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Bilitis

Fun City // R // March 29, 2022 // Region 0
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Justin Remer | posted March 22, 2022 | E-mail the Author

The Movie:

Bilitis is an odd softcore whatsit from 1977, inspired by the pseudo-Sapphic poetry of Pierre Louÿs. Patti D'Arbanville (Rancho Deluxe, Big Wednesday) plays Bilitis, a schoolgirl fumbling toward her sexuality during a brief stay at a country house with an unfamiliar young couple. (D'Arbanville was 25 at the time of filming and, despite the filmmakers' best efforts, can't quite fool us into thinking she's an early-teen.)

The film's oddness is partly due to the seemingly competing sensibilities of its director and main writer. Director David Hamilton was known for soft-focus photography of nude young women and teens, which he attempts to bring to life in moving pictures. Meanwhile, writer Catherine Breillat had already written a few button-pushing novels and directed the edgy and explicit coming-of-age tale, A Real Young Girl. Hamilton's idealized, fetishy fondness for youthful female bodies clashes with Breillat's messy conception of what desires and impulses lurk within those bodies.

Mona Kristensen plays Melissa, the young wife who agrees to let Bilitis stay for a few weeks in her fancy old mansion. Bilitis is quickly seized with the twin desires to be like Melissa and to be with Melissa. When Melissa's brutish husband goes off with his mistress on a "business trip," Bilitis and Melissa get a little... well... friendlier. But Bilitis seems to understand her fling with Melissa can't last and decides to hunt down a proper male suitor from among the locals. Bilitis enlists the help of Lucas (Bernard Giraudeau), a photographer in his 20s with whom she's been having a convoluted flirtation since the end of her school year.

Patti D'Arbanville is quite good at driving the film, giving it a youthful spark and vivacity. (This is particularly true in the English-language version included on the disc; the default French-language version blunts her performance a little bit thanks to post-dubbing.) Unfortunately, the movie is just fairly dull and slow overall. The sex and nudity comes off as exploitative more than provocative and -- to the taste of this reviewer -- is sillier than it is steamy. While the story isn't totally neglected by the filmmakers, it's too underdeveloped to consistently prop up the film between erotic interludes.

This reading comes before we factor in the accusations lodged against director David Hamilton in 2016 -- namely, that he raped several of his underage models in the 1980s -- which presumably spurred him to commit suicide. The debates about whether Hamilton's work was art or child pornography and about whether art can be separated from the artist are ongoing -- and I have no satisfactory chiseled-in-stone conclusion about these topics after spending a few days thinking about Hamilton. I can say that it's nearly impossible not to view Bilitis as mainly a product of Hamilton's point-of-view (fetish? obsession? illness?), despite the efforts and artistry of his collaborators on either side of the screen. And that makes for an uncomfortable sit, in light of everything.

Art is rarely viewed in a vacuum but even attempting to view Bilitis on its own terms doesn't make it more recommendable. It's too mannered and lifeless to offer more than sporadic enjoyment, and it's not campy enough to warrant consideration for a Bad Movie Night. Sorry, Patti.

The Blu-ray
Bilitis is packaged in tribute to the early VHS days. The two-sided cover art designed by Sister Hyde features riffs on the early Columbia Home Video and Warner Home Video boxes, while the limited edition embossed slipcover (exclusive to the Vinegar Syndrome website) is styled like an early Media Home Entertainment box. A booklet is included featuring a new essay by Samm Deighan.

The Video:
It's tricky to judge a film like this in terms of picture quality. The AVC-encoded 1080p 1.66:1 presentation is sourced from a new 4K scan, like most Fun City releases, and the filmic texture of the image is quite convincing and satisfying. However, the film is designed to be gauzy, so crispness and clarity are beside the point. As described in one of the special features below, every shot has some form of diffusion -- and often multiple kinds at once. That said, the colors are vivid in many sequences -- even if the overall look of the picture reflects a nostalgic sort of yellow-y desaturation.

The Audio:
The film is offered in both French DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono (with optional English subtitles) and English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono. Although French is the default language, I found the English track more energetic -- and it has the benefit of being the language the actors are actually speaking in the scenes. Some sporadic issues with sizzling "s" sounds, but the tracks are mostly pretty well-balanced. The musical score from Francis Lai (A Man and a Woman) features some inspired synth work, although certain cues are a bit overwrought. (It might just be the context of the film too.) Sadly no English SDH track tailored to match the English audio, so watching the film in English with the included English subs is a slightly confusing experience.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson - An extremely informative and engaged unpacking of the film. The commentators -- particularly Heller-Nicholas -- are unafraid to condemn David Hamilton while still finding value in a discussion of his work and the impact it had on the art and film (and legal) worlds. Hamilton is also not the only subject of the commentary, thankfully, with special praise reserved for Patti D'Arbanville's performance.

  • The Hamilton Blur (HD, 19:08) - An interview with Noël Véry, who became the camera assistant on this film after working with Walerian Borowczyk on Immoral Tales. He talks about experimenting with different diffusion techniques to approximate the signature "Hamilton blur" from the director's still photography.

Final Thoughts:
Fun City has once again delivered an excellent home video package -- this time for a film I just didn't like. Even setting aside the monstrous accusations that have come out against the film's director, Bilitis is a bit too dull and silly to be considered more than a noteworthy historical object. Maybe that's why Fun City's packaging is framed specifically around the early VHS era which was contemporaneous with Bilitis's initial release. Completists and curio seekers will find some value here, but my general recommendation is to Skip It.

Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. His new album of experimental ambient music, Joyce, is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.

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