Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A French specialist in softcore/hardcore sex pictures, filmmaker Just Jaeckin started with a pair of 1970s blockbusters derived from erotic novels, Emmanuelle and The Story of O. He made only ten features, the last being this attempt at an outrageous sex comedy adventure based on an erotic French comic strip. The most obvious comparison is Roger Vadim's Barbarella, but Gwendoline works hard to outdo that film on its own turf: Campy, oversexed escapism with a high kink quotient. Trimmed by almost a half hour, the film came to the U.S. in 1985 bearing the elongated title The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak.
Smuggled into China in a crate of Bibles, Gwendoline (Tawny Kitaen) is kidnapped and sold to the owner of a casino. Along with her spunky sidekick Beth (Zabou), Gwendoline is rescued from a fate worse than death by the handsome and independent adventurer Willard (Brent Huff), Gwendoline needs to travel across a vast expanse of territory to find her lost father, a scientist specializing in butterflies. By a series of reversals she entices Willard to join her cause, and the trio's adventures continue through swamps and a desert. Then, just as pictured in Gwendoline's dream, they reach an opening in the desert sands. It leads to a bizarre underground city of Amazon women ruled by a cruel Queen (Bernadette Lafont). Bondage, S&M and horrible death are the Queen's idle pleasures ... and she fancies Willard as a sexual prize for her fiercest warrior.
Just Jaeckin's filmography is heavy with upscale erotica -- sex films with money. He's less pretentious than many Euro skin directors, and certainly less gross. The atypical Gwendoline is a genre hybrid perhaps inspired by the Indiana Jones movies or Terry and the Pirates. It's a display of the writer-director's kinky imagination, as well as the Métal Hurlant fantasies of his costume designers. With its many scenes of topless women in bondage or strapped into erotic leather warrior outfits, Gwendoline's images could fill the pages of a hundred fetish magazines.
The production values are lavish: Philippine waterways and Spanish (or Moroccan) deserts provide exotic locales in lush color and widescreen. A great deal of attention is given to imaginatively designed sets and high-fashion fantasy costumes. The art direction is on a par with a glossy TV commercial.
Jaeckin's story is pitched at the level of an onanistic twelve year-old, the kind who wants his sex fantasies fast and puerile. Leading lady Tawny Kitaen is forever finding reasons or excuses to get naked ("It's raining! Take off your clothes!") and exists in a perpetual state of readiness for whatever sexcapade is around the next corner. There's definitely an air-head Little Annie Fannie component at work here. Kitaen improves on Jane Fonda's faux-abandon as Barbarella; compared to this film's free spirit Fonda seems far too intent on 'acting' her role rather than just 'being' it. Gwendoline's sidekick Beth is a comic dark-haired co-adventuress. The pair generates a 'let's have fun' vibe that the uptight Fonda would never allow.
The joke-laden script keeps the two girls bickering with their dreamboat protector between bouts with river pirates, kung-fu assassins and a toothy rubber crocodile. Some of the silly post-dubbed dialogue has a cutesy appeal but only Kitaen seems able to deliver it with the right attitude: Zabou is awkwardly dubbed into English and Brent Huff (or his dubbed voice) seems incapable of a truly good line reading.
Despite the constant nudity the film has few overt sexual situations. Yet those tend toward raunchy material in odd contrast with the overall tone of innocence. The movie eventually gives us a squadron of semi-nude Amazon warriors, sleek sex-toy fantasies that are used mostly for visual tableaux. Although Jaeckin's direction is peppy and the settings fun to look at, the camp attitude and weak story begin to grind as the film nears the two-hour mark. Voyeurs and dirty old men will enjoy all the skin on view but the main interest is wondering what the exaggerated art direction will present next.
The most original scene finds our imprisoned heroes bound next to each other on a bamboo floor. Unable to move, Willard excites the virginal Gwendoline with verbal lovemaking, which results in a lot of heavy breathing until it is revealed that Beth, listening off to the side, is just as excited. The three then laugh so much that they're still in hysterics when their scary native captors come to check on them.
The overlong last third of the film takes place in an interestingly art-directed volcanic city under the desert sands. Willard, Gwendoline and Beth get into a fix with the jealous and spiteful Queen, played without much variety by Bernadette Lafont, a favorite Claude Chabrol actress since 1960's Les bonnes femmes. Ms. Lafont seems to be involved just for a laugh, a feeling encouraged by her Princess Leia hairstyles. One hairdo gives her giant Minnie Mouse ears. The last act intrigues are like a watered-down version of She, with Gwendoline forced to race for Willard's life in a chariot drawn by female 'horses.' It sounds much more sexy than it is and Jaeckin hasn't much of a knack for action. Gwendoline has a definite cult following, but the stills from the set promise much more excitement than the show delivers, and slow pacing dulls the overall appeal of its spirited cast.
Severin's DVD of Gwendoline is a dazzlingly clear and clean copy of the uncut French version of the film. The shorter version reportedly drops several action scenes. Although it definitely has more nudity the long cut reveals no forbidden erotic treasures. Audio tracks in both French and English are provided, in Dolby 5.1 and 2.0.
The disc is afforded a hefty set of extras. The director joins two French journalists for a joking commentary; Jaeckin speaks more to the actual production in an illustrated interview documentary. We're also given a photospread on Tawny Kitaen prepared for the French magazine Lui. Winning the prize for esoteric DVD extra of the year is an audio interview with the original comic strip author John Willie, conducted by sex researcher Dr. Kinsey. Willie is introduced as "the father of modern fetishism." And I thought I had ambition.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Gwendoline rates:
Movie: Good -
Supplements: Audio Commentary with director; Tawny Kitaen French magazine photospread, interview with director, Dr. Kinsey audio interview with 'Sweet Gwendoline' creator John Willie, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 26, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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