Saturday, September 7, 2019

Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie) (2013)

Enter the Void

written and directed by François Ozon
starring Marine Vacth, Johan Leysen,
Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Charlotte Rampling

I once knew of a girl we'll call Rachel. Rachel was just past twenty with a not-quite boyfriend and a young son whose dad had pulled a feets-don't-fail-me-now before the kid was even born. She was fed up — or "bored to sin," she'd chortle in her favorite stab at indie-chick drollery — with dead-end cashier jobs and temp gigs spent shuffling papers next to babble-addled office hens with complexions gone sallow from thirty years of cooking under fluorescent lights. So she turned to hooking, first via ads posted on Craigslist, then with higher-level clients arranged by a "friend." During slow weeks, she'd do a co-worker or two from the dollar store where she rang up welfare moms. Her favorite way to make easy money was what she called the "fun stuff" — stuff that often didn't even involve penetration. (I mean, God forbid a girl actually have to earn the money she expects men to give her.) Sometimes, the "fun stuff" meant lying on her stomach, fully dressed and scrolling through messages on her iPhone while some humiliation addict stroked his thimble of a cock, then climaxed all over her black leather boots that she'd kept on — the ones for which some other john had parted with a considerable chunk of his paycheck to buy her. Other times, she'd role-play as some middle-aged guy's twelve year-old niece, pretending to cry as "Uncle Bob" made her strip to show him her "developing" body. For the budget-minded or the flat-out broke, she offered customized photos or live webcam sessions adhering to all manner of requests. She'd pretend to be asleep, she'd pretend to be dead — whatever got guys off. Sex never meant that much to her, she'd say. And besides, raising a kid wasn't cheap.

Those acquainted with my usual cynicism regarding the bosomy ones may well be surprised by what I'm about to say: Rachel was, to the extent that I'd gotten to know her, quite intelligent — her conversation frequently yielded a lucidity bordering on self-analysis. Rather predictably, being diddled by her dimebag-dealer of a daddy at a tender age inclined her toward ecstasy-and-molly-fueled turbo-sluttery with enough mental issues to fund college for a dozen shrinks' kids plus some rather unwholesome fetishes, to boot. Yet, she never missed a chance to declare her fight for emancipation from all that: no, she'd tell you, her past gave her no excuses to whine about life; no, anger toward a mother who'd lavish money on tit-jobs and boyfriends-of-the-week while her children ate cereal for dinner would be a waste of her energy. And yet, tethered helplessly to the hardwiring of the fairer sex she remained: affection to her was being throttle-fucked into submission then "facialed" just like the women in the videos Daddy used to show her; normal sex, by her own candor, failed to get so much as a murmur out of her but six inches up her ass, a hand around her throat, a gob of phlegm in her face, and you'd get an aria from Tosca plus the John F. Kennedy speech of your choice.

Abuse killed the light within her; it left her like Isabelle the upper-class French jailbait turned escort-for-the-hell-of-it at the center of François Ozon's Jeune & Jolie: affectless unto the point of emotional vacancy; theoretically beautiful in that angular, assembly-line Euro-supermodel way that sells perfume and designer jeans but which no flesh-and-blood man actually spills seed to the thought of. Neither girl has any real self; they're too calculatedly malleable as their ace selling point — the Bloomingdale's mannequin as blank slate. Rachel and Isabelle share a view of sex as a dash-in/dash-out kwik-mart transaction best conducted from behind the bulletproof glass of layered play-acting, roles — like the most natural of whores, their stock in trade is woman's knack for fluidity cranked up to ten, it's taking the shape of whatever the john who's validating their need to be objectified pours them into. They're too girlishly self-conscious of the ciphers at their cores to risk the vagaries of chance without a ready-made sexpot archetype they can cling to — they blow it up like an old party balloon; it gives them life in return — but they invert that cold remove, that sociopath's skill at compartmentalization, into its own kind of girl-power autonomy; it becomes their only real triumph.

Their ease at dissociation within the moment would make a government mind-control handler proud. Ozon sets up Isabelle's summer-vacation defloration by a German tourist named Felix as a sly riff on the similarly model-caliber Roxanne Mesquida character losing her virginity in Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl: in each scenario, a beautiful girl's idealism is stabbed to death with jabs from a suitor's pelvis — a murder crowned with the blood from her shredded hymen that Isabelle finds on her fingers after. Ozon plays off of every teen girl's insipid fantasy of a romantic first time — they fuck on the beach, under the stars, except Felix humps away without finesse, first to Isabelle's discomfort and ultimately to a disappointment so profound that she mentally removes herself from what she's experiencing: she imagines herself a spectator from afar, looking down at this sad spectacle in mute condolence. Ozon's parodying the predetermined bleakness of Breillat's staging, wherein the Mesquida character's brusque reality check of a cherry-pop — by turns a deconstruction of male seduction and a lament over its effectiveness — is watched in envy by her little sister, who's pretending to be asleep. Breillat, being the humorless feminist that she is, milks her scene for the expected poor-girl effect; Ozon the sardonic gay wit with a Ph.D. in the flimsiness of female psychological construction leavens his pretentiousness with a jab at the fever-dream floridity of Isabelle's self-pity, with the cosmic joke of a fuck so lousy it necessitates an out-of-body experience. It's as if her psyche were shutting down on the torture of MK-ULTRA trauma programming and birthing an alternate persona on the spot: Isabelle the soul-deadened beta sex kitten, conjured forth to help her cope with the unbearable agony of having hooked up with a nice guy.

Naturally — men being the focal point of Ozon's personal designs — it's the men dancing to the tune called by Isabelle's whims who drive the story and make it mean something. Ozon sketches the plight of the modern male against her quicksilver shift into casual cruelty and addiction to her own allure — in doing so, he gives the lie to men's self-soothing notions about being agents of their own sexual destiny. There's no particular "wrong move" that Felix makes in his courting of Isabelle — though one wouldn't take him for the most exciting guy in the known universe, he radiates an unshowy confidence as he approaches her on the beach and invites her to a party. Ozon acquits him by rather emphasizing the signposts of Isabelle's attraction: her smiley-faced accessibility when standing before him, the way she stares after him as if turning over a thousand sudden possibilities in her mind. Come date night, she even pays for their ice cream. Ozon telegraphs Felix's predestined failure, though — the dagger lying in wait for his own idealism — as she primps in the mirror just before they meet. With Victor, her budding voyeur of a younger brother, gazing at her as the spark to his future fetishism that Ozon established her as in the film's first scene, she asks him how she looks. Victor deadpans that she looks like a whore and her reaction is one of intrigue — he's just affirmed her destiny as sex object par excellence, too ravenous a carnal essence to subsist on only one man. After the sex, Felix walks her home and gives her a goodnight peck without noticing that she pulls her hand from his as if extricating it from a trap. By the time he's showing up to high-five Victor in front of her family and asking permission just to sit next to her, those sudden possibilities have scabbed over into a Faye Dunaway mask of bemused contempt: assessing him anew as he doffs his shirt, Isabelle can scarcely believe that she'd sullied her vaginal walls with his toxic, likely future incel-siring secretions.

It makes for a seamless leap forward to midday assignations with business-suited old johns who lie about their age and sit at the feet of hotel beds in nervous anticipation as she stalks tentatively into the room. Ozon cutely overscores her mercenary wretch's emergence by setting it to a Françoise Hardy girl-with-a-broken-heart ode on the soundtrack as she stares moodily out of a car window; one stylistic fillip I wish he'd picked up on from Fat Girl is Breillat's use of David Bowie. She prefaces the slasher-flick nihilism of her film's double-murder-plus-loli-rape crescendo with "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" as a last rites blaring from the radio of a car that's speeding her sacrificial lambs to doom. Though its release was roughly concurrent with that of Jeune & Jolie, I can think of no stonier indictment of Isabelle than his spellbinding 2013 "Love Is Lost" with its closing refrain of "Oh, what have you done?" from a stabbed and strangled conscience in its final panicked breaths just before the coup de grâce is delivered — Bowie's lyric peers around the corner of her whore's development to the twenty-two year-old "beautiful girl" in her "darkest hour" with a cut-out soul and a gallery of "lunatic men" who'll devour her secrets as part of their masquerade for two but drag her and whatever glints of humanity she's been foolish enough to let slip ever closer toward a spiritual death that they forebode so literally, one man even expires beneath her practiced thrashing seconds before she notices. The instant Felix penetrated Isabelle and proved incapable of keeping pace with her tireless inner nympho, he was doomed; the moment she branded him ill-equipped to keep packed with blandishments that ever-widening chupacabra's maw of womanly wants that all men are expected to feed expertly and instantly despite there being no magical stroke of alpha-male finesse known to history that's ever placated a woman in perpetuity, she'd already forgotten him. When Victor objects to this iciness by noting that Felix was "nice," she affords the lad his first — and greatest — lesson in sexual dynamics, brutal honesty as only a whore off the clock could give it: "Nice isn't enough."

As he properly recognizes that stoking the fuck-lust of every man who sees them is the ultimate distaff power trip-cum-foundation of women's self-esteem, Ozon sketches Isabelle's new second life under the noses of her family as a drug habit; every new text from a client to her secret whore phone lights her up with anticipation of a fresh hit. Ozon pushes in on her eyes glazed over in the sickly digital glow of her laptop screen as she's entranced by a video clip of a porn skank getting turned out; as her best friend at school catches her in the middle of texting a john, she turns cagey and furtive like a cokehead whose runny nose garners concerned looks. The down of being degraded is, of course, as much a part of the rollercoaster ride as the up of being worshiped. Sporting a business-suit-with-skirt getup that might have made Hitchcock excited, Isabelle arrives for her rendezvous with a bearded businessman type in some posh hotel bar, and she knows from the second he sets eyes on her that she's walking into a setup where she'll have scant leverage, where her usual patina of performance will be seen — and called out — for what it is. The man — "L'homme de l'hôtel," according to the credits — is played by Italian actor Stefano Cassetti, whose most immediately striking quality in the roles I've seen has been the utter intensity-at-ten-paces of his stare. Here, that unnervingly azure-eyed interrogation of whatever's before him is as ominous as it was hangdog and searching when he played the quietly conflicted Father François in Katell Quillévéré's excellent 2010 Catholic-girl-becomes-a-woman-while-flashing-her-family piece, Un poison violent. He sits, sipping his whiskey, doesn't even rise to greet Isabelle. When she introduces herself as Lea, he congratulates her with the implication of a snicker on her excellent choice of name. He appraises her with the self-contained air of one well past the point of being grateful merely to find himself in the company of a pretty young thing, of one who long ago weighed the worth of femininity and found it better off paid for and dismissed. On the way up to his room, she avoids eye contact.

Ozon cuts to their Frank Booth-Dorothy Vallens mutual masturbation act in progress — the man instructs her to rub her cunt, he chastises her for her forlorn Revlon-ad bloodlessness, then admonishes her not to look at his cock. He directs her to get on all fours and erupts to the sight of her showing off what's undoubtedly her impeccably waxed and lilac-scented little brown-eye — truly the patrician's fetish, I might add. (Of course, that comes filtered through Ozon's own back door-centered proclivities; one wonders in passing what subtext regarding this man's sexuality we're meant to consider.) He then throws a towel at her and refuses her the chance to psychologically cleanse herself with a post-session shower ritual. That spunk, that sweat, he's saying: wear it, cunt — it's who you are. When she counts the money he's given her and protests that it isn't the amount they agreed upon, "L'homme de l'hôtel" insists that she isn't worth that much then threatens to tell her parents what a whore she is if she doesn't get lost. She sulks on a subway bench after, zombied out like some homeless wretch. Has she learned a lesson from this? Indeed, she has: she raises her price for the next john and makes sure to get his money upfront. Likely still wearing the traces of the previous customer as her armor of provocation, she'll service this next man ("L'homme de la Mercedes") in even seedier circumstances — the backseat of his car in a parking garage — after hesitating at his insistence on a bareback blowjob. Her disjointed diva airs elicit the spite she now craves — "Once a whore, always a whore," he chuckles — then, he dumps her off at the subway so she can dash home at last to the closure of shower time: the only true climax she's able to feel.

To the mockery of the countless mental midgets among professional reviewers who somehow declared Isabelle's self-enslavement to men's fantasies a tribute to her dogged independence, Ozon doesn't kid us with Jane-Fonda-in-Klute assurances that Isabelle coolly avoids all connection with the customers. She becomes quite taken with her first, the melancholy old charmer Georges — he of the eventual mid-coital cardiac arrest that no man could pity. He's played by Johan Leysen as a man placid (defanged, even) in his acceptance of a life's worth of regrets, some of which he confides to Isabelle — his dereliction of duty as a father, chiefly — while others remain unspoken but for their testimony in the lines upon lines on his face. We never doubt from his retired-Casanova affect that Georges bedded his share of Isabelles in his prime; the same courtliness tinged with doubt that Isabelle rejects in younger, more virile men carries here the guarantee of experience — age accords Georges the presumed wizardry of a man who's played the game so long, he long ago ceased having to prove himself. Isabelle even concocts a fantasy relationship out of their arrangement: it's Georges whom she's texting when her friend catches her; upon her friend's inquiry, Isabelle claims he's a thirty-two year-old she's been seeing. Naturally, her friend approves — is it the hoariest cliché in the book to invoke every girl's attraction to the safe haven promised by the daddy figure? It is, Ozon assents while reminding us that, especially as they relate to the daughters of fatherlessness, clichés are clichés for a reason. Isabelle balks at court-mandated therapy sessions after police trace her back to the scene of Georges' death and the cat of her alter ego is let out of the bag to all and sundry. It's during one of these sessions, as the therapist sees right through her meetings with older men, that her family dynamic is laid bare: Isabelle's father has remarried after the split from her mother and lives in Italy with his new child. Things are fine between them, Isabelle assures the shrink — why, he sends her money every year for her birthday and for Christmas. (Ozon's shrewd poke at bourgeois values here echoes the lonely-little-rich-girl obliviousness of a similar admission by the kidnapped heiress in Eriprando Visconti's La orca.)

She prods further in her juvenile resolve to rattle her therapist — and rattle, by proxy, all the upper-class fathers in upper-class France with their newer, younger wives and their half-hearted, limp-dicked undertures, really, toward connecting with daughters whom they'll only leave wanting then damn once they've turned fuck-me-Daddy Jezebel lapping at the heels of the dissolute. (When Georges asks about her father, she gives the evasive non-answer you'd expect.) She liked whoring, she tells the shrink — she didn't feel much during it but she always wanted to do it again. Then, she wilts over how much she enjoyed lolling on her back with Georges and his tenderness, nips straining toward the heavens in Italian Vogue ecstasy. Her didn't-feel-much morphs into a proclamation of guilt over his death, with her noting that only when she did something specifically for his pleasure — mounting and riding him — did he wind up dying. High-cheekboned dolor worthy of a Parisian runway gushes forth but Ozon's already confirmed its authenticity: realizing something's wrong with Georges, she tries desperately to revive him, then zips about so frantically in her rush to get dressed and leave that she slips and cuts her forehead on the edge of the bathroom sink. It's high whore comedy when, just a second out the door, she doubles back to collect her pay but Ozon undercuts the cynical humor of the moment as she stops to take the old man in for the last time — and why wouldn't she? Georges, the father she'd always wanted, the bad dad seeking absolution, performed the ultimate self-sacrifice: his dedication to the tainted romance necessary for his surrogate daughter to continue looking at herself in the mirror, even at the expense of his own health.

By rights, Isabelle convinced herself, Georges belonged to her. She happens upon Georges in a theater lobby during a night out with her folks and she watches possessively from afar as he sips wine with a comely thirtysomething lass in casual business wear that mocks the costume Isabelle donned for her pretense to elegance — he'll later claim the woman as the daughter with whom he's reconciled. Ozon wrings a rather intriguing tension out of the moment — as the woman's antennae pick up Isabelle's covetous transmissions, she stares back at Isabelle with a knowing, vaguely invitational openness that teases yet with a bitch-smirk born of security in her own irreplaceability. They hold each other's audacity between them; the woman turns to Georges and appears to ask who the girl across the lobby is; meanwhile, Georges nearly went pale the second he caught sight of her. So erotically charged is this silent Godzilla-meets-Mothra showdown between the two daughters vying for the only throne next to King Georges that it first suggests the prelude to an out-of-focus Jess Franco threesome on white mink while Lina Romay tweaks her Barcelonian box from a lounge chair in the corner. Ozon leaves the threads between whores unconnected here; between Isabelle and her mother Sylvie, they're all but tied in a bow for us.

Isabelle and her brother hail from one of those tony French families you only see in morally ambiguous French art films: the kind that repairs to cozy seaside cottages in the south of France and counts as extended relations a self-consciously "un-self-conscious" interracial couple and their "woke" ad campaign-ready progeny as badge of progressiveness — Peter, the African male (of course) living the post-colonial dream with Véro, his mousy dishwater blonde who, if not for her casual-joint-rolling esprit de la nouvelle Europe, could be a lower faculty member at some liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest. Géraldine Pailhas as Sylvie makes for one of those vaguely Levantine-cast, still-ripely-fuckable-even-well-into-middle-age brunette mothers that the French seem to churn out on auto-pilot — the sister to Arsinée Khanjian as the mother in Fat Girl. After spotting Georges in the theater lobby, Isabelle spies her mother and Peter talking one-on-one with all the earmarks of an established physical intimacy: Sylvie's besotted eye contact; his King Kong paw affectionately grazing the side of her face. It's the cleverest accidental metaphor for the multi-culti invasion currently besieging the West: the literal place from whence Isabelle came now occupied by a decidedly non-European presence. (Ozon later includes a shot of Isabelle taking a john from behind with what looks to be a reflection of the Eiffel Tower in the distance: a nation's legacy receding into soft-focus as its future mothers "liberate" themselves into extinction.)

Ozon teased earlier with silences and averted glances as Isabelle fended off her mother's casual probing over Felix; we sense that Isabelle's living out some vindictive ideation of her mother: she wears a silk blouse from Sylvie's wardrobe to meet with a client; she even chooses the name of her maternal grandmother for her nom d'escorte. In the theater lobby, Sylvie's decked out in clothes nearly identical to what Georges' daughter was wearing, so we know this signifies that mother and daughter are similarly flipsides of the same feminine-id coin, akin to Charlotte Rampling as the prissy Englishwoman and Ludivine Sagnier as the send-up of French sluttiness who wafts through her scenes on a Smell-O-Vision cloud of cigarette smoke, cheap hairspray and ass crack in Swimming Pool, Ozon's 2003 mash-up of The Odd Couple and Jacques Deray's 1969 La Piscine by way of Hitchcock. Mirroring the just-between-us-girls pact to cover up a murder in Swimming Pool, Isabelle keeps mum about what she's seen — when she gets back to her seat and her stepdad innocently asks if she's seen her mother, she lies effortlessly: no, she hasn't. Isabelle then receives a text from Georges to confirm their next session, and an impish light breaks dimly across her face as if discovering her mother's infidelity has taught her some dirty little secret about the artifice of objective standards.

"Everyone's as bad as I am," goes the reprobate mantra of self-justification. "Morality is a lie." (Rachel never tired of repeating some variation of this.) Freed by the shattered moral authority of the woman who would — and will — judge her the most harshly, Isabelle tailspins, drunk off the anarchy of her street life invading her home life and spray-painting naughty things all over everyone's tapestries. Isabelle babysits for Peter and Véro, and delights in Véro's panic at the ride home that he offers her. Véro dives at the chance to drive Isabelle home instead — during the ride, Isabelle pokes holes in Véro's marriage, taunting her that she clearly doesn't trust her black bull to roam unsupervised near her fine white china, then baiting her with a veiled crack about what her mother and Peter have been up to. Isabelle then slinks her way onto the living room couch where her stepdad Patrick has dozed off in front of the TV alone — she goads him with a prostitution joke then presses into his surface restraint to feel the latent fuck-lust underneath, and this after a pair of moments earlier in the film in which each has inadvertently seen the other naked. He asks that she go easy on her mother in light of everything she's dealing with; as he's asserting his firm-but-understanding patriarch role and writing off Isabelle's moral descent as her teen-rebellion phase, Isabelle asks with the hint of a proposal if he's ever slept with a whore. She teases him that his secret is safe with her. The moment is ripe — they titter like co-conspirators until Sylvie pops up as if heeding some silent alarm and orders Isabelle and her penetrating brat's sneer to bed.

Sylvie already had her distraught-mother breakdown, flailing against a cowering Isabelle upon the revelation of her whoring, followed by a supposed acceptance of Isabelle's promise to walk away from it and an all-too-pat attempt on the family's part to forget the whole thing. But now, in private, Sylvie's confessing to her husband that Isabelle's simply "bad to the bone," that her own daughter disgusts her. She wields as proof of irredeemability the way that Isabelle flirted with him; what she's come to grips with is the plain reality of her daughter's festering resentment for her — the matricidal impulse of every girl denied a father in her life by Mommy's John Hancock on the divorce papers. Ozon lets the spectacular hypocrisy of the woman, of what she isn't confessing here, of her sudden fear of being cheated on, course through the veins of the scene — it rushes to the surface with Sylvie's feeble offer to Isabelle of a shopping trip and her "I was your age once; I was wild, too" only for Isabelle to mouth off and get a smack across the face for it. "What have we done to make you this way?" she'd challenged Isabelle at seeing her little girl turn so twisted that she'd blithely toy with her mother's marriage. Isabelle slides back into position to show that her mother's worst barely smarted; as if now answering that question, she spears Sylvie with her knowledge of the affair she's having. Tell me the truth, Isabelle implores with a tameless wrinkle of vulnerability. A secret between us whores so that I know you no longer have any pretensions to being better than me. It's a plea for communication but Sylvie recoils from being put in her proper place — recoils from facing in Isabelle the mirror held up to her own ready duplicity. She can't bolt from her daughter's room fast enough; her parting disclosure — that Isabelle scares her — slips out more like an aside muttered to one's own reflection in the nakedness of solitude.

"Everyone's as fucked-up as I am," mewls the harlot's mantra even as it — even as she — shimmies right up to the edge of full-blown paraphilia and smiles. Isabelle tickles her brother Victor's incestuous curiosity toward her to a frustrated froth: using Victor to gauge her fuck appeal before her date with Felix, promising to give Victor all the details of the sex she knows she and Felix will have, then booting him from her room as she returns home to find him sleeping naked in her bed — he's face-down in the same spot where earlier she'd ground her estrus-dampened crotch against her pillow in a fantastic private display as he watched through the crack in her door. Sibling teasing, caressed by her 500-euros-a-pop mouth into something scaly and impertinent, means fishing for specifics about Victor's masturbation and porn-watching habits after coyly foisting onto him her fantasy of his receptiveness to boy-on-boy action. (Again Ozon is spot-on: for God knows what reasons, Rachel entertained the same idea — or hope? — about her much younger half-brother while conversely nursing any number of scenarios in which she herself would someday initiate the boy into carnal knowledge.)

Ozon introduces Isabelle to us as a moist, unconsciously erotic fawn literally framed by the objectification that becomes her lifeblood: trapped within the ogler's point of view of Victor watching her through binoculars as she strides along the beach and sunbathes in topless repose. Ozon's so giddy in his flirting with taboo here, he's winking at us: the shadow of an approaching Victor creeps across her outstretched form and his phantom hand fleetingly palms her breast. Ozon gets so excited, in fact, that — true to form — he lets slip a few winks in the direction of his pet sexual concerns: his camera paints Victor laid across a couch in tank top and shorts with bare legs exposed like a reclining Venus from the Renaissance; there's a brazen panning shot later in the film wherein Ozon lovingly travels up his legs and over his exposed midriff; also, a quick interjection of Patrick walking in on the lad in bed, beating off under the covers. But overall, the maestro comports himself with an admirable heterosexual discipline. Elsewhere, Victor's hormonally driven guilelessness edges over into the film's comic relief; as he observes Isabelle's rodeo duel with her pillow, it charges the film with an urgency that pounds in your throat like your seventh-grade heart whenever you got close to the blonde with the audacious eye contact and the already-blossoming rack from social studies. Victor's eyes widen to mimic the lenses of his binoculars as his big sis in her sheer top and panties — face-down, bronco-riding with a sensation-savoring deliberateness — pulls him forward into bold new vistas of pervert nirvana. You can practically smell her pheromonal musk riding the stale nighttime air as she assumes the ass-up position of her animal yearnings made manifest; as Ozon cuts in tighter to direct our focus to her hair plastered by perspiration to her upper back, to her shoulder blades rising and pushing through her skin like the hand that reaches through the membranous surface of Max Renn's television in David Cronenberg's Videodrome before she collapses in exhaust, this mere minute or so of screen time squirts more messy, impromptu humanity all over her mattress than any of the sex she'll have.

As Georges feasts on her twat, Ozon cuts to her clasping strands of her own hair as she cranes her neck back, swan-like, in her rote imitation of pleasure. Then, he kills the moment with a pointedly abrupt edit that clips Philippe Rombi's stirring orchestral accompaniment mid-phrase to show us Isabelle scrubbing herself afterward — she focuses especially on her tits and crotch: her clients' focal points and, thus, even in her mind, her filthiest parts. (She seems mildly thrown by a box of the old man's Viagra that she finds on the bathroom sink after. Is he, too, putting on something of a performance?) He clasps his hands around her neck before she goes and wants to know if she sees many others. They stare into each other's eyes, the truth lurking in the silence, and Ozon cuts to the answer: Françoise Hardy cooing aphorisms like "We forget there is no happiness" as Isabelle sucks and fucks all the other men on her weekly rotation, capped off — as if we needed the reminder — by her counting a wad of Euros. She inaugurates her sojourn into normalcy by kissing a classmate who's been pining for her under the Felix-tainted stars, then they're sharing a walk on a bridge overlooking the river. Ozon pushes in tight on the duo framed by those classically French arches — it's a moment for true love scored by a chanteuse's longing, only for Ozon to give us the film's blackest joke yet: Isabelle, the born-again girl next door, telling the kid that she doesn't go home with guys on the first night. She'll fuck him but the joke when she does is how intensely this avatar of as-yet-unshattered optimism buys the act she's selling — even as she nudges him out of a mid-coital slump with the old pro's trick of lubing her fingers and wedging them up his ass. She retreats to her post-john cleansing ritual while her new man puts in face time at the breakfast table — Sylvie, Patrick and even Victor nearly cult-like in their dedication to boosting the lie that might allow Isabelle a normal life with a normal guy. As she stalks the corridor over the sounds of family-boyfriend bonhomie with the look of muted derision she last gave her German, we know what comes next: "It's over," she tells him. "I'm not in love with you."

Though it's attributed to Hollywood stereotype by those who reduce the history of cinema to a campus-corner milk crate on which to stand and bullhorn stabbed-pig screechings of down-with-the-patriarchy, enslaved-woman twaddle at the masses, filmic exploration of the whore as woman's God-given role is as classically European as stinky cheese, shitty dance music, and hostels filled with slutty German backpacker girls. Isabelle might haughtily disdain commoners alongside Giulietta Masina's streetwalker in Federico Fellini's 1957 Nights of Cabiria; she might molder in self-pity, in a fog of her own cigarette smoke, alongside Anna Karina in Godard's 1962 Vivre sa vie; she might take a midday caller in tandem with Catherine Denueve in Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967); she might trade business tips with Jane Birkin in Michel Boisrond's 1975 Catherine & Co. (co-written by Catherine Breillat!); she might swap most-pathetic-client anecdotes with hard-bitten Helen Mirren in Matthew Chapman's 1980 Hussy and with Cathy Tyson's imperious lesbian in Neil Jordan's 1986 Mona Lisa. She'd definitely nurse memories of Georges in a deluded romantic haze to match that of Monica Bellucci's aging vixen for sale in Bertrand Blier's 2005 How Much Do You Love Me? Ozon's innovation within this framework, though, is to underscore that it's Patrick Bateman, of American Psycho infamy, whom Isabelle resembles most. We never see her, say, flecked with blood while wielding a chainsaw, yet Isabelle is no less — and perhaps more of — an unfeeling sociopath, crushing the gentlest and the most hopeful of the young men about her with her cold indifference, with the utter heartlessness that leaps out of her at the first hint of sensitivity or weakness. After all, the violence of which men as physically superior specimens are capable is — in the grand scheme of it all — nothing compared to the long-lasting psychological and emotional damage that is woman's natural arsenal. (Hell, half the women out there harbor rape and domination fantasies — I've yet to hear of a man who's ever jerked off to the thought of having his children and half his assets snatched from him in a bitter divorce while his ex slanders him to everyone he knows and fucks his best friend.)

You'll note that, until now, I've made no mention of model Marine Vacth as Isabelle — this isn't a slight but rather a reflection of her total commitment to the projection of blankness, to the existential nothingness, required by the role. There is most certainly an idea of an Isabelle, some kind of eye-candy abstraction fleshed out by whatever past experiences and expectations of femininity men bring to her. But though she can hide her cold gaze within the glower of hot-girl ennui, and you can touch her breasts and run your hand along the contours of her hips and feel her flesh beneath yours, and maybe you can even sense that her lifestyle is probably comparable to that of similar trollops you've nailed, she simply is not there. Ozon's final sleight of hand is what appears to be a spark of light on the horizon after Isabelle's courtship ritual of passive seduction followed by abandonment is assured to us as her life's pattern. She reverts to taking clients; her final rendezvous that we see is with Georges' widow in the hotel suite where he and Isabelle regularly met. His widow is played by a returning Charlotte Rampling, as if her Sarah Morton from Swimming Pool had been inspired at last by the slam-pig with whom she shared a house to take that provisional walk on the wild side she'd always pondered. (One familiar with only her latter-day film appearances could scarcely imagine her bare-breasted, in a death's-head cap and suspenders, Salome-dancing before a room full of SS in Liliana Cavani's 1974 The Night Porter or invoking the decadence of a Rothschild-ball party favor in nude photography by Helmut Newton.) Georges' widow meets Isabelle on a plain of mutual understanding as the gutter madam Isabelle wanted Sylvie to be — she admits to Isabelle that she's long toyed with the fantasy of whoring herself. Isabelle's so enraptured by the imprimatur given her degeneracy by this icon of emotional authority that she half-expects, and is ready, to disrobe and provide the lonely old woman with some of the physical comforts that she provided her husband.

The ostensible grace note of the ending — Isabelle alone on the bed where her dear Georges departed, staring off into the light of day as if she's reached some peace with herself — curdles into a Bronx cheer, the more we read its implications: alone is all she can be. Her confessions — to Georges, to the shrink, to her mother — have meant nothing. Like Rachel, like all wenches of her perfidious, family-spiting bent, our dear Isabelle wants nothing more than to inflict her own emotional numbness onto others, to spread it like the communicable diseases for which her ilk is known to any man who wanders, unsuspecting, into the black hole of attempted intimacy with her. Patrick Bateman at least boasted the self-awareness to bare all to us in voice-over, to eke out sideways confessions of his madness; Isabelle is as self-absorbed and as illusory an approximation of feminine enticement as ever, and we don't even get glints of vibrant, supple humanity from her like Bateman's dissertation in the novel on the awesomeness of Genesis or his eternally quotable, and wholly relatable, bons mots such as, "Don't just stare at it; eat it" and "I don't want you to get drunk — but that's a very fine chardonnay you're not drinking."

©2019 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Sunday, August 4, 2019

On German Sexploitation and Devil-Possession Movies: Magdalena, vom Teufel besessen (Magdalena, Possessed by the Devil) (1974)

directed by Walter Boos (as Michael Walter)
starring Dagmar Hedrich, Werner Bruhns,
Michael Hinz, Rudolf Schündler

Let's say you're looking for ace parody of the innocent-girl-inhabited-by-demons-and-turned-into-a-foul-mouthed-wildcat films that sprouted like post-Spring Break genital warts across the Seventies' cinematic landscape in the wake of a certain William Friedkin masterpiece. Well, you needn't bother with witless spoofs such as 1990's Repossessed, in which an apparently-short-on-coke-money Linda Blair decided to cash in on her sole claim to fame by pasting on the old demon-girl makeup and vexing a bumbling priest played by The Naked Gun's Leslie Nielsen. You may also skip — as funny as it is — the faux Exorcist sequel from Saturday Night Live's first season, in which guest host Richard Pryor and blaxploitation/black-sitcom regular Thalmus Rasulala show up to exorcise a possessed Laraine Newman and wind up strangling the demon out of her when it starts talkin' 'bout dey mommas. Blaxploitation's 1974 Abby comes closer, with Carol Speed from The Mack as a Louisville preacher's wife taken over by an ancient African sex deity — a real back-to-the-jungle pilgrimage for this respectable daughter of the emergent black American middle class. Though, sadly, it lacks the wanton displays of sooty tittage you'd expect from a cautionary folktale about Negroes succumbing to their inner Bantus and all the dangers that poses to civil rights gains and to black family stability, the bulk of it is so community-theater-workshop in its acting and directing as to exceed every fantasy you've ever had about what a great bad movie should be. But then it chucks moments at you like the scene where Speed is carving up chicken in the kitchen and starts slicing away at her own arm in crazed, tongue-wagging ecstasy — the effects are as startling as they are campy and the movie begins to achieve a bit of legit trash-horror momentum.

What you're looking for, then, is none other than Deutschland's 1974 entry in the demonic-strumpet sweepstakes: Magdalena, vom Teufel besessen, directed by assembly-line teen-nudie hack Walter Boos under the pseudonym of Michael Walter, as if Magdalena's producers didn't want their genre masterpiece tainted by association with Boos' less-than-illustrious resume, whose highlights include such softcore paeans to the incandescence of youth as The Swinging Co-eds, Schoolgirl Report 3: What Parents Don't Even Suspect, Schoolgirl Report 5: What All Parents Should Know, Intimate Teenager, Swedish Playgirls, The Tavern of the Sinful Daughters, Confessions of a Campus Virgin and — lest it vanish into the mists of history — Schoolgirl Report 13, with its seemingly definitive proof of God's cruelty in the rather inordinately developed gifts of thirteen year-old jailbait (and future jailbird) Katja Bienert. (Fun fact: Schoolgirl Report producer Wolf C. Hartwig is the very same Wolf Hartwig who'd make a bid for legitimacy by bankrolling Sam Peckinpah's last great film — 1977's Cross of Iron.)

Boos imbues Magdalena with an Ed Woodian pseudo-solemnity that, combined with the film's tonal disjointedness and the porn-worthy bons mots on the English-dubbed dialogue track, makes it a must for smug agnostics who like to host Bad Movie Nights. He opens on a drunken whore in a candy-red fright wig tottering home after dismissing the advances of a fat cheapskate with the temerity to offer only a single bill for the use of her trashed-out stank-box. (She: "For that stinkin' amount, I wouldn't even let you smell it!" He: "Smell it? Who the hell would want to?!") She then enters a courtyard where she discovers the corpse of an old man, crucified fully Christ-like on the wall next to the door. As she stumbles off, screaming for help and now wigless, a quote from Pope John Paul appears over the dead man to lend some spiritual gravitas to his demise, I suppose. Then, over a freeze frame of this blasphemous spectacle, the film's title theme kicks in: a romantic Liszt-gone-Muzak piano number that's, of course, so hilariously inappropriate for the visual it's matched up to, and for the mood that Boos is trying to establish here, you have to wonder if the film is in on the joke. But then you recall the autistic humorlessness of your average German, and you remind yourself that the Seventies predated the overuse of "irony"-as-deflation by today's worthless hipster shitbags — nope, this thing is dead serious.

As the film's insta-plot has it (you could conjure it from your own memories of a thousand B-horror clones), the crucified old man was the beloved grandfather of our Magdalena, who's grown up the goody-two-shoes of her girls' boarding school after the death of her parents in what's referred to with delicious ominousness as "that terrible accident." She's played by Dagmar Hedrich with all the toothy ebullience of a model in a Colgate commercial as she bops along asexually to a tune in a record shop and leads the other girls in a hip-hip-hooray for the school's headmistress after having virtuously resisted a boy's come-on — it's the same exaggerated girl-next-door-ness that the Schoolgirl Reports and their hardcore knock-offs among the era's German fuck-flicks would use to make the inevitable blond bush-baring defilement over breathily grunted "oh, ja's" that much sweeter. Magdalena starts all po-faced with the old man laid out on a coroner's table as his crushed larynx and his forehead adorned with a strange claw-like marking are explained, TV procedural-style, to the investigating detective. There's an endearingly feeble stab at spooking us — it's like your little nephew trying to tell you a scary story he heard — as the assistant headmistress recounts the ritualistic details of his death and looks right into the camera at us, as if she'd been directed to imagine peering into our very souls.

Then, Grandpa's corpse springs to life — erect — and our Maggie drops to the floor in the middle of a party, her pelvis thrust into the air in a coital arch, her mouth agape as an involuntary receptacle before erupting in the money shot of a foamy white discharge. The disc I have of this movie was clearly sourced from an old VHS tape, as video tracking lines appear at the bottom of the screen with amusingly lo-fi regularity — especially appropriate as Magdalena's one of those movies you'd have plucked from your neighborhood video store shelf on an off-night back in 1987, based on little but whatever scantily clad cooze was plastered across the display box. That relegation to a now-fossilized era of home video technology lends a nifty proto-Ring synchronicity to the "scares": the tracking lines flare up here at the precise moment that Magdalena begins convulsing and rocking her head from side to side in Dagmar Hedrich's best approximation of a fit, distorting the image and even the accompanying audio as if whatever was bursting out of her was so powerful that it crossed over into our realm and had caused the tape containing it to warp inside the VCR at the same time.

Soon, our Maggie's running a clawed fingertip up the length of our twitching lapsed-Catholic hard-ons the way a bargain-bin demon dolly should: fighting off an invisible hellhound in the grip of bare-assed delirium; demolishing a door like a charging linebacker and smashing up every dish in the house; damning the dead before climbing up a wall like a wild animal; overpowering a would-be car rapist with her newfound Incredible Hulk strength; dispensing with enough creative insults — "whoremaster," "ass-licker" — to qualify for a David Mamet play; causing the whole furniture-flying-about-the-room bit; ripping a Bible in half in a stage-worthy stunt that could've garnered her the frontwoman spot in an all-girl black-metal band; communing with her dead gramps — now revealed as a Satanist whose postmortem telepathic molestation of her provided the force inside him with a new host — and declaring her murderous allegiance to their dark lord; demanding that a priest slip his communion wafer between her other set of lips before accusing him of being a "dirty nun-fucker." (This film couldn't even afford a top-notch demon — at least Pazuzu from The Exorcist would have hipped Maggie to that open secret about the priests and their altar boys.) Maggie sits with wires attached to her head as a doctor runs his battery of tests on her — per The Exorcist, no one in these movies ever believes the causes of the problems are supernatural — and then the doctor convenes with the priest: there's nothing wrong with her brain as far as he can tell. A professor interested in her case invites her and the doctor to his country home for further study, as if ping-pong, riding horses, and the goo-goo eyes she winds up making at the doctor could remedy a sudden schizophrenic switch from vestal virgin to sailor-mouthed cocktease from hell; Boos is, of course, only softening us up for what's to come.

She awakens in a slutty-jailbait-Regan-from-Exorcist-II trance in the middle of the night, then slips off to the local biergarten to flash titty at a bearded stranger through the window, luring him outside to make out with her and finger-fuck her behind a tree. She makes him wait for her while she goes back to the window to repeat the bit with the bearded man's friend — the demonic entity, of course, having kicked away the hedge of behavioral restraints that society's placed around her for her own benefit. She gets this second man off to a secluded area, then stands there nude, gyrating her hips at him in a goofy yet titillating pinch of Brigitte Lahaie frisson to make it plain to him that she ain't there for get-to-know-you chat. When the bearded man arrives to scuffle with his mustached friend for having dashed off with his night's conquest, our Teutonic Teufel-taken tart switches to a tactic so frighteningly relevant to our current mass hysteria of "believe all women no matter how uncorroborated or suspiciously timed or obviously politically motivated their allegations are," she may as well have squatted upon the ground and left well-funded, would-be career-wreckers like Christine Blasey Ford plus the entire fueled-by-whores'-regret #MeToo movement writhing in their on-camera afterbirth: she claims to the bearded man that his pal tried to rape her, then she takes a ringside seat to the fight to the death she's just incited, purring at them that she'll fuck whoever wins. "I'm worth it, too," her voice double coos as Hedrich parts her thighs and air-grinds Maggie's rivalry-moistened hotbox just over the wooden floor so vigorously that you're imagining some poor-yet-lucky bastard on the film crew being tasked with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers for the splinter she's about to catch.

Curiously, the film anticipates the true-life case of Maggie's fellow fräulein Anneliese Michel, a Bavarian girl who wasted away in 1976 after a year's worth of Catholic exorcism rites to rid her of demons that she and her deeply religious parents believed inhabited her. An autopsy pointing to malnutrition and the subsequent trial of her parents for criminal neglect made her a cautionary tale of faith run amok for the new godless West — the former Johnny Rotten used her as a conduit for his own Catholicism issues on the first Public Image Ltd. album in 1978; countless horror flicks since (Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Requiem, et al.) have used her case to supplant The Exorcist as the new devil-possession template. The surviving audio tapes of her various exorcisms attest to lead-singer-of-Cannibal-Corpse growls and other profoundly masculine sonorities unlikely in normal circumstances to have erupted from an emaciated twenty-three year-old girl for hours on end. Magdalena scripts this to the letter, except it's a litany of scorned-woman aggressions we get from its sweaty, contorted Anneliese in sinister old-maid tones: strangled husbands' mistresses, blood and bone marrow slurped from victims, sodomy "with whores and beasts," sliced-off testicles. At last, the story behind the Christ mockery at the head of the film: the voice of Magdalena's grandfather, testifying to his having been strangled and pinned to the wall of his house by his own wife (on Ash Wednesday, no less). It's not until the film's immediate post-climax that we get any visual confirmation of Magdalena's possession, when an induced "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" causes her to vomit up a tiny black garden snake that's crushed underfoot in a typical Euro-grindhouse fulfillment of the genre's apparent animal snuff mandate. The real Devil in our teen-orphan Miss Jones, though, is there all along and it's nothing less than the "devil" that animates all womanly flesh, Boos affirms: the collective taste for chaos-making of strumpets and virgins, little girls and old maids alike; the manipulative blackness and aristocratic wielding of pussy power that oozes post-menarche from false gods sanctified in the true religion of Western civilization — female worship — as inevitably as their monthly discharge.

Boos literalizes the cocktease-from-hell conceit: the mustached man stabs his bearded friend to death and Maggie literally vanishes over the echo of her sadistic laugh. Riding bikes with the doctor she's been leading on, she fakes a fall then threatens him as he dashes over to her: "I think I'll tell the professor that you were trying to rape me." She offers herself to him over the ping-pong table, then pushes him off, cackling. She takes him in her arms after another horse ride, then lays it out for him: he's going to have to kill the professor for "imprisoning" her at his clinic. The doc knows full well she's up to her "damn tricks," as he'll spit at her later, but like the classic film-noir fall guy, he's beholden to his own beta masochism — hopelessly entangled in femme-fatale gossamer that feels too good to break. When he finds her playing piano in the nude (in the kind of unabashed trash-flick eroticism more "legitimate" sex films have yet to learn from), he engages her in a makeout session with those inky, snatched-soul orbs of hers captivated by something or someone only she can see before she attempts to strangle him with his own ascot. After this, she'll beckon him to her room then holler you-know-what exactly as she'd promised, and what could be funnier or more fitting for an ascot-wearing dandy who refuses to learn the truths to which men far below his station have long since resigned themselves, than that she does so immediately after he's declared his all-consuming love for her?

Obviously, this is sexploitation-schlock with horror elements rather than the other way around — and thank my benevolent Christian God for that; were my entire cinematic diet to consist of lockjawed Downton Abbey emoting from gummy Brit spinster-faces too high off the passing fancies of Oscar buzz and thespian "integrity" to realize that they'll never matter as actresses until they get their kits off and properly purify their Apollonian jiggle in the Lake Minnetonka of our collective smirking-Prince gaze, I might wind up doing something drastic. Three ripe hunks of Magdalena Limburger make the exploitation cheese hall of fame. The first is Hedrich's solo pantomime of a sex scene as Magdalena's roused from sleep by her demon for funny business. She asks aloud what it wants of her, she begins porno-delighting in its invisible diddling; seized by a rush of carnal urgency, she Hulk Hogans her flimsy nightgown, revealing the gap between milkers of a distractingly evident tit job — you could fly from L.A. to Munich in less time than it would take you to go from one tit to the other. Then, she's flipping over and serving up her peach of an ass to the demon's craftily foreshadowed yen for doggystyle — and to her own gut need as a woman to be taken in as bestial a fashion as possible. Next, and even better, is a scene charged with the exhibitionist impulse of every authority-hating Catholic schoolgirl: stark naked as the headmistresses look on in shock, Maggie rips in half a photo of her dear deceased parents, shouts obscenities and sprays spit at the two older women; then, while masturbating and declaring that she wants to fuck, she drops to the floor, her generously exposed (and rather respectably trimmed for the Seventies) bare bush bucking wildly against the air, waxing circles against the phantom pelvis that's batter-ramming engorged spirit-cock into her inner Baphomet's head. The assistant headmistress' attempt at restraining her turns Maggie into a feral cat; seconds later, under a poster of a kitten — the more tameable variety of pussy that any civilization requires its future mothers to embody — it's the male penetration of a doctor's injection that brings her back to pliability.

The film's climax — and ours — is an extended rape-by-malevolent-entity centerpiece shot entirely from the demon's point of view, which gives us, the closet perverts of the sexploitation crowd with our Rear Window longing from safe distances and our quenchless hunger for sacrificial celluloid lambs, the ultimate in queasy, vicarious thrills: we're violators by proxy. We're hovering right over Magdalena as she glares into us with panicked hope against hope, weakly attempting to shield her breasts and her stiffening nipples from us as she bleats her impotent "no's" and cries of "You're hurting me!" over the cacophony of sound effects that's swirling around us and nearly drowning out her resistance as if God himself had ordained this defilement and all of nature had aligned in unison to assist us in its unholy consummation. It's we the audience who pin her wrists to the mattress and hold her down; it's we the audience whose shadow darkens her triangular thatch of bush and her taut, open stomach as we advance upon her and pry her legs apart with a single decisive jolt. It's we the audience whom Boos' camera brings close enough to tongue the beads of sweat collected on her forehead; and it's we the born voyeurs watching anonymously from the confines of our own living rooms, whom Boos grabs by the napes of our necks and thrusts face-first into the very fantasy that we've paid to have enacted for our pleasure: we're forced into participation, into complicity with what's unfolding, into ownership of all our dirty-little-cunt degradation fantasies. We're denied the flattery of middle-class remove with which better films, in all their civic-duty brow-furrowing over "problematic" depictions of women, keep themselves — and us — floating above the fray in an antiseptic cloud of superiority. Boos yokes our moviegoer's impatience at being denied an easy payoff to the rapist's pique at his victim's struggling — Magdalena kicks us off of her just when we think we've got her subdued, and then we really get rough with her: snatching her down onto the bedroom floor, then throwing her back onto the bed, where she's pinned face-down, arms wrenched behind her, as we creep toward her and around her Roman sculpture of an ass offered up to us like freshly cooked farm kill, before we mount her and proceed to mash her pretty little grimace into the bedsheets with perversely drawn-out hymen-bursting savored by the film in an unbroken, real-time wave of hand-held turbulence that'll cause seasickness in the misguidedly sensitive.

Never mind Magdalena's demons, Boos the audience exorcist has just trapped us in a room with our own and, in the process, he jerks off the shared unconscious of a Womyn's Lib™-battered West to a far harder, far more eruptive finish than any of his grindhouse contemporaries ever dared; far harder, in fact, than even hardcore pornography has ever managed — barring, of course, some of the extreme fetish videos put out by the warped bastards in Japan.

©2019 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .