A beautiful nude brunette, leather cuffs around her wrists, is secured in an elaborately furnished chamber, her arms suspended over her head and arching her torso and straining her upper arms. Another woman, with blonde hair, is setting to her with a thin flexible bamboo cane. The fury on the blonde's face and the writhing and screaming of the brunette indicate the severity of the blows and snaps on the pale flesh of the "victim's" body.
If the idea of this scenario doesn't turn you on, then you will have no interest in The Story of O.
O's story began as a novel published in France in 1954. Histoire d'O (technically Story of O) eventually came out from Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press, which had also birthed the debut of The Ginger Man and Lolita. Credited to the pseudonymous Pauline Réage, the book tells the story of a woman named O who is unexpectedly sent to a place called The Chateau in the Parisian suburb of Roissy by her lover René. There she is trained in the arts of submission, whipped, chained in dungeons, and assailed by numerous men. In the book, she is violated by a succession of larger anal dildos to prepare her for nether invasions for the men who crave her. The training over, she is released to René who, in an odd turn of events, gives her away to an older perv named Sir Stephen, who brands her and who gives her a labial ring. Taken to a party where she is naked but for an owl's mask and led about by a chain attached to the ring, O finds a strange peace in her mindless submission to Sir Stephen.
Eventually published in America by Grove Press, the book was something of an underground hit, and inspired the similar three-part Sleeping Beauty fantasies of Anne Rice, also originally published under a pseudonym. There was eventually a much harsher "sequel" called Return to the Chateau, which was really a deleted, variant last chapter from the original with some additional material that recounted how the author came to write the book (as a lure to ensnare a married lover whom she feared was about to stray), and then as a separate volume a previously published interview with Réage was reprinted as a book. The rest was silence. Meanwhile, Histoire d'O has never gone out of print, and has been translated into at least 24 languages. It is certainly one of the most internationally popular French books ever published, and may be the first popular erotic novel written by a woman.
If Pauline Réage was a woman, that is. Speculation as to the identity of the author raged for years, and included such candidates as André Malraux, Raymond Queneau, and even Paris Review publisher George Plimpton. The only female suspect of note was Catherine Robbe-Grillet, who was known to be interested in similar games with her husband Alain Robbe-Grillet, and who herself wrote a couple of S&M novels under the name Jean de Berg. But most secrets are born to be sussed out. British journalist John de St. Jorre, while doing some research for his 1994 book Venus Bound, a history of the Olympia Press, learned that the actual author was one Dominique Aury, a translator and editor who later died in May 1998, and whose life story is detailed in a London Times obit. Whether she was personally interested in the games played in her books is at present unknown.
The Story of O has been adapted a surprising number of times. Kenneth Anger helmed an unfinished black and white movie version for a private client in Paris in 1961, apparently drawing for his visual scheme on the same photo spread from a 1936 issue of the magazine Paris that influenced Aury years earlier. There was a 10-hour movie version made in Brazil in 1995, and a very loose adaptation of the sequel, called Fruits of Passion, made with Klaus Kinski in 1981. The latest version is a low-budget indie film called The Story of O: Untold Pleasures, directed by Phil Leirness in 2001 and making its debut at the third annual New York S&M Film Festival. The story is also popular in other media. There is a multi-part comic strip drawn by Guido Crepax which has its fans, and S&M photographer and editor Doris Kloster has released a version of the book illustrated with her photographs.
But the best-known cinematic version of the story is Just Jaeckin's adaptation from 1974 (a film that was for a long time banned in Britain). Jaeckin was a fashion photographer turned director who had made an international name for himself by starting the Emmanuelle series, back in the day when softcore adult movies had some currency in mainstream cinemas.
Jaeckin's adaptation is mostly faithful to the source novel, and benefits from taste in décor, costuming, music, and photography, a feeling of discretion toward the material (which might frustrate hardcore buffs), an effective ad campaign that was based on a two-tone image of a woman kneeling (which seemed to promise a lot), and the casting of Corinne Clery in the lead.
Knowing and innocent at the same time, Clery is excellent in a difficult and easily risible role. One just can't say enough about how good she is in the part, and she is one of the most beautiful actresses the cinema couldn't figure out what to do with. Her best moment comes when a young lover smitten with her is lured to Sir Stephen's only to find her in bondage and bearing the whip marks of a recent session, driving him from the house shattered. Clery's panting expression, mixing agony and defiance, with her sweaty locks framing her face, is unique. Clery's real name is Corinna Piccolo, and she had a modest cinematic career after this film.
Filling out the cast is an astonishingly young and skinny Udo Kier as René, and the late Anthony Steel as Sir Stephen. Laure Moutoussamy plays Norah, Sir Stephen's black maid, but nothing is done with her tantalizing presence.
The appeal of O is based on one's appetite for seeing women whipped and humiliated (though I would argue that male viewers can just as easily identify with O). The film came out just before it was impossible to mount as elaborate a recreation of the film's themes. After that, there was the onset of feminist studies in colleges and the battles over political "correctness," from which O is and always was a renegade. Not until there are departments of S&M Studies down the hall from "queer" studies in our schools will films such as O be taken seriously, but until then it can be welcomed as a truly hot video in the privacy of one's own home.
VIDEO: After inserting the disc, the viewer is offered three viewing options, French, English, and Spanish. There are significant differences between the French-Spanish version and the English, the French one being the most complete, containing at least one scene that was trimmed from the English version. The video quality of all three is comparable, a good but not great widescreen (1.85:1) transfer that seems a little soft (and non-anamorphic). The most significant deletion is of a scene that occurs after René picks up O after her first round of training. In the movie, the next scene shows O at work (she is a fashion photographer). But in the French version on this disc, we seen him take O back to his apartment, where he criticizes the purity of her training and then later calls her with orders to undress and kneel while waiting for him. Of the scenes listed as being in "alternative versions" at IMDBPro, I could seen only one or two others. The print used here may still not be complete. There is a black and white still out there of yet another missing scene.
SOUND: The two channel mono track (there is no Dolby icon on the box) has an "old" quality to it. It's not bad, necessarily, but could have been restored, given that the music by Pierre Bachelet is a key component of the film's dreamy masochism. There are no subtitles.
MENUS: A musical, animated menu offers 13 chapter scene selection for what the box says is a 98 minute movie. My DVD's timer gave the English length as 92 minutes. The French and Spanish versions on the disc, however, are 100 minutes long (perhaps the box is splitting the difference).
EXTRAS: Supplements are minimal though they at first glance seem not to be. Principal among them is an audio commentary track by director Jaeckin. Unfortunately, his verbal accompaniment goes only as far as the fifth chapter of the film and mostly affirms how much he liked his cast and how game they were toward the material. In addition, the track is in French, and on the English version of the movie provided here it is translated in an over voice. There are also minimal bios of the two stars and the director, and 10 color stills in a gallery. The theatrical trailer, also included, is enticing.
Final Thoughts: Clearly, The Story of O is obviously not to everyone's taste. Nevertheless, if anyone is going to do it, Just Jaeckin seems like the best choice, given both his care in the adaptation and his artistry of his mise en scene. Supplements on the disc leave something to be desired, but as a first effort toward getting the movie onto DVD it is adequate. The pervs won't care. They'll take it and like it.