Synopsis: A highly erotic, gothic mystery, in the style of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from Alain Robbe-Grillet, writer of the Oscar nominated Last Year in Marienbad and director of the notorious Trans Europe Express.
An English historian travels to Morocco to work on a study of the painter Delacroix. He hears of a rare series of engravings and embarks on a search for them that takes him through the mysterious streets of the ancient medina. He becomes obsessed with the figure of a beautiful blond woman dressed in white that he sees there. but it appears that she may have died years before.
The historian’s young lover, Belkis, tries to warn him away from his obsessive search. But, it’s too late… he is already entangled in a complex labyrinth of desire.
eyelights: its abstract quality. the sexy girls. the locations
eyesores: its inscrutability. its incoherence. its sexism.
Man, I don’t know what to make of ‘Gradiva’, the 2006 motion picture based on the Wilhelm Jensen novel that Sigmund Freud famously analysed. I haven’t read the original work, but it’s hard to imagine that it was nearly as incoherent as the movie is. Or as sexist.
The story, such as it were, is that Leila is writing her memoirs, embellishing them with the intention of shaping her history. Using the people around her as doppelgängers for her fiction, she casts herself as an ethereal woman who haunts the streets of Marrakesh.
An art historian, there to study Eugène Delacroix’s works in Africa, sees her and becomes entranced, spending the remainder of his time there trying to track her down. In the process he finds himself thrown into an underworld of sexual slavery and sadomasochism.
Or is he?
The thing is that John Locke is both Leila’s creation and is delirious, which makes it clearly impossible to know what is real and what isn’t. Not only do we not know what’s her fiction, but we don’t even know what part of Locke’s experience is true and what’s delirium.
From that perspective, the picture is a trippy treat: it’s sort of fun trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not, and there are obvious clues in some cases (ex: when Locke is riding a motorcycle, it’s fiction). ‘Gradiva’ presents itself as a feverish dream.
And I love that stuff.
But the dream quickly turns into a nightmare of torture and murder as women are used and abused for the pleasure of men. Thankfully, there isn’t much violence to speak of, and what little there is isn’t credible enough to shock, but there are many shots of bloodied women.
And this is where the picture offends: While I love the sight of all these beautiful nude women, its implied violence is strictly directed at women – there are no men on the receiving end of the torture and sexual degradation. So it’s not really an S&M film, as some claim.
It’s a sexist one.
One gets the impression that the filmmakers had a tremendous lack of respect for women, using them as disposable sex objects, as playthings, inflicting upon them all sorts of pain. There’s a clear relishing of cruelty to women here that I find rather disturbing.
In a hypocritical move, this is all justified by being part of Leila’s fantasy memoir. One gets the impression that the filmmakers thought that taking the same route as ‘Histoire d’O‘ and ‘Emmanuelle‘, making it a woman’s fantasy, would make it okay, even acceptable.
Except that the original book was penned by a man, and the film was written and directed by a man.
So it’s impossible to take umbrage under a pseudo-feminist approach.
Frankly, it all felt rather gratuitous, with constant inserts of naked women in various poses – all bloodied and emulating death. Granted, they were beautiful shots, and one could argue in favour of its artistic merit. But, contextually, it all seemed a bit fetishistic to me.
Again, I’m not denying the allure of the women, who walked around the locations in various stages of undress, sometimes softly being caressed as the men spoke amongst themselves. Some of it was sexy. But that’s not the point. I just resented the sexual slavery and cruelty.
It’s not just the women and the composition of the shots that were beautiful, it’s the setting: I’m not sure if the whole film was shot in Morocco, but some of the locations were absolutely mesmerizing – the stone castles, in particular, were utterly seeped in mystery.
And yet, strangely enough, ‘Gradiva’ looks like a throwback picture, and I was surprised to discover that it was shot merely 10 years ago. From the look of it, it could easily have been shot in the ’70s, similar as it is stylistically to other such sexploitation films.
Plus which there’s no sign of modern technology – the closest thing to a gadget being Locke’s use of a slide projector.
Yes, a slide projector.
The only giveaway is that some of the women have tattoos and fake breasts, and star Arielle Dombasle has obviously had much surgery. Way too much, in fact. It simply doesn’t work contextually, as a period piece, since surgical enhancements are more of a modern touch.
Further spoiling the fantasy are the performances, which can be rather broad at times. Both stars have moments when their delivery is totally off, but the worst of it comes from Dany Verissimo-Petit, as Locke’s chambermaid and lover, shouting her lines at him.
Shhhh… soit belle et tais-toi.
So, ultimately, I have mixed feelings about ‘Gradiva’. I like its mind-bending quality, I love the eye-candy, but its fetishistic cruelty to women is rather unpalatable; I don’t know that it has any artistic merit whatsoever. Plus it doesn’t make much sense.
Which leaves me wondering why it was made at all.
Date of viewing: June 11, 2016