheme,

The Ursuline nuns are not there by choice, but because they form society's rejects. Repressed and Caged. They do not require too much in the way of pressure from The Catholic Church to slip into hysteria that quickly morphs into Satanic blasphemy.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The Ursuline nuns are not there by choice, but because they form society’s rejects. Repressed and Caged. They do not require too much in the way of pressure from The Catholic Church to slip into hysteria that quickly morphs into Satanic blasphemy.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

a primary Cardinal and his priests most likely “required” their nuns to comply or face torture — nothing is too much to  a rebellious priest and assist the Catholic Church forge closer to a demented French King. Ken Russell didn’t even feel it necessary to change any of the actual names of the individuals who have already been forged into history.

This might explain Warner Brothers refusal to relinquish Ken Russell’s infamous and acclaimed 1971 art film, The Devils. Restoration of this film is of growing concern to Film Historians and Film Art Preservationists. Film only lasts so long and only WB knows where and how their 2 copies of The Devils are being stored. WB is not known to always apply a great deal of logic to their catalog. And they have an essential collection of cinematic work.

In many ways,  Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, is the only "innocent" character in this film. She is ill and then sexually-assulted by Exorcists and Priests to extract false confession. From the very beginning we know she is hanging on to sanity by a string.  Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

In many ways, Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, is the only “innocent” character in this film. She is ill and then sexually-assulted by Exorcists and Priests to extract false confession. From the very beginning we know she is hanging on to sanity by a string.
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Going into it’s 45th year, this film may soon be lost forever unless WB takes care of it or releases it to a company who will. As you read this you might feel the need to roll your eyes or dismiss it, but this is worse than censorship: it comes at the risk of losing a valuable piece of cinematic history.

While I’m not sure one could state that Ken Russell’s The Devils is a better film than Friedkin’s The Exorcist.  William Friedkin made the better film. The Exorcist is a cinematic masterpiece. No questions asked.

Ken Russell’s cinematic work is challenging. An eccentric British filmmaker, he shares more in common with the films of Michael Powell or even more like those of Andrzej Zulawski. Russell’s films tend to have a manic pace and no restraint. They are often bombastic, loud, crass and dangerous to know. “Women in Love” and “Tommy” are probably his two most accessible films. But his work is often magical and intellectual. In the case of The Devils, it is angry. No question that Russell was a cinematic genius. But as is the case with many genius artists, he often had a hard time restraining himself from excess and obsession.

That being stated and noting that The Exorcist is the better film. I do think a case could be argued that The Devils is an equally important film. It is also worth noting that The Exorcist has been such an influential and cultural juggernaut of world-wide scope, multiple copies in all formats exist in a number of places. The future preservation of The Exorcist is secured.

However, as time and investigations move further along — it is becoming clear that there might only be two remaining prints of The Devils as it was originally to be released in 1971. For quite a while there was thought to be a secured copy held by Ken Russell’s daughter. It would appear that this is not the case. One other possibility for a print of the full film turned up as invalid. It would appear that Warner Brothers is the only one who has a pristine print of the original film.

Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne of the Angels swoons her way into a disturbing world of Christ Imagery erotic daydreaming... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne of the Angels swoons her way into a disturbing world of Christ Imagery erotic daydreaming…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Despite pleas from The British Film Institute, The Great Britain Historical Society, The Ken Russell’s Estate, The BBC, The Criterion Collection and a power-laden Official Petition — Warner Brothers simply refuses to relinquish the film to anyone for any reason. It was viewed as a major victory for BFI when WB finally agreed to supply them with with limited licensing rights and a copy to “restore” and transfer limited to British Region Code DVD/Blu-Ray (no cinema screenings allowed) It didn’t matter. At last an organization would be able to properly restore and save the film. It was a bit of shock for the distinguished BFI to discover that Warner would not “loan” or “share” an actual print of the film. Instead BFI received a Digi-Beta tape of the American X Certificate version. The American “X-Rated” version was even more cut up than the UK version. This Digi-Beta tape greatly limited the ability to “restore” quality and it was not the original theatrical release of the movie.

Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier. While presented as a man of faith and ethics, he is also a cruel and callous man who is more than happy to seduce the females of his flock. The line between good and evil is a thin one for this "progressive" priest.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier. While presented as a man of faith and ethics, he is also a cruel and callous man who is more than happy to seduce the females of his flock. The line between good and evil is a thin one for this “progressive” priest.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

BFI did their best. The quality is better than the briefly and highly censored VHS tape WB released in the mid 1980’s. Some scenes are fuzzy, some aren’t, some have audio issues that could only be minimally-addressed. Worst of all, the most crucial scenes of Russell’s work are still missing.

Welcome to 17th Century France. Plague is in full force as Catholic and French Histories take a dark turn. The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Welcome to 17th Century France. Plague is in full force as Catholic and French Histories take a dark turn.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

South Korea also secured a limited licensing from WB, but this was also made from a similar Digi-Beta tape that was an “R-rated” cut of the film that had never been seen. This version actually doesn’t completely make sense so much has been cut. There is one bootleg copy floating around, but the quality is so bad it is almost impossible to watch — and very often is impossible to hear.

Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne is both amused and disgusted when faced with a woman who actually seeks to devote her life to Christ. After eloquently dismissing her devotional intention to be a waste as this f Ursuline nunnery is a safe home for the deformed and unmanageable. When she discovers Father Granier has already seduced the would-be-devout-nun her jealousy and rage holds back no punches: "Whore! Strumpet! Hypocrite! You tell me you have no vocation? Of course you have a vocation! Fornicator! Fornicator! Sacrilegious bitch! Seducer of priest, that's your calling! Your place is in a brothel. You filthy whore! Get back to the gutter where you belong!" The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne is both amused and disgusted when faced with a woman who actually seeks to devote her life to Christ. After eloquently dismissing her devotional intention to be a waste as this f Ursuline nunnery is a safe home for the deformed and unmanageable. When she discovers Father Granier has already seduced the would-be-devout-nun her jealousy and rage holds back no punches:
“Whore! Strumpet! Hypocrite! You tell me you have no vocation? Of course you have a vocation! Fornicator! Fornicator! Sacrilegious bitch! Seducer of priest, that’s your calling! Your place is in a brothel. You filthy whore! Get back to the gutter where you belong!”
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Warner Brothers has never actually officially addressed the reasoning behind their refusal to allow access to The Devils. Because they have stated that Ken Russell’s original cut of the film is within their possession and protection, many thought that the executives were holding off to “cash in” once the film’s notorious and infamous director had died. However, we lost Mr. Russell in late 2011 at the age of 84. Warner Brothers continues to refuse requests, petitions and any individual writer seeking information. The reasons for not letting the film out run deeper than any possible profit or historical cinema preservation merits.

It is particularly interesting in an age where any controversy is viewed “a selling factor” if it can make a buck. WB is a huge corporation. The bottomline and increasing profit is a main concern. So why keep The Devils hidden away? No one connected to the film’s controversy is left who would care.

"Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights." Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The only living artist who could object would be Vanessa Redgrave. She, like many who worked for Ken Russell, remained a close friend until the end of his life. She has also expressed pride in having been a part of the film and considers it one of her best bits of work. Her role was originally intended for the equally esteemed Glenda Jackson. Jackson, also a life-long friend of Ken Russell and family, had discussed the fact that she turned down Redgrave’s infamous role because, at that time, she was tired of playing Russell’s sexually neurotic and hysterical muse. She made that statement both in truth and jest. Years later she would film her final role in Russell’s experimental and demented film Salome’s Last Dance. At the time Jackson noted that she had some regrets at having not played Sister Jeanne.

Acclaimed cinematographer, David Watkin, served as Cinematographer. He remained proud of this early film for offering him some freedom in establishing his own style while adhering to Russell’s vision. Prior to The Devils, Watkin was best known for having filmed 2 iconic movies:  The Knack… and How to Get It and The Beatles’ Help.

A perverse fantasy of a sick woman will soon help pave the way toward public execution.  Oliver Reed / Vanessa Regrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

A perverse fantasy of a sick woman will soon help pave the way toward public execution.
Oliver Reed / Vanessa Regrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

His style was really already formed, but he felt the freedom Russell allowed offered him great benefit. He died in 2008.

Another interesting aspect of The Devils is that it features the early work of the iconic Derek Jarman. Jarman’s imprint on The Devils is unforgettable. Serving as the film’s production designer, The Devils features some truly amazing sets. Jarman would go on to be an important and experimental voice in Film and the art of Queer Film.

One of many post-modern sets created by then Production Designer, Derek Jarman.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

One of many post-modern sets created by then Production Designer, Derek Jarman.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Jarman’s style was always unique, but it is clear that Russell’s aesthetic impacted his own vision.

Aside from the Film Theory aspect, The Devils is of note because it is a fictional account of something that is of historical note for both France and The Catholic Church. This is probably a page of history that both the country and The Vatican would rather forget. Interestingly, this might be the main reason WB is not letting the film go.

Aldous Huxley plunged deep within the history of what happened in 17th Century Loudun with the publication of his historical novel, Devils of Loudun. It was a controversial read then and it still is, but there is nothing in it than can be refuted. The few times Huxley actually is forced to put forward an explanation for things unexplained he offers several ideas to explain. And all are sound.

Let the "exorcisms" begin... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Let the “exorcisms” begin…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Huxley crafted a historical narrative to address the controversial, mysterious and sordid historical fact that involved Cardinal Richelieu, a rebellious priest by the name of Father Urban Grandier, An Ursuline Convent of nuns and their Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels. It is know that Father Grandier disagreed with both the King and The Catholic Church at the time. It seems fairly obvious that he seemed to disagree with idea of celibacy and was corrupt in that he engaged in sexual trysts with women of his flock. It is also of note that Father Grandier was reported to be handsome, charismatic and flirtatious. For unknown reasons, he declined Sister Jeanne’s request to act as “Spiritual Advisor” for for both she and her nuns. Cardinal Richelieu already viewed Father Grandier as a threat to the church and The Church’s desire to become closely aligned with The King. King Louis XIII, the infamous monarch of the House of Bourbon is a figure of legendary in and of himself. And both of these powerful men needed the other for a while due to political and power circumstances.

All the nuns are gathered to stand in giant burrial holes and "suggested" to convulse, blaspheme, carnally degrade themselves for the "good" of God. Or faces the same torture imposed upon their  Superior Mother. They are all eager to follow The Cardinal, The King and The Exorcists' guidance for transgressive behavior.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

All the nuns are gathered to stand in giant burrial holes and “suggested” to convulse, blaspheme, carnally degrade themselves for the “good” of God. Or faces the same torture imposed upon their Superior Mother. They are all eager to follow The Cardinal, The King and The Exorcists’ guidance for transgressive behavior.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

In what could be compared to the Salem Witch Trails only far more perverse and blasphemous in nature, Huxley put forward a number of reasons that France, The Catholic Church and the People of Loudun thought Father Grandier had made a pact with Satan that allowed the pristine Ursuline nuns to be fully possessed by demonic forces. It is of historical record to the level of debauchery that these “possessions” led the “blessed” nuns and their “heavenly” Mother Superior to act out public acts of sexually perverse behaviors including orgies and evil sexual blasphemy with religious symbols and Christ Icons.

The King and his Royal Court make an appearance to giggle at the atrocious perversion of The Catholic Church.  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The King and his Royal Court make an appearance to giggle at the atrocious perversion of The Catholic Church.
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Under both the blessing of the Cardinal and the approval of King Louis XIII, a series of public exorcisms were performed that involved more than just sprinkling of Holy Water. The nuns went further into “fits of hysteria” and their Mother Superior named Father Grandier as the evil responsible for their demonic actions. The public watched the acts of debauchery and exorcisms in what reads like some sick and twisted form of entertainment. The exorcisms went further into public acts of sexual torture. And then, it all stopped. The nuns and their Superior were free of their demons and redeemed  in the “Eyes of God.” 

A fellow priest begs Granier to confess and be spared. He refuses. The guilt-ridden priest seems to be praying more for himself than Granier.  Oliver Reed / Murray Melvin The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

A fellow priest begs Granier to confess and be spared. He refuses. The guilt-ridden priest seems to be praying more for himself than Granier.
Oliver Reed / Murray Melvin
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Grandier was questioned and tortured by the exorcist, the priests and their followers to extract a confession of having formed a pact with The Devil and conspiring to corrupt all of France and the Catholic Church. He never confessed or gave in to the torture. Ultimately, he was burned at the stake.

Granier refuses to give-in to the political ploy of The Cardinal's Exorcist.  Oliver Reed / Michael Gothard The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkins

Granier refuses to give-in to the political ploy of The Cardinal’s Exorcist.
Oliver Reed / Michael Gothard
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkins

This, according to history, was the only way both The King and The Cardinal could be sure that Loudun were rid of the Satanic Grip. The public execution was treated as entertainment. Everyone in the town celebrated and the nuns were also granted approval to witness the horrid death.

Father Granier's abandoned son is brought to watch his father's execution.  Georgina Hale  The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Father Granier’s abandoned son is brought to watch his father’s execution.
Georgina Hale
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Huxley theorized a number of ideas. One of the most controversial being that most women who became nuns at this time had been deemed “unmanageable” and desperate for shelter. Though not completely clear, it would appear that The Mother Superior suffered some major physical birth defect. Her holiness was viewed to be a result of her plight. It is historically stated that Father Grandier enjoyed antagonizing Sister Jeanne of the Angels.

Huxley writes that the levels of sexual repressions, lack of serious faith, The Mother Superior’s disdain for the priest, the fact that many of the men in Loudun viewed Grandier as a trouble-maker with both The King and The Cardinal — and ultimately the political possibilities between a power-hungry Cardinal and a possible insane and perverse King led to one of the ugliest moments in French and Catholic history.

Huxley goes into great detail about the many realistic and human possibilities that factored into this incident. He leans toward the political, hypocracy and a shared temporary delirium or hysteria for the nuns. He also suggests that it many not have been so psychological. It might have boiled down to the nuns having to do as instructed by their Cardinal. Anyway one looks at it, it is not a pretty picture of religion or politics.

The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

Filmed at the very end of the 1960’s, the political and liberal Ken Russell saw this story and the play it had inspired to be an ideal topic to explore as metaphor. Russell’s The Devils is excessive in every way possible. While often beautifully staged and crafted — the film pulses with a hysterical pace. The acting is intentionally “theatrical” and most certainly presented to shock. The political ideologies spell forth throughout. Russell does not spare Oliver Reed’s Father Grandier as solidly ethical character. He is impossible to like, but it is equally impossible that this character deserves what he is given. Especially since he is given it for entirely the wrong reasons.

Vanessa Redgrave fares best in the film. In fact she is fantastic in the role. She is able to match the operatic pacing of the film with a carefully eccentric and darkly comical read on her character. It is an impossibly brilliant performance. Russell presents both she and her nuns as women who have “devoted” their lives to God because society has no other use for them. The only character who appears to actually feel a true calling to the devoted life of a nun is quickly dismissed by Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne of the Angels. She is too pretty to waster her time locked up in the convent. And what a convent it is. While Redgrave’s character runs a strict order, she simply turns the other way as her nuns grab at vague attempts as sexual gratification.

Sympathy for the Devil? Oliver Reed The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Sympathy for the Devil?
Oliver Reed
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

When the nuns become a pawn of The Church and The State, it is as if they’ve been not only granted “permission” to explore their repressed desires, the threat of torture looms if they don’t take those “desires” to blasphemous limits. This is the portion of the film that remains controversial almost 45 years later. The scenes are disgusting. They are not erotic. They are upsetting. What’s more — these scenes which have been labeled The Rape of Christ — can be found from time to time on YouTube. BFI has access to an inferior copy from whereabouts unknown. They were shown on British television documentary about the film in the late 80’s. Compared to much of what we see now on cable, they are really barely eligible for an R rating much less an X or NC-17.

Faith and Religion Distorted For Ambition, Greed, Power and Control... The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Faith and Religion Distorted
For Ambition, Greed, Power and Control…
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The scenes that are the most disturbing are in the R-rated cut. Sister Jeannes’ “exorcism” is actually rape and sexual torture. 40 some odd years later, these scenes are still hard to watch. Yet these scenes get an “R-Rating” when an “NC-17” would be more appropriate. Another controversial segment which would probably secure a “PG-13” rating today is actually one of the more blasphemous scenes in the movie. Sister Jeannes convulsive sexual fantasies of Father Granier as Christ are not graphic, but oddly disturbing. Filmed beautifully and erotically, Oliver Reed emerges as Christ descended from the Cruxifiction walking upon water to Sister Jeanne. As she kisses his bloodied feet and sweeps her hair over them. She begins to move up his body as if about to engage in felatio when the wind blows her vaguely nun-like wrapping off — her hump back is revealed and she screams in horror as everyone begins to mock and degrade her.

Georgina Hale The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

Georgina Hale
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

The Devils may not have been crafted with the precise and deftly serious style as The Exorcist, but Ken Russell’s film is concerned with far more serious cultural issues than Evil vs. Good. In The Devils, Ken Russell is presenting ideas that still seem to shake people to their core. It is a satirical political commentary that works incredibly well. Fever-pitched and unapologetic it is an essential film.

And when one stands back from both of these films, The Exorcist is actually the more perverse and controversial film. Welcome to the schisms of Film Theory, History, Politics and Religion.

The tragically deformed Mother Superior fosters an unhealthy desire of Christ as a source of eroticism. And her priest, Father Granier, has taken the place of Christ in her mind. Enter Erotic Surrealism... Vanessa Redgrave The Devils Ken Russell, 1971 Cinematography | David Watkin

The tragically deformed Mother Superior fosters an unhealthy desire of Christ as a source of eroticism. And her priest, Father Granier, has taken the place of Christ in her mind. Enter Erotic Surrealism…
Vanessa Redgrave
The Devils
Ken Russell, 1971
Cinematography | David Watkin

I have written about both Ken Russell, his work and this film in particular a number of times. I’ve also done some “covert investigation” in separating fact from fiction regarding Warner Brothers and possible prints of the original cut. If anyone is persistent, it a fan of film. There are a great number of Film Preservationists, Film Historians, devoted Ken Russell fans and Cinematic Curiosity Seekers who are still pushing to gain access to this film. Unless Warner Brothers is lying to us and they lost both of those prints, there is always a chance that Ken Russell’s The Devils might one day gets its moment in on the screen.

Matty Stanfield, 8.10.2015