Story of O (1975), dir. Just Jaeckin
[Note: all English quotes are from the English dub.]
The relaxation of film censorship in the 1960s and 1970s, both in the US and abroad, created an interesting period in mainstream films were much more daring in terms of sexuality and violence, while some porn films had bigger budgets and higher production values to play in mainstream theatres and reach a larger audience. Naturally, someone would try to adapt arguably the most famous novel about BDSM to the big screen, Histoire d’O by “Pauline Reage” (aka Anne Desclos), published 1954.
Director Just Jaeckin had a background in fashion photography before he directed the first Emmanuelle (1974), arguably the origin of the high-budget European softcore erotica film trend of the 1970s. Later, he directed an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981), and Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984), loosely based on the bondage comics art of John Coutts (aka “John Willie”).
While definitely a higher-budget production than the hardcore The Story of Joanna (1975), Story of O feels timid by comparison. It stays within the bounds of commercial softcore: abundant female nudity with plenty of 70s bush (though no actual genital exposure), no male nudity, a lesbian scene or two for flavor, no male-male contact, and only implied penetration. A lot of the more extreme stuff was cut or never shot, such as O’s anal training. Someone decided that 1975 wasn’t quite ready for the full experience.
It does provide a lot of lavish locations and costumes, shot in soft-focus with dreamy golden lighting. In the Roissy château, the men dress in archaic outfits suggestive of pre-Revolutionary France, and the women are dressed in the famous breast- and genital-baring dresses of the novel, perhaps the first time this legendary garment has been created in reality. In Samois, the women are in see-through white dresses that hint at Victorian England. The rest of the time, it’s 70s period fashion.
The film is strongly connected to the book, as there is a female voiceover narrator quoting or paraphrasing the text, and it explains some elements that might be confusing, such as the two different versions of the opening, one during the daytime, one at night. Sometimes the narration is used for exposition, as if the director didn’t bother to shoot a scene.
The whipping scenes are shot like the shower stabbing in Psycho (1960): a series of rapid cuts between the whipper in violent motion, and the receiver reacting, but few if any shots of actual impact. It’s unclear if this is an artistic choice, a practical consideration to avoid hurting the actors, or a decision to avoid the censor’s ire, but regardless it softens the act.
The scenes and sequences are only loosely connected to each other. While the Fifty Shades trilogy is a standard romance with BDSM awkwardly grafted on, Story of O can’t commit to the source text’s endless descent into the sadomasochistic underworld, and needs to abort and pull out into romance trajectory.
O is repeatedly told that her greatest submission will be to obey men who don’t love her, but they keep falling in love with her anyway. Pierre, her “valet” at the Chateau, offers to only pretend to whip her, while Sir Stephen is repeatedly put in fatherly positions with her. The patriarchal society is disrupted by O’s force of attraction, though only somewhat. She still fucks whoever he tells him to, and basically grooms her friend Jacqueline for initiation into the Chateau.
Needless to say, this is not a model of consent. O is told, “No one forced you and you’re free to leave,” but it’s hardly clear if she understands this. There’s never any mention of limits or safety.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the text is the final scene. While the film does include the display of O, nude but for a mask of a bird of prey, at the nighttime party, it ends with O and Sir Stephen canoodling, fully clothed, by a fireplace. When Sir Stephen admits he is as devoted to O as she is to him, she uses his cigarette holder to brand his hand with a circle, like the letter O, juxtaposed with the slave ring on her finger. The film wants to have it both ways, to be a masochistic fantasy of self-abnegation and a happily-ever-after romance. It’s pretty far from one of the book’s multiple endings, which suggested that O committed suicide as the ultimate act of submission.
Story of O is best viewed as a fantasy in a world where logic is suspended. It will disatisfy every viewer; the romantics will find it too harsh, and the sadomasochists will find it too tender.
(According to the Story of O website, underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger claims he directed the first film adaptation of Histoire d’O in 1961, one of a series of short films made for a small set of private collectors in Europe.)