The Story of O/Histoire d’O (1975) **
Pauline Reage’s The Story of O is the book that every two-bit fetish erotica novel published during the last 50 years wants to be when it grows up. If you would head over to the erotica section of your local Borders (both of the stores in my area have such a section, so yours probably does too— that is, unless you live in Florida, or someplace similarly benighted), pick up a random book, and open it to a random page, I’d put the odds at about five in seven that you’ll find yourself in the midst of a scene that is all but indistinguishable from something Reage wrote, or would be if you were to substitute a few coy mid-50’s euphemisms for the more direct language in use today. Reage has her antecedents too, of course— most notably Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade— but The Story of O differs dramatically from their work in that it is almost totally free from the pretense that it is actually a philosophical treatise or a manifesto of cultural revolution. Its author seems to have been quite comfortable with the idea that she was writing well-groomed but extremely kinky porn. So well-groomed is The Story of O, however, that literary critics were for the most part not scared away by its kinkiness, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see it admitted into the company of the “classics” in much the same was as Lady Chatterley’s Lover in another 25 years or so. As a consequence, The Story of O must have seemed practically tailor-made for adaptation to film in 1970’s France. As I explained back in my review of Emmannelle, France in the 70’s was a hotbed of big-budget sex film production due to the recent relaxation of government censorship standards. For a brief period, porn was prestigious, especially when based on some steamy novel or other. And in 1975, nobody’s porn-derived prestige was greater than Just Jaeckin’s; fresh from the seemingly impossible success of Emmanuelle, he could probably have talked a studio into letting him make any smutty film he wanted to. The pairing of Jaeckin and Reage was made even more natural by the fact that the final act of that director’s rendition of Emmanuelle had more than a little of The Story of O in it. Alas, this time around Jaeckin seems to have gotten carried away with the idea that he was making Art, and The Story of O ends up being not nearly as enjoyable as the movie that established his reputation.
The film makes its first mistake early, by retaining the silly double beginning of Reage’s novel. A lovely young woman identified only as "O" (Corinne Clery, of Yor: The Hunter from the Future and The Humanoid) gets into a taxi with her lover, Rene (Udo Kier, from Mark of the Devil and Suspiria). At Rene’s direction, O removes all of her underclothes, despite the fact that she’s sure the cabby is watching her in the rear-view mirror. But strangely enough, Rene doesn’t make a move on her; instead, he merely explains to her that when they reach the Chateau Roissy, O is to do whatever— and I do mean whatever— she is told by the men there. After assuring her that he will catch up to her in a little while, Rene sends O into the huge, mysterious mansion alone.
Or maybe it doesn’t happen that way at all. Maybe Rene has a friend of his, whom O has never met before, drive the couple to Roissy. Maybe it’s this friend who explains what will be expected of O while she’s there, as her lover sits silently at her side in the back seat of the car. Maybe O is bound and blindfolded, and then led into the chateau on a leash. Whichever beginning you choose to accept as canonical, the important thing is that O is made to wait in a big, lightless room for what seems like an awfully long time before a pair of women about her age, wearing strange, bosom-baring dresses patterned on the fashion of some centuries before, come for her and lead her to what will apparently be her bedchamber at Roissy. The women strip her, bathe her, do her hair and makeup, and then bring her before the men of whom Rene (or his unnamed friend) spoke. As you’ve probably figured out by now, Roissy is a sort of S&M academy, into which O’s matriculation is marked by the men who run it taking turns screwing and beating her while Rene watches. That sort of thing is going to happen to her a lot over the next few weeks, in fact, until Rene and the Roissy staff are convinced that O has taken on a suitably submissive demeanor.
It is here that the main theme of this movie— and of the novel from which it is derived— first surfaces. The idea is that O paradoxically finds the sexual slavery into which she has willingly descended to be a liberating, invigorating experience. When she leaves Roissy and returns to her job as a fashion photographer, she suddenly begins cranking out what we are told is the best work of her career. An especially successful session leads her to develop a serious letch for a model named Jacqueline (Li Sellgren), and when Rene finds out about that, he encourages O to hang out with Jacqueline as often as possible. Of course O realizes that this is really because Rene has the hots for Jacqueline, too, but far from becoming jealous, she seems to welcome the competition as an inducement to make herself try even harder to please him.
That’s just the attitude Rene is looking for, and what happens next is enough to make me think the whole business with the model was really intended as a test. When O proves so accommodating with Jacqueline, Rene decides the time has come to introduce his girlfriend to Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel, from Fiona and The Revenge of the Barbarians). Stephen is the closest thing Rene has to a brother, in that Rene’s mother was briefly married to Stephen’s father before Rene was born; when Stephen was subsequently abandoned by his dad, he came to live with Rene and his parents. And as Sir Stephen explains to O when Rene introduces them, the two men have always shared everything ever since— everything. You see where this is going, don’t you?
What you might not foresee is that it goes so far in that direction as to destroy O’s relationship with Rene. The more completely Rene surrenders O to Sir Stephen, the less interested in her— and the more interested in Jacqueline— he becomes. It all works out, though, because by that time, O and Sir Stephen have fallen in love with each other. To cement their bond in the most dramatic possible terms, Stephen takes O to see a friend of his by the name of Anne-Marie (Christiane Minazzoli). Anne-Marie runs what appears to be another branch of the network of S&M training centers that includes Roissy; in fact, at least two of the girls O encounters while she is at the woman’s mansion had been at the chateau with her. Roissy fulfills the role of boot camp in this network, whereas Anne-Marie’s place offers more advanced instruction. Under her guidance, the Roissy girls learn to dish it out as well as to take it, but that’s not the only reason O is there. Anne-Marie is also the one to whom Roissy graduates are sent to be marked indelibly as the property of men like Sir Stephen. Most of the time, this means getting their labia pierced with bronze pendants bearing the man’s monogram on one side and the crossed-whip-and-riding-crop logo of Roissy on the other. In certain special cases— O’s for instance— the rings are supplemented by having the man’s initials branded into the woman’s back, just above the buttocks.
Finally, there’s the matter of Sir Stephen’s perceived debt to Rene. Stephen, you see, had given up entirely on the idea of loving a woman before Rene introduced him to O, and now he wants to do something to repay his sort-of brother for that act of life-changing generosity. The only thing Rene wants that could be remotely comparable to what O represents in Sir Stephen’s life is Jacqueline, whom Rene loves, but who has no real interest in him at all. But because Jacqueline remains very interested in O, there just might be a way to bring the two together. If O can convince Jacqueline to enroll at Roissy, and if Jacqueline proves sufficiently devoted to her to fully internalize the chateau’s discipline, then O would be able to palm Jacqueline off on Rene the same way Rene palmed her off on Sir Stephen. Then everyone (except Jacqueline, of course) gets what they want, and they can all live kinkily ever after.
Where Just Jaeckin really went wrong with The Story of O was in taking the easy way around one of the biggest challenges the novel presents to a filmmaker seeking to adapt it to the screen. For the most part, the external plot amounts to little more than one sex scene (broadly construed here to include such things as floggings or genital piercings or acts of exhibitionism) after another; virtually all of the real story takes place inside O’s head. What’s important in Reage’s book (apart from all the sex, of course) is the way that O gradually learns to convert radical self-abnegation into a source of personal power. Unfortunately for Jaeckin, that’s a very difficult thing to communicate visually, and all he and screenwriter Sebastien Japrisot could come up with to do the job was almost endless voiceover narration delivered, oddly enough, from third-person perspective. It’s also too bad that Japrisot didn’t think harder about why any of this was happening in the first place— I mean, it seems to me that some sort of explanation is in order here! Like Reage before him, Japrisot makes a big point of the fact that O is, right from the start, an entirely willing participant in everything that happens to her. Obviously, then, she must see something desirable in a life of really extreme sexual submission, but despite constant intrusions from a narrator who is apparently privy to everything the woman is thinking and feeling, we in the audience never receive the first clue as to what that desirable something might be. The absence of motivation is a weakness of the original novel, too, but considering that the filmmakers felt free to add a new and far more effective ending to their version of the story, I can’t think of any reason to let the book’s biggest plot hole go un-patched this way. Between that and the fucking voiceover, it really gets in the way of my appreciation for all the gorgeous, naked French girls in bondage!