In the Sign of the Lion/I Løvens Tegn (1976) ***
In the Sign of the Lion was Werner Hedman’s third contribution to the zodiac cycle, and the first that he wrote in collaboration with Edmondt Jensen. It was also the last in the series before it was reconceptualized a second time as a vehicle for parodying 60’s spy movies, and the first to be produced under the Happy Film label. (It isn’t clear to me whether Happy Film was the same outfit as Con Amore under a new name, or whether the former company acquired the rights to the Sign series after the extinction of the latter. Either way, it doesn’t appear that Con Amore released any more movies after 1975, or that Happy Film released any before 1976.) Above all else, though, In the Sign of the Lion marked the point at which Hedman and his associates finally pulled everything together, and got the premise of a story-driven porno-comedy set in the “innocent” interwar years really right.
One day in 1934, two old ladies living outside of Copenhagen, on the estate of a count whose predecessor they used to work for, decide to take up writing in their retirement. The women’s names are Rosa (Sigrid Horne-Rasmussen, from In the Sign of the Virgin and In the Sign of the Taurus) and Soffy (Else Petersen, of I, a Woman, Part II and Agent 69 Jensen: In the Sign of Scorpio), and what they have chosen to write is a sprawling dynastic romance, full of gloom and death and misery of the sort that a certain segment of the reading public inexplicably finds inspirational and uplifting. The trouble is, no publisher in the land wants to carry this book, but it isn’t until the world’s most gossip-prone postman (Karl Stegger, from In the Sign of the Gemini and Between the Sheets) comes around with what must surely be the final rejection notice that the would-be authors get a clear and detailed explanation of what the editors who’ve been passing on their novel believe they’re doing wrong. What the market now demands, or so says the letter, is “stronger, meatier, and much more character-driven stories, with lots of sexual innuendo.” Rosa and Soffy are scandalized, and the postman predictably ribs them about being a couple of cloistered old biddies who either never knew or can’t remember how things are in the real world, but they’ve got a retort that’ll stop his smirking right quick. You remember how they used to work for the deceased Count Johan (played in the ensuing flashbacks by William Kisum, of Justine and Juliette and Agent 69 Jensen: In the Sign of Sagittarius)? Well, no sooner did they hire on as maids at the castle than they had it brought to their attention that Johan’s conception of the job involved a great deal more than the expected washing, waiting, and tidying up. Under the tutelage of Yrsa, the head housekeeper (Gina Janssen, of She’s 19 and Ready and Schoolgirl Report 9: Mature Before Graduation), Rosa and Soffy learned more about pleasing a man— and about pleasing a woman, too, for that matter— than was probably known by the whole rest of their age cohort in the county combined. (The young Rosa is played by Weekend in Stockholm’s Ann Marie Berglund, the young Soffy by Anne Magle, from Practice Makes Perfect and Star Virgin.) Immediately after mentioning this unexpected wrinkle to their past, it occurs to Rosa that she and Soffy have all the material they could possibly need for a “character-driven story with lots of sexual innuendo” right there in their own biographies. Screw tragic generational sagas— they’re going to write a shamelessly filthy roman-a-clef!
Yeah, well maybe Count Hubert (Ib Mossin, from Without a Stitch and Swedish Wildcats), the cousin of old Count Johan who inherited the estate after his death, would have something to say about that if he knew. Hubert naturally would stand to lose something from the potential besmirching of the family name that Rosa and Soffy’s novel— In the Sign of the Lion, they call it— represents, but that’s just the beginning of his problem. He’s also a major supporter of a finger-wagging organization called the Moral Rearmament Fund, and since Rosa and Soffy recall him as a mean-spirited pious hypocrite and an incorrigible peeping Tom, it would be most detrimental to Hubert’s political activities if anybody with a stake in them were somehow to recognize him as “HP,” the villain in the old ladies’ story. Ordinarily, there’d be no reason to expect Count Hubert even to notice In the Sign of the Lion— after all, he surely doesn’t read that sort of book habitually. That postman can’t help himself, though. Immediately after promising never to tell a soul what Rosa and Soffy are up to, he casually blabs the whole story to Count Hubert while making his daily visit to the castle. Whatever else he may be, Count Hubert is no fool, and he understands at once what the postman means when he says that Count Johan’s former maids are writing a book about the experiences of their youth.
Now regardless of the pseudonyms behind which they’re hiding the identities of their settings and characters, Rosa and Soffy still have to worry about the uproar that would result if authorship of In the Sign of the Lion were traced back to a couple of old maids. With that in mind, they decide to adopt a pseudonym of their own, and to market their novel under the name of their young, abroad-dwelling cousin, Tony Bram (Ole Søltoft). With him out of the country, they figure there’s no need for him ever to learn about the book at all. Perhaps that would have been the case if their current manuscript inspired the same level of interest as the old one, but when Future Publishing boss Anton Møller (Poul Bundgaard, of Love Thy Neighbor and Along Came a Soldier) reads In the Sign of the Lion, he sees in it the makings of the biggest seller his company has released all year. Møller rushes off at once to meet “Toni Bram” (he automatically assumes that anything so trashy must have been written by a woman), bringing along his niece, Karin (Amorous Headmaster’s Lizzi Varencke), who works as a newspaper reporter. He also brings along an extremely generous publishing contract. Rosa and Soffy present themselves as Bram’s agents when confronted by the publisher and the whopping advance check he waves in front of their faces, and the deal is done that very afternoon. But then our old friend, the postman, comes round again, this time bearing a postcard from Tony. Seems he’s coming home to visit next week, and when Møller hears that, he hatches on the spot a plan to use his newest author as “her” own publicity campaign. So much for keeping the novel a secret from its ostensible author, huh?
Matters become more complicated still when In the Sign of the Lion hits the stores an implausibly brief while later, and exceeds even Møller’s expectations for its success. Karin’s editor (writer/director Hedman, who can also be seen acting in The Sinful Dwarf) gets involved, angling for an exclusive interview with the author. Rosa and Soffy are left no choice but to feed their naïve and rather hapless cousin to the media, while still trying to keep him in the dark about exactly what he’s supposed to have written. Tony finds out, though, when the concierge at his hotel asks him to sign her copy, and he just about blows a gasket. Karin comes out of her initial meeting with Tony convinced that he’s just a front for the real author, whom she, like her uncle, imagines as some glamorous, young, female libertine. And Count Hubert strikes at last, notifying Agent Petersen of the vice squad (Arthur Jensen, from Danish Escort Girls and Bedside Sailors) that the new novel everybody’s reading lately is an obscenity that makes Lady Chatterley’s Lover look like Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Hubert also files an accusation to the effect that Bram (or perhaps Rosa and Soffy) stole Count Johan’s diaries, on the theory that only thereby could he have learned of some of the incidents reported in the book. Before Tony knows what hit him, he’s being forced to pose as his nonexistent twin sister, there’s a warrant out for the arrest of both his alter-egos, and his life’s about as thoroughly upended as it could possibly be. Thanks a bunch, Rosa and Soffy…
It’s a bizarre statement to make, but I’m completely serious when I say that In the Sign of the Lion is easily the best-written sex movie I’ve ever seen. In terms of plotting, story structure, character motivation and development— even dialogue, to the extent that I can judge that from the combination of subtitles and similarities between Danish (which I don’t speak) and German (which I sort of do)— Hedman and Jensen between them have devised a script fully worthy of a “real” film, and they’ve come up with the smartest trick yet for keeping the sex scenes from interfering with the momentum of the story. In the Sign of the Lion’s A-plot contains almost no sex at all, shockingly enough. Apart from a running gag about how women keep throwing themselves at Tony after recognizing him from the author photo on the back of Rosa and Soffy’s book, and a succession of scenes in which Karin attempts to use her feminine wiles to extract information from him, the naughty bits are confined to vignettes representing passages from the novel. These latter come whenever the ladies are at their typewriter, or whenever a character is seen reading In the Sign of the Lion, and they’re an inspired way to use the naturally disruptive effect of a prolonged sex scene to the movie’s advantage— it’s okay that they pull us out of the plot for minutes at a time, because they aren’t part of the plot even on the film’s own terms.
That compartmentalization of the sex scenes also plays up a curious feature of the Sign movies in general, and of In the Sign of the Lion especially. In the all the other pornography I can ever remember seeing— hard- or softcore, American, European, or Asian in origin— the star actors and the star screwers are the same people. With this series, however, that is simply not the case. Most of the cast-members whom we see again and again, carrying the dramatic and comedic weight of the films, are older, experienced actors with careers more or less evenly divided between porn comedies and light farces about bands of humorously misbehaving children, and they stay decently buttoned up (for which we should be extremely grateful in most cases) throughout all six installments. Even the young, attractive, and charismatic Ole Søltoft sees no more action than would have been acceptable in a mainstream Hollywood movie. The sex performers, by contrast, play roles that are often literally anonymous, although there are a few you’ll come to recognize by face if not by name once you’ve made your way through about three of these things. The one major exception to the rule is Bent Warburg, whose importance as a supporting player in five of the six Sign movies did not stop him from receiving a great many onscreen blowjobs along the way. I believe this curious division of labor has much to do with the Sign films’ unusual effectiveness, for it freed the filmmakers from the bind of having to find an entire cast’s worth of people who not only had no sense of shame and looked good naked, but could also act.