From the celebrated writings of Anais Nin. (And I use the words "celebrated" and "writings" generously.)
Two words that strike terror into the hearts of serious film watchers everywhere: Zalman King.
Bring coffee. Strong coffee. Make it two pots.
Facts of the Case
Aspiring American writer Elena (Audie England, a woman with far too many Zalman King co-credits on her résumé for her own good) arrives in Paris even as the storm clouds that will explode into World War II begin roiling on the horizon. Starved for excitement, she develops a longing fascination with a handsome chap who rows on the Seine for his morning exercise.
Elena's publisher introduces her to the sensuous underbelly of French high society, where—wonder of wonders—she encounters the rowing man, who turns out to be a popular American novelist named Lawrence (frequent Zalman King leading hunk Costas Mandylor, who generally kept his clothing on in Picket Fences, thank goodness). Elena quickly begins a steamy affair with Lawrence, who encourages her erotic writing…among other things.
When Lawrence abruptly returns Stateside, Elena's publisher begins showing her work to an unseen benefactor. The mystery critic offers constructive suggestions for making Elena's purple prose even more enticing. Most of these suggestions appear to involve the young woman digging ever more graphically into the veritable plethora of illicit hedonistic enterprise going on in nighttime Paris while decent folk are out buttering their baguettes. Or something. Meanwhile, to pick up extra cash while waiting for the Great American Erotic Novel to leap from her typewriter, Elena takes up nude figure modeling. (Trust me—we writers get asked to strip off and pose down all the time. Really.)
Much predictable bump and grind ensues. So does a smattering of pseudopolitical claptrap involving suspicious Aryan-looking types in brown shirts, but that's mostly there to pad out the running time in between the carnal gymnastics. This is, after all, a Zalman King film.
Zalman King isn't quite Ed Wood with a fetish for soft-focus erotica instead of angora sweaters, but he might as well be. No filmmaker on the planet gets less out of a soupçon of talent than the man who foisted such lust-fueled drivel as Wild Orchid, Two Moon Junction, and the long-running Showtime cable sleazefest Red Shoe Diaries on an unsuspecting public. You can count on a Zalman King opus to be loaded with the prerequisite display of well-toned anatomy, if that sort of display you seek. But you can also count on it to be pretentiously arty, abominably scripted, acted with dull-eyed ennui, and about as erotically stimulating as Bea Arthur in a terrycloth bathrobe.
Nowhere are King's ineptitudes and excesses more feverishly paraded than in Delta of Venus, an early favorite in the "Most Boring Film I'll Review This Year" sweepstakes. What? you say. A movie with naked flesh in glorious widescreen splendor, boring? Friend, you don't know the half of it. Delta of Venus is appallingly, unrelievedly excruciating in its ponderous pace and incomprehensible plot, if that's the appropriate word to use. Sloths taking a Sunday nap proceed with greater alacrity and speed than this flick. I almost think I could have flown to and orbited Venus by the time anything vaguely of interest happened in this tedious morass of softcore monotony.
With a script that so-called writers Elisa Rothstein and Patricia Louisiana Knop—neither of whom should ever be allowed near a word processor again—adapted from the incoherent scribblings of Anais Nin (one of the most seriously whacked and least capable novelists ever to set quill to paper), Delta of Venus is a model of stupefying dialogue and stultifying narrative. Director King guides the story—assuming there is one—along with a cavalier and leaden sense of pacing rarely seen in erotic cinema, or any other genre of cinema. If you can stay awake for the sporadic moments of biomechanics in action, you may well be a prime candidate for the royal guard at Buckingham Palace.
It's not that King couldn't make a good movie if he decided he wanted to. As the heir apparent to David Hamilton, the one-time still photographer who pioneered somnolent, out-of-focus, faux-artistic trash cinema in the 1970s with such films as Tendres Cousines and Bilitis, King clearly has a strong visual sense. He knows what to do with a camera, and he can even fashion interesting—even occasionally compelling—imagery for the screen. But he has no concept of storytelling. None. His scribes' Delta of Venus screenplay is a tepid goulash of neofeminist psychobabble, self-indulgent rambling, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink—and I may have spotted a faucet handle and a rubber stopper in there, too. (Okay, the Nin original was all that stuff too, but it wasn't my idea to make a movie out of it.) And in a genre where most of the audience, to be blunt, isn't tuning in for the story, this kind of bloated, overwritten mishmash will send even the randiest raincoater scrabbling for the remote before the first bodice gets ripped.
As usual, King's repertory company of attractive non-entities doesn't lend much fire to the proceedings. Leading lady Audie England is an unusually beautiful woman with a broad face, bee-stung lips, and a face full of intriguing planes and angles. She also possesses, based on her performance here, all the emotive range of a Russet potato, sans butter and sour cream. That potato might actually outact her opposite number, the noted thespian (snicker) Costas Mandylor, especially if parboiled. The rest of the cast are nameless ciphers, with the exception of a handful of recognizable actors—including Robert Davi (The Hot Chick, TV's Profiler), Clive Revill (Modesty Blaise, Fathom), and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (The Bourne Identity, Oz)—who should have known better, but apparently needed extra poker money that weekend.
If you're looking for an upside here, I'll allow that the cinematography by Icelandic DP Eagle Egilsson is better than the material warrants—warmly lighted and sumptuously atmospheric in that gauzy, looking-at-the-world-through-rose-colored-Kleenex sort of way. Composer George S. Clinton—the George Clinton who scored such films as The Santa Clause 2 and Wild Things, not the George Clinton famed for such old-school Parliament-Funkadelic classics as "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)"—contributes suitably romantic musical embellishment behind all the panting and heaving. And in case that's why you're here, everyone in the film is improbably gorgeous. There—I've exhausted my entire positive vibe quota for today. Are you happy now?
Stuck with a limited-audience product (namely that audience of libidinous folks too genteel to rent actual porn), New Line pitches Delta of Venus into your local video venue (though not Blockbuster, given the rating) with a pair of remarkably high-quality anamorphic transfers and precious little else. I say "pair" because the film can be viewed in either NC-17 (what we called "X" back in the day) or R-rated flavors, and I'm not certain whether the two versions are entirely discrete or effected via some sort of branching. I suspect the former, but I'm not sure. Whatever the technical mechanism, this exercise seems rather pointless—anyone interested in this sort of thing will doubtless prefer the all-out cut. (The difference between the two is so subtle as to be almost indistinguishable anyway. The R-rated edition is edited slightly more judiciously, but even the NC-17 version is less graphic than the Pee-Wee Herman Theatrical Society would recommend.) Either way one views it, it's a lovely rendition with rich color, good clarity and depth within the bounds of the director's fuzzy-focus technique, and no noticeably distracting print flaws or digital errors. Sound quality is solid if unspectacular across the board, though the dialogue is a mite whispery in places. On the other hand, if you picked up this little number for the dialogue, you're going to be sadly disappointed. Plus, you need to get out more. Surrounds are sparingly but effectively used. For whatever reason, a DTS track is offered, not that it's called for here.
The novel concept of "additional features" is represented here by a series of trailers for other New Line product: Wide Sargasso Sea, The Invisible Circus, Invincible, and The Sleeping Dictionary. As has become New Line's custom, these trailers are packaged together and run in succession via a "More From New Line" menu option; they cannot be accessed individually. And, as is also customary, activating the New Line logo on the main menu will serve up a screen listing the DVD's production credits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For those who may have wandered in thinking, based on the title, that Delta of Venus was some sort of science fiction space opera, permit a brief explanation. Delta is the triangle-shaped fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. Venus was the goddess of love and sexual bliss. If you can't extract the symbolism from those clues, call Dr. Ruth Westheimer and she'll explain it to you.
In case you haven't sussed this out by now, Delta of Venus—whether we speak of Anais Nin's Electra-complex meanderings or Zalman King's filmed adaptation of the same—is tedious, illiterate twaddle masquerading as high art. It's too tiresome to be aphrodisiac, which would seem to defeat its purpose. If you and your sweetie switched on this puppy as a warm-up prelude to connubial ardor, you'd both be sawing logs long before the deed was done.
Which goes to show you, you can't craft a silk purse from a sow's erotica. Especially if you're swine yourself.
Zalman King's Delta of Venus and its irredeemably adolescent auteur are hereby sentenced to six months saddle-stitching—by hand, with an ivory needle—leather-bound volumes of Lady Chatterley's Lover, which this wants to be, but isn't. King is also required to register as a known sex offender, for making sex offensive by making it hideously dull. You'd think that would be impossible, wouldn't you?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Two Cuts of Film (NC-17 and R-Rated)
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