Judge Adam Arseneau lives by the motto of this film. When he watches a violent film, he shouts, 'Sweet!' at the top of his lungs.
"Happiness is just a Hollywood fantasy."
Douce violence (a.k.a. Sweet Violence) rides the wave of Fellini films from the early 1960s about disaffected upper class youths raging against the nothingness of decadence, coupled seamlessly with the sassy sensibilities of a skin flick—a dangerous combination if ever there was one. Half exploitation film, half art-house romp, Sweet Violence strikes an interesting balance between the two, and the copious amounts of Elke Sommer spilling out of a child-sized bathing suit smooth over the rough and incongruous bits nicely.
Facts of the Case
Oliver, a young French student, stumbles upon a beautiful woman named Barbara at a theater one night. She introduces him to her group of friends, a motley crew of young rich teenagers with nothing better to do than to speed around in fancy cars, drink for the sake of drinking, have casual, emotionless relationships with one another, and burn down the occasional yacht. The ringleader, Maddy, finds Oliver interesting, calling him a man from another era. A political science major, Maddy is cold, calculating, and passionless—he exists simply to fulfill his basic instincts, whatever they may be. In sharp contrast, Oliver is idealistic, full of vim and vigor, and most of all, yearning for love, a concept that holds no merit within Maddy's group.
Maddy convinces the others that Oliver is a "specimen" who needs to be saved and rescued from himself. Thus, Maddy persuades his girl Elke, a blonde bombshell, to seduce Oliver and bring him into their world of decadence, cheap thrills, and harsh nihilism. Elke is sexy, seductive, and viciously cruel, and takes up her challenge with ferocious determination to break Oliver's idealism. Oliver, torn between his wholesome desire toward Barbara and his instinctive, primal desire for Elke, soon finds himself under assault, and is forced to make a decisive stand against the group, once and for all. Only Maddy is not the kind of man to be stood up to by anyone…
Like many of its contemporary films from the early 1960s, Sweet Violence is jaded, narcissistic in its pleasure seeking, self-centered, and two-faced. It shows youthful indiscretion and the privileged enjoying the high life, while at the same time illustrating the rotting center, the youths full of spite and malice towards each other and the world they inhabit. Under its sugarcoating of carefree decadence lies a remarkably cruel and callous film.
Though the DVD tagline states that Sweet Violence is all about, "Lust…Passion…Murder…," I find myself hard-pressed to recall any of the latter at all. If somebody did shuffle nefariously off the mortal coil in this film, they did so in a way that escaped my notice completely. The film has plenty of the first two elements, though. Quite racy for its day, Sweet Violence features many beautiful actresses in tiny bikinis romping about the French Riviera, surrounded by pessimistic and jaded rich boys who have nothing better to do than to simply fulfill their basic desires. In Sweet Violence, there is no good or bad—only satisfaction. Instincts are the only things that matter.
Heavily influenced by its social contemporaries, new-wave films like La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura, Sweet Violence hits all the same buttons: disaffected wealthy youth, cynical attitudes, promiscuity, rampant substance abuse, decadence as a form of self-destruction. And yet, it fails to achieve the same level of grandeur and emotional resonance as its cinematic peers, possibly because it leans its influence too much towards the exploitative side of cinema coming out of Hollywood in the 1960s (H.G. Lewis anyone?).
Perhaps the spurts of disillusionment come out in too large a quantity, as if nothing more than mere torrents of scripted artificiality, or perhaps all the hot women simply counteract all the nihilism—hard to feel too bad about your life with gorgeous girls all around, after all. Perhaps the film never takes the characters' destructiveness far enough for the effort to truly resonate properly; though complete and utter assholes, most of the characters in Sweet Violence are redeemable, or find themselves redeemable as the film progresses. Whatever the reason, Sweet Violence, unfortunately, clocks in under the radar in the great new wave of cinema.
However, to dismiss the film out of hand would be selling the film's finer points short; it is an excellent example of the pessimistic filmmaking coming out of Europe during the early 1960s. The film's tone is so aggressively downtrodden as to almost be laughable and sarcastic, making Sweet Violence a deliciously naughty indulgence. Also, there are girls. Pretty girls. Did I mention the girls?
Speaking of girls, Elke Sommer has a marvelous way of looking sensually seductive and predatorily threatening all at the same time, and cuts a cruel, sexy figure—like Brigitte Bardot trying out for Ursula Andress's role in Dr. No. Languishing about in various states of undress, Sommer strikes a delightful balance between calculating coldness and pouting desirability; plus, she looks downright smashing in a two-piece. I have absolutely no idea what is up with her eyelashes, however; exotic black arches that jut out about a foot and a half from the side of her face, like switchblade knives. We're talking Cleopatra in drag here. Weird stuff, but it definitely heightens her animalistic aspects.
Two other reasons to notice Sweet Violence are its cinematography and its score, both excellent. Shot in the French Riviera, the film features excellent widescreen compositions in black and white of the beaches of Nice and elegant Riviera mansions. On the eyes, the film is wonderful to look at, and the director guides the film with a steady and progressive hand. The film features a beautiful Charles Aznavour soundtrack, a wonderful bandstand jazz rockabilly meets a French Elvis impersonator with a full horn section and Dizzy Gillespie doing the horn solos type of thing…top notch stuff. Combine the fantastically beautiful location shots, artful cinematography, and swingin' soundtrack, and Sweet Violence scores top points in the sensory stimulation department. Also, there are pretty girls. Those qualify as sensory stimulation. Did I mention the girls?
Though the packaging claims the film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, it seems the truth is trickier, as it would appear that the film itself is set into a 1.85:1 anamorphic ratio, with black bars burned onto the image to correct the image down to the proper aspect ratio of 2.35:1. What the point of this is, I'll never know. Why not simply make the 2.35:1 the anamorphic ratio? You got me. Sneaky stuff. The transfer is well done, with respectable black levels, acceptable amounts of artifact effects and other irregularities, and a reasonably clean and tidy transfer, considering the film's age—certainly not the best black and white transfer ever on DVD, but definitely not the worse. Pathfinder has done a respectable job on this release, but the anamorphic / aspect ratio gaffe irks me.
Both the original French audio track and an English dub are included (though the English dub is incomplete—some segments revert to French audio and are subtitled in English). The original French track features rather distorted audio and quiet music, while the English track features clear, but uncomfortably tinny, audio and a louder soundtrack mixing. Despite the distortion, the French track sounds better; it is louder, with better bass response and overall clarity. The English track has that "tin can" thing going for it, and is not as agreeable to the ears. Only the barest of extras here: a film essay, which goes into great detail about the laborious effort involved in getting the project off the ground, a small photo gallery (with pictures too small to be of any real use), and a cast and crew biography.
More Rebel Without a Cause than Fellini, Sweet Violence balances jaded youthful nihilism with scantily clad women sunbathing on the French Riviera to reasonable success. Though the sexual explicitness of the film has been diluted by the passing of time, its knife-edged cynicism remains as sharp as ever. This DVD would make a good rental if La Dolce Vita and …And God Created Woman were checked out of the video store.
Hot women + new-wave nihilistic filmmaking = not guilty.
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