Zeitgeist Films // 2004 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // May 16th, 2006
A shocking novel of sadomasochism. A worldwide literary sensation. Its author's identity hidden for 40 years.
Your enjoyment of this documentary about a scandalous erotic novel published in 1950's France depends heavily on how close you are to the epicenter. Willingly huddled in that center is the film's target audience: people who have read Story of O, have been thrilled or appalled by it, and have been curious ever since about the author's true identity. If you are in this group, Writer of O will exceed your wildest expectations. Further out are people who are deeply interested in literature and socio-political movements; intelligentsia who prefer reading The New Yorker to watching television. This group will find kindred spirits among the interviewers and interviewees, and find intellectual enjoyment in the deconstruction of this erotically charged literary mystery. From there, the impact wave flattens out sharply. If discussions about nuances of the literary elite of postwar Paris make you squirm in your seat, and reading New Yorker articles about feminist theory in the context of erotica or sexual perversion makes your eyes glaze over, then you'll be gasping for air within minutes.
Writer of O is a fan letter to literary intrigue, sexual politics, and to a seminal erotic work and its author. The chain of events loosely goes like this (keep in mind that the rest of this paragraph spoils many of the details presented in the documentary). Dominique Aury, a publisher within the sphere of influence of the Parisian industry bigwigs, wrote a series of shocking letters to her lover, Jean Paulhan. He called this collection of clear, clinical musings on stark sadomasochism and sexual torture "the most ardent love letter any man has ever received." As a literary bigwig, he had it published on the condition that Aury's authorship remain secret. A forty-year flurry of outrage, illicit thrills, bannings, and social upheaval ensued. British author John de St. Jorre came to suspect Aury, met her in 1993, and wrote an article in The New Yorker that broke her silence. Pola Rapaport, a longtime fan of Story of O, went to France to meet Dominique Aury, in the hopes that Aury would consent to having a documentary made about the book and Aury's unmasking by John de St. Jorre.
The events themselves are complicated, and the documentary mirrors that complexity. On one level you have the book itself, which Writer of O introduces through narrated and re-enacted excerpts. On another level is the dramatic social impact that followed the publication of Story of O. There's John de St. Jorre's detective work and article. There's Pola Rapaport's cinematic echo of John de St. Jorre's journey, which by necessity includes his story. Then there are the representations of Aury herself: recent footage taken of the elderly Aury, previously unreleased footage of the young Aury discussing the genesis of the novel, actress Catherine Mouchet playing the young Aury and re-enacting some of the historical events, and Catherine Mouchet playing the young Aury in a modern interview where she delivers the elderly Aury's responses. If you had trouble following that last sentence, you might be as confused as I was by parts of the documentary. It continually shifts time, locale, and perspective through a convoluted maze of history and literary criticism.
To complicate matters further, Pénélope Puymirat and others re-enact some of the scenes in Story of O. These scenes range from her initial "abduction" to her lover presenting a series of progressively larger iron dildos and telling her to strap one into herself at all times. Puymirat is not dissimilar from Mouchet (who played young Aury, not to be confused with the actual clips of young Aury): both are slender, pale brunettes. This might be an attempt to reflect the popular notion that Story of O is autobiographical, but it also adds a red herring to the game of figuring out who is whom, and when.
None of this will matter to those of you who have read the book and relish the mystery behind it. Pola Rapaport lucidly integrates a host of main themes and subthemes; you'll get a broad perspective on the book's background and impact, and you'll also get piercing, personal accounts from the author and those close to the book. Dominique Aury and John de St. Jorre are heavily featured, as are the original publisher, Pola Rapaport, and others with insight into the true story. By the time Writer of O wraps, you'll be an expert on the events surrounding the book's publishing.
This main story is supplemented by Zeitgeist Films through a series of special features. The liner notes include an introduction by John de St. Jorre, a Director's Statement, and a brief biography of Dominique Aury. The DVD has the trailer and a series of extended interview clips with John de St. Jorre. These clips are identical in tone to his comments in the DVD, but provide further information.
Writer of O's technical presentation is complicated by the collage of footage. There are staged re-enactments, outdoor re-enactments, archival footage, modern footage, and the glue footage of the documentary proper. This challenge aside, Zeitgeist's transfer leaves something to be desired. The transfer is blurry and indistinct, with poor color fidelity and bleeding reds. Even the least challenging footage, staged re-enactments, lacks detail, contrast, and delineation. The audio is serviceable, with the varied sources integrated into a pleasing, consistent, and audible mix. The frequent subtitles are large and easily read without overpowering the screen.
Despite its technical weaknesses, Writer of O gives viewers a comprehensive, if sometimes confusing, account of the story behind Story of O. If you haven't read the book, then you'd better be inherently interested in French literature or social upheaval through erotica. If that isn't the case, Writer of O will sodomize your interest and wear your entertainment threshold to a nub through repeated whippings. Fans of highbrow erotica will be suitably pleased.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Additional interviews with writer John de St. Jorre
* Liner notes
* Original theatrical trailer