Somerville House // 1975 // 105 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 21st, 2008
The masterpiece of sexual obsession.
Supposedly, Anne Desclos wrote the famous novel The Story of O because her lover told her that only men could write erotic fiction. The novel, a Sadean story of complete submission, was published under a pseudonym to great controversy in its native France in 1955, and this controversy was revived for the 1965 translation into English. In both cases, the novel's obscenity was called into question, although ultimately the novel's opponents could do little to stop its publication. Between the initial publication and the film adaptation in 1975, the world (although America in particular) saw a loosening of sexual mores and an increase in women's rights. Also, a certain mainstream interest in pornography was fostered by the success of Deep Throat. Capitalizing on the novel's controversy and the increasingly lax view towards sexually explicit cinema, The Story of O was brought to the screen in 1975, with Corinne Clery as O and Udo Kier as her boyfriend Rene. Over thirty years later, the film still has some interesting things to ask about the place of women and sexuality in culture.
Rene (Udo Kier, Mother of Tears) brings his girlfriend O (Corinne Clery, Moonraker) to a retreat where she is to learn the art of submission. To achieve this goal she is subjected to whippings, humiliation, and the sexual appetites of multiple partners. She is traded from Rene to Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel, Checkpoint), a master of domination. O falls in love with him and proceeds to advanced training, submitting to branding to demonstrate her love for the domineering Sir Stephen. By the film's end O has submitted herself completely to domination by others.
Erotic films might be the hardest genre to review. I think individual "turn-ons" vary so much that describing a particular film as sexy or unsexy seems like a waste of time. So, instead of approaching The Story of O as an erotic picture, I'll do my best to talk about it as a character drama, the other genre it most belongs to (although I will address some of the erotic aspects in the Rebuttal).
The Story of O most obviously shows the influence of de Sade in its plot and characterizations. It shows affinity in the plot being little more than a series of episodes designed to humiliate the heroine during her introduction to the libertine (or in the case of O, the submissive) life. Also like de Sade, the characters are flat, lifeless entities, existing for little more than domination or submission. However, the major difference between de Sade and The Story of O is in the deployment of the erotic. De Sade utilizes sexual scenes to provoke the reader and show relationship between man and animal. There is little to suggest that his work should be arousing, per se. In contrast, The Story of O is explicitly erotic to appeal to the prurient interest. The audience is supposed to be aroused by the training of O. Here, the film falls apart.
In de Sade, characters function as mouthpieces as archetypes, and their lack of individuation helps Sade make his polemical points. The characters in The Story of O seem equally undifferentiated (as in the host of women who occupy the training grounds, none of them quite distinct enough from the heroine to be of consequence). In the case of O, this lack of individuation significantly decreases the erotic potential. Because O is reduced to an object, there's little in the way of identification with her or her situation, making her erotic escapades feel tired. Also, because we don't receive much insight into her pre-submissive life, her domination means very little to the audience. Unless we somehow identify with her, her humiliation doesn't register. If the humiliation doesn't register, the audience may as well be watching grass grow.
I will grant that the film has an interesting premise. The 1970s saw women achieving rights (at least in America) that seem unprecedented, and yet here is a story about a woman who gives up almost everything (including her name) to please a man. Is this film simply misogynist backlash, with a woman the ultimate object of male fantasy? Or, does The Story of O show the logical end of feminism, where women are so free to choose what they want that they can choose to be dominated completely? The film raises some interesting questions. So interesting in fact that it's a shame that it's more fun to talk about the film than to actually watch it.
If you're willing to ignore the film's "story" (and Udo Kier, who I just can't see as sexy), then The Story of O offers a ton of nudity, with lots of natural female flesh on display, and I can only assume that those who are into BDSM will appreciate the various costumes and props (including whips and brands) throughout the film.
If you're stuck on seeing The Story of O, then this Blu-ray disc is the way to go. The video has a softness to it that might turn some off, but I suspect most of that is artistic decision. There are moments (many of them during whipping scenes) that suffer from print damage, but it's rarely severe enough to be distracting. There are three audio options, including English and the film's "native" French. They're not going to win any awards, but I didn't notice any distracting hiss or noise. Sadly, there are no subtitles for those who would like to watch the film in French without actually speaking it. The extras are pretty light. There's a photo gallery that's basically stills from the film, most of them featuring nudity (I guess this is for the people who want the flesh without the plot). There's also the film's trailer, as well as biographies of those who worked on the film. The back advertises a new scene, but I couldn't find it on the disc. Finally, you can listen to the director's commentary, but it's entirely in French, with no subtitles.
I'm not sure who The Story of O is aimed at. Although it's softcore (usually the province of couples), the extremes of submission are likely to turn many viewers off. Likewise, those looking for character or story are sure to be disappointed by the meager offerings on display. Those at the other extreme, looking for more aggressive displays of sexuality are probably going to be disappointed by a film whose depictions seem quaint over thirty years later. Although this is a fine presentation of the film, I can only see The Story of O being interesting to historians of erotic cinema and literature.
Although it may have been a scorcher upon its release, The Story of O
is guilty of not aging well.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Somerville House
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* Director's Commentary
* Previously Unreleased Scenes
* Theatrical Trailers
* Photo Gallery
* Cast Bios