Joy (1983) ***
I talk a lot about European softcore skin flicks copying Emmanuelle, but it’s only just now that it dawns on me how superficial most of that copying was. The movies inspired by Emmanuelle’s success duplicated the exotic settings, the jet-set milieu, and the overall visual style, but most of the ones I’ve seen applied those touches to stories far removed in sensibility and indeed genre from their model. Look past all the sex, and Emmanuelle is a fairly serious character study of a woman in the process of self-discovery. Black Cobra, by contrast, is a suspense thriller at heart. Taboo Island and Forever Emmanuelle are adventure yarns. Black Velvet is practically a road-trip movie, only with the Nile standing in for Route 66. And Aphrodite arguably owes as much to Salon Kitty and Caligula as it does to Emmanuelle, harping as it does on the theme of decadence and corruption in high places. What leads me to this belated realization is Sergio Bergonzelli’s Joy (or Serge Bergon’s Joy if you prefer, since this was one of Bergonzelli’s French-language pictures), which really does stick to the original recipe in all of its particulars.
Joy Laurey (Claudia Udy, from Edge of Sanity and Savage Dawn), child of an American father and a French mother, works as a model for an agency based in Paris. Her lifestyle is one of unreflective libertinism, with a constant parade of men passing into and out of her bed— to say nothing of her attendance at the frequent orgies hosted by her friend and fellow model, Margot (Agnes Torrent), over at the latter’s vast and luxurious flat. Margot thinks nothing of it, since she lives largely the same way, but another friend of Joy’s named David (Geoffrey Carey, of Dracula and Son and Malefic) believes that all the outwardly carefree screwing is really a mask for some rather grave emotional trouble. Specifically, he thinks that when Joy’s father divorced her mother (Danielle Gordet, from Only a Coffin and Devil’s Island Lovers) to return to the States, it left Joy too terrified of loss to open herself up to real emotional intimacy. David is right, actually; indeed, Joy’s disorder is even more serious than he realizes. Beyond fear of abandonment, Joy can’t maintain any single romantic relationship for longer than a few weeks at a time because there is simply no room in her heart for any man except her long-missing dad. Some sense of how distorted Joy’s attachment to the absent man has become may be inferred from the extremely tolerant attitude she’s taken all her subsequent life toward the barely concealed advances of her rather molesty stepfather (Demon of the Island’s Michel Caron).
That being the case, it’s not hard to tell what Joy’s subconscious is thinking when she gets chatted up in an art gallery by architect Marc Charoux (Gerard Antoine Huart, from The Turn-On and Emmanuelle IV), a man easily twenty years her senior. Sure enough, Joy falls for Marc like she’s never fallen for any lover her own age— not even Alain (Manuel Gelin, of Bolero and Oasis of the Zombies), the new wave musician who confidently claims that the other men in Joy’s life are just verses, while he is the chorus she comes back to after each one. The trouble with this scenario, unsurprisingly, is that Marc is kind of a heel. He’s already seeing someone, a magazine writer called Joelle (Paradise for All’s Elisabeth Mortensen), and he can think of no reason why he shouldn’t go on seeing both women indefinitely. It would be one thing if Joy and Joelle each knew about the other and consented to the triangular arrangement Marc favors, but he doesn’t mention Joelle to Joy until he’s got the model good and hooked, and he never reveals the true nature of his relationship with Joy to Joelle at all. Fortunately for Joy, an assignment in Mexico comes up just in time to give her someplace far, far away to go when Marc makes it clear that he has no intention of dumping Joelle for her.
The photo shoot in Mexico has a most unexpected impact on Joy’s life. Along with the predictable slew of swimsuit shots, the photographer takes some frankly erotic pictures of her lolling around nude on a Yucatan beach. One of the latter he sells to what I gather is some manner of feminist group, and by the time Joy comes back to Paris, there are billboards up all over the city depicting her fondling herself in the surf beneath the slogan, “Orgasm: A Woman’s Right.” Joy finds herself at the center of a maelstrom of controversy, as the billboard campaign inevitably comes under attack both by rival feminist activists who consider it objectifying and by conservatives who consider it obscene. Seemingly everybody in the media wants to talk to her (ironically, she even ends up being interviewed by Joelle), and soon her fame has swelled to the degree that she’s being courted by television and movie producers.
The gig Joy ultimately accepts is with American TV producer George Miller (John Stocker), who wants to make her the star of what looks like a ridiculous action series roughly halfway between “Charlie’s Angels” and “Knight Rider.” Something that involves Joy roaring around Manhattan in a cherry-red Pontiac Firebird and kung fu-ing criminals, in any case. While she’s in New York, Miller introduces her to his friend and frequent writing partner, Bruce (Kenneth Legallois). The first thing you’ll notice about Bruce is that he’s even older than Marc, so I’m thinking alarm bells even before he works his way up the hierarchy of New Age silliness in conversation with Joy, and climaxes by asking her if she’s ever heard of Tantric yoga. Yes, I know. Tantra is an ancient spiritual tradition that in its authentic form has both jack and shit to do with sex per se— and if Bruce were a native guru whom Joy met on assignment in Calcutta, then I’d take seriously the possibility that that was the sense in which he brought up the subject. But since he is instead both a white guy from New York and a character in a sexploitation movie, we can all be reasonably sure what’s coming. And in fact very little time passes before Bruce is taking Joy on a visit to what amounts to a mystical swingers’ club, so that she can witness an implausibly pretty bunch of New Agers attempting to fuck their way to enlightenment. Remarkably enough, however, Bruce isn’t just seeking a novel route into a good-looking girl’s pants. He’s completely in earnest about both the mysticism and the enlightenment, and while observing the action in the Tantric sanctuary, Joy realizes that all this time, she’s been doing the exact opposite of what she sees among the couples coupling in the mandala. Far from using sex to get in touch with her innermost self, or with the innermost selves of others (let alone the innermost self of the universe), she’s been using it to wall herself off from consideration of anything deeper than the momentary wants of her nerve endings. Meanwhile, Bruce has perceived just how much of Joy’s mental and emotional encumbrance is bound up with her fantasies of a relationship with the father she just barely knew, and he quietly commits himself to finding out what became of the man, so that she can finally attain some peace on that front.
Now the whole time that Joy has been in America, she’s been receiving notes and small gifts from Marc Charoux. The old Joy might have been easily re-seduced, or alternately made miserable by the renewed attention of a man with whom she’d had the inverse of her usual one-sided romances, but the new, nascently self-aware Joy who returns home after Miller’s show wraps for the season is altogether more purposeful and altogether less reactive. She does indeed resume the affair upon her arrival in Paris, but this time she’s going to be paying close attention to how Marc treats her, and she’ll be thinking hard about how that reveals his true feelings for her. It might not be exactly the kind of enlightenment that Bruce meant, but surely it is indicative of lights switching on somewhere that Joy has decided she deserves a better class of lover than she had settled for previously.
I can’t tell you how shocked I was to learn that the Serge Bergon who directed and co-wrote Joy was the same person as the Sergio Bergonzelli who directed and co-wrote In the Folds of the Flesh. Upon reflection, there are a few similarities (for example, the prominent place held by past family trauma and resultant misdirection of erotic attachments in both films), but Joy has a degree of focus and consistency that the earlier movie never even approached. Possibly Joy benefits to some extent from differences in genre expectations on this score, since loose and episodic story structures are normal for character studies, but much less so for psycho-horror. And certainly it can’t be denied that this movie is both loose and episodic, occasionally to the point of inconclusiveness. The difference is that here it looks deliberate, not least because it is thematically appropriate. The entire point of this story is that Joy Laurey is a work in progress, so it makes sense that Joy should end on a cliffhanger of sorts, with her lesson learned but not yet fully internalized as she sets off for the encounter that will put her newfound wisdom to what may be the most strenuous test it will ever face. Furthermore, Bergonzelli had evolved by the early 80’s into a visual stylist of substantial ability, which matters a lot given the emphasis in post-Emmanuelle Eurosmut on making bedrooms look like paintings, bodies look like sculptures, and sex itself look like ballet. This is not to say that Joy doesn’t occasionally descend into a form of goofiness more in keeping with In the Folds of the Flesh. I’m thinking in particular of an incident early in Joy’s relationship with Marc wherein she attempts to prove her willingness to subsume herself in his fantasies by taking him to what I can describe only as the Zalman King version of The Story of O’s Chateau Roissy, a set-piece that comes straight out of the blackest depths of nowhere, and raises a veritable dust-storm of questions that Bergonzelli and his collaborators have absolutely no intention of ever answering. On the whole, though, Joy is a creditable contribution to the Eurosmut canon, and I can see why it would further mimic its inspiration in spinning off both a theatrical sequel (albeit with the title role recast) and a succession of rather tackier follow-ups made for French television in the early 90’s.