Synopsis: Based on a classic novel by Pierre Louys, Bilitis is a young girl who first discovers love while on a summer vacation. What she experiences will change her life forever. Starring Patti D Arbanville, Mona Kristensen, Bernard Giraudeau, Mathieu Carriere and Gilles Kohler. Music by Francis Lai. Directed by David Hamilton.
eyelights: the gorgeous photography. the exquisitely erotic scenes.
eyesores: the mildly poor editing. the dubbing. the DVD quality.
‘Bilitis’ is a a 1977 erotic drama by renowned photographer David Hamilton. Based on French author Pierre Louÿs’ collection of poems ‘Les Chansons de Bilitis’, it is the coming-of-age story of a teenaged girl, of her first sexual and romantic experiences. Interestingly, it is set in France at the turn of the century, as opposed to Greece at 600BC, and only loosely follows the original story.
Even more intriguing (and the reason why I was pulled to it in the first place), is that the screenplay and dialogues are penned by Catherine Breillat, whose explicit debut film ‘Une vraie jeune fille‘ was banned in 1976 and not seen for decades. It, too, told the coming-of-age story of a teenaged girl and was based on a literary work – although, in this case, on Breillat’s own novel, ‘Le Soupirail’.
In some ways, David Hamilton and Catherine Breillat seem like a perfect pairing: both have been extremely controversial throughout their career due to their exploration of female sexuality – Hamilton, in particular, for his (oft-banned) photography of young women, and Breillat for her uncompromising dissection of male and female sexual dynamics, having herself focused on teenaged girls in many of her films.
Unlike their other works, it appears as though ‘Bilitis’ has drawn little if no controversy whatsoever. In fact, it appears to have been largely forgotten by the masses, and even the home video release was treated with a carelessness unimaginable for its peers. Truth be told, I can’t fathom why that would be the case: ‘Bilitis’ is as potent if not more so than that era’s softcore classic, ‘Emmanuelle‘.
I was quite surprised by how affecting it is. Having only seen disparaging comments and low ratings online, I expected it to be nothing more than midnight trash and dreaded having to watch it. In fact, the only thing that pulled me to it was Breillat’s involvement, seeing as I am fascinated with her cinema. I likely wouldn’t have watched it, let alone gotten a hold of it, if not for her.
And yet, from an erotic standpoint, it’s masterfully crafted: the picture sets up the audience from the start, showing Bilitis reminiscing about her experiences with an air of nostalgia and contentment. These reminisces are shown in brief, as a form of tease, followed by more erotic images during the opening credits. Although this is contrived and slightly awkward, it stimulates the imagination early on.
‘Bilitis’ then shows the utmost restraint, taking its time to arouse its audience, to build up to its climax. It begins by showing us Bilitis and her school friends swimming naked, playing innocently, kissing lightly. It isn’t explicitly sexual until a little later – and not before their actions are condemned by Bilitis herself, who prefers to remain half-dressed on the pier with her best friend.
It’s quite likely that Bilitis rejects her classmates’ actions because they are suggestive of her struggles with her own sexuality: she claims that she dislikes men, and wants nothing to do with them. And yet she is also hesitant when her friend makes advances, allowing her to continue only when she pretends to be the handsome boy that has caught her eye. It’s just a matter of time before Bilitis’ interest is piqued.
The overarching mood of ‘Bilitis’ is sapphic. In fact, the first few heterosexual encounters of this picture are dismissed as grotesqueries or as unsatisfying. But it is exquisitely presented by Hamilton, who shows us the naked female form in such a way that we fully understand the appeal: were we Bilitis, we too would prefer the attentions and caresses of these women, we too would long for them as she does.
Again, what’s impressive to me is just how long it takes for us to get a full love-making scene: it takes one whole hour! Until then, Hamilton is content with showing us glimpses (panties, a hint of flesh, kissing a mirror, watching another undress, sensually caressing a tree, towelling down, …etc.), revealing more of his subjects as the film goes by but only teasing the audience, never allowing them to get full satisfaction.
Add to this some erotic, poetic narration from our protagonist, and ‘Bilitis’ puts the viewer in a feverish state before climaxing.
What’s equally interesting is how the final act diffuses the erotic energy somewhat, with Bilitis choosing to set up the two people she’s longed for together, so that they may be more satisfied: Lucas, because she can’t love him physically, and Melissa, because she desires to be with a man. This selflessness leads to the most unusual of outcomes for this sort of film, with a melancholy, bittersweet ending – not erotic passion.
In some ways, it is very akin to the sexual act itself, beginning with a flurry of titillating thoughts, a slow buildup, teases and gradual reveals, until the ultimate sensual pleasures are experienced – after which a slight comedown can be felt. I have no idea if this was intentional, but I find it quite intriguing that ‘Bilitis’ follows this course instead of leaving with a final high, as its peers frequently do.
I also really enjoyed the music, although its main theme was repetitive and reminiscent of ‘Histoire d’O‘; it had a dreamy quality to it that was well-suited to Hamilton’s soft-focus photography. I was kind of surprised to find out that Francis Lai’s score is an award-winner and was such a hot seller that it moved over a million copies worldwide (I wonder if that had to do with its sexy album cover…).
My only real problem with this picture is from a technical standpoint: the film editing can be choppy at times, as is the music editing, which sometimes pops up and leaves abruptly, and the dubbing is fairly weak (it was standard practice with some European films to film without sound an dub everything in later). Also, the Pathfinder DVD has some of the tinniest audio I’ve heard in recent times; it was an awful experience.
Otherwise, ‘Bilitis’ really delivered. As far as seventies softcore films go, I’d say it’s one of the best. Given the setting and context, the writing is actually pretty good, and it’s matched by a flair for the erotic that is quite unexpected – and welcome. I look forward to the day that a decent copy of this motion picture will be available on home video, as I’m sure I will return to it from time to time.
Date of viewing: August 21, 2014