Belladonna of Sadness (1973) and Swann in Love (1984)

Dir. Eiichi Yamamoto. Starring Aiko Nagayama, Tatsuya Nakadai, Katsutaka Ito

Dir. Volker Schlondorff. Starring Jeremy Irons, Ornella Muti, Alain Delon

Two movies about sex, which go about the subject about as differently as one could imagine. In Belladonna of Sadness, the Devil (Nakadai) appears to Jeanne (Nagayama) as a, well, he’s a penis, and he wriggles around her body and makes her laugh; this is a movie in which our heroine has already been raped by the evil baron (Masaya Takahashi) and his hangers-on, in a sequence which, animation and all, seems to understand the emotional effect of that crime upon its victims in a way that I have rarely seen it understood in other movies. Much later on, the Devil has secured Jeanne’s soul, and the two of them oversee—”orchestrate” is somehow the wrong word—one of the most bizarre orgies one can expect to come across on celluloid. On the other hand, Swann in Love makes its most potent and, frankly, most arousing sequence one in which Charles Swann (Irons) becomes deeply interested in the orchid that Odette (Muti) is wearing practically in her cleavage. He smells it; perhaps there are some pretensions to gentlemanly curiosity, but Charles doesn’t waft the aroma into his nostrils, after all. Within moments he is buried in her breasts; perhaps the correct rock ‘n roll reference is to that fascinating little baseball interlude in Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Swann in Love is an ode to the fact of being supremely horny, a mode which Jeremy Irons in the early ’80s seems to have been born to play, and it’s an ode which leans fully into the shame that comes along with that emotion. It’s hard enough trying to cope with that insatiable, embarrassing yearning on one’s own, and great swaths of this movie are spent with Charles as he, alone or with his long-suffering coachman, tries to manage how badly he wants Odette. It’s the parts of the movie where he’s surrounded by other people who know just how unbearable his wanting is that the movie reaches the level of heroic cringe humor that mid-late 2000s SNL wishes it had the power to unfold. Where Swann is horny, Belladonna is decidedly not. There’s nothing at all sexy about this movie, and it’s not even because we have a phallic Satan and the occasional shot of any number of sexual depravities and crimes. Belladonna is primarily a story about how sex enthralls, about its power to sway not one lovesick Parisian but a countryside’s worth of otherwise downtrodden villagers. This is a movie which ends by supposing that after Jeanne the sex witch was burned at the stake, her soul was dispersed around the country and ultimately led to the French Revolution. It’s a thin, quavering line indeed, but where Swann is about how sexual inaction is crippling, Belladonna is much more interested in the power of sexual doing.

Belladonna, the movie whose characters take the more adventuresome line on sexual activity, is also one of the most radical, strange, and oddly beautiful movies I’ve ever come across. The picture is as comfortable with stills panned across as it is with bonkers strobing as it is with more traditional cel animation. Here are three shots of Jeanne, taken practically at random, which show her in different styles: one a hippie poster (with a decisively anti-peacenik message attached), one an ethereal pencil sketch, the last a smudgy watercolor treatment which is most common throughout the movie:

Beauty in Belladonna tends to be for its own sake, though this all is not limited to Jeanne, granting that her face and body are this movie’s central motif. Those different styles are meant to convey their own distinct feelings, and occasionally Belladonna goes absolutely all out and blows our eyeballs into little chunks in sequences that are meant to convey profound emotion. There’s some Dali DNA here in a sequence where “surrealism” and “melting” all come together, and the wackier the animation the more the world is out of tilt. It may well be the best depiction of the Black Death in movies this side of The Seventh Seal, capable of showing us that the medical or physical fear of the disease is far outstripped by the metaphysical horror of certain death.

This all makes for one heck of a sequence, a nightmare on one hand, swirling and dripping and unsettling, and on the other a fairly sagacious look at the bubonic plague: the first thing to go in the sequence is a column, which falls and takes out more columns, and finally most of the facade of the building comes with it. All it takes for the community to turn to running goo is a single prop knocked away, and it’s only time until lives are lost to little fellas like this:

Significantly less strange and certainly easier to swallow is the beauty of Swann in Love, which returns us to a recognizable, old-fashioned Paris and lets us swim in the grandeur for a while.

There are not so many different sets in Swann, but the ones we have are opulent, made for people to ogle for their intricacies and surely not for people to actually sit on or lounge about in. Odette’s parlor is lavish, just right for the courtesan to entertain the men who flit in and out, and it gives the sense that one is really meant to go lay about in a different room. It’s no wonder that Charles, who is deeply uncomfortable with the fact that he wants to have sex with her at all, that he wants to give up so much of his life to the pursuit of her, spends a great deal of time in this uncomfortable room. In the shot above, Odette is on the floor, the better to look into the gift box, and Charles sits with his butt just barely on the armchair. Her ability to look comfortable—flowing nightgown, flowing hair—in this formal room is a statement to her skill at her job. In function this little parlor is not unlike the waiting room at the dentist’s, and in effect it appears to cause a similar amount of anxiety in our protagonist as the dentist’s might if he wandered in with a toothache. (There’s a joke in here somewhere about cavities, but I am much too refined to make it.)

Jeanne’s fate is preordained so far in advance that it’s practically Calvinist; the Devil tries to get her to make a deal at one point, which she rebuffs, and he is so certain that she’ll come around later that he isn’t even put out. For as much wealth as there is in the look of Belladonna of Sadness, the story itself never really comes along for the ride with the same gusto. Watching Jeanne’s husband Jean (Ito) fail her over and over again in increasingly baroque ways is interesting (and somehow terribly fitting to boot); the real man in Jeanne’s life, likewise terrible, is probably the baron, not Jean, for it is the baron who better recognizes her power and sees her as an equal for the majority of the picture. This sense of foretold doom that hangs over the picture—you don’t have to be a genius to guess that eventually Jeanne’s deal with the Devil is going to end sort of badly—leaves us alone with the art, and art on its own cannot hold up a narrative. Swann in Love is the better movie for all its lack of adventure because it has so much more for its characters to do. Muti is playing a more interesting character than Irons, admittedly, but it is one thing to play mysterious and another thing to be enigmatic. If it were as simple as smiling coyly then anyone could be mysterious, but mystery is in part what is in the eyes and what is left out from them; Muti gives away so little in her eyes while promising so much, and it is that temptation that hangs over Charles for the entire movie. It is no wonder that he must chase her while she’s escorting another man at a fancy dinner party, despite all the manners and good graces that should prevent him from doing so; men do this, especially when they are this irrational. That he follows her back to her apartment late at night despite knowing he shouldn’t and despite all the shame that comes with it is much more exceptional, and yet this doesn’t seem worth questioning because of how remarkable Muti is.

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