Color, 1984, 102m. / Directed by Just Jaeckin / Starring Tawny Kitaen, Brent Huff, Zabou, Bernadette Lafont, Jean Rougerie / Nucleus (UK R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1, Accord Parental (France R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

After the international success of his glossy, kinky softcore classics like Story of O, Emmanuelle and Lady Chatterly's Lover, director Just Jaeckin did a surprising about-face for his final film to date, Gwendoline. Loosely adapted from the John Willie comic strip, The Adventures of Sweet Gwendolyn, this weird but endearing conflation of period adventure film, S&M fantasy and goofball comedy manages to cram about ten different genres into its first act alone, then continues to switch gears for a wild ride that threw many viewers in the '80s expecting another Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off.

Released by a band of Chinese thieves from a wooden crate in which she boxed herself to travel to the Far East, plucky Gwendoline (a pre-Witchboard Kitaen) resumes a search for her scientist father, who disappeared in the mysterious land of the Yik Yak while searching for a rare black butterfly. In the bustling, crime-ridden streets she makes the acquaintance of rugged American adventurer Willard (Huff) and reunites with dizzy French waif Beth (Zabou), in between bouts of gory knife fights and martial arts mayhem. The trio embarks on a series of dangerous and largely senseless adventures on the high seas, through rainy jungles (which necessitate toplessness from the two female leads), and the scorching desert, until they're finally kidnapped by a bunch of strange natives... at which point the movie violently shifts gears and turns into exactly the sort of splashy, stylized S&M fantasy you'd expect from Jaeckin. Yik Yak is dominated by a cold-hearted queen (Lafont) who oversees her Amazonian warrior citizens, complete with odd half-shaved hairdos and revealing bondage gear. As for the scarce males who wander through Yik Yak, well... let's just say they only get to make love once. Before you can say "safe word," Gwendoline is dressed up in black leather warrior gear, Willard's being trussed up and down from the ceiling, and Beth is locked in perverse murder contraptions that never seem to quite work. And let's not forget the wild chariot race, which is drawn by leashed humans instead of horses...

Heavily edited by the Samuel Goldwyn Company in America to less than 90 minutes (under the ridiculous title of The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak), Gwendoline became something of a cable and home video cult favorite over the years despite its lovely scope compositions brutally chopped to ribbons by pan-and-scanning. No doubt much of its popularity can be attributed to the avalanche of nudity, with red-haired Kitaen constantly popping her top before she went mainstream with Whitesnake music videos and Bachelor Party (not to mention a stint on The Surreal Life, where she ironically berated women who appeared in Playboy!). Her thespian skills aren't too developed here, but she looks great both as a wide-eyed innocent and later as a sexually-aware tigress; her two love scenes with Willard (which actually feature very little skin) are among the sexiest in the Jaeckin library and actually motivate both the characters and the plot. Later seen in Nine Deaths of the Ninja and numerous network TV appearances, Huff does the square-jawed hero routine well enough despite his occasionally flat line readings, while Zabou (later a respected French actress) has very little to do besides looking confused and scared. On the technical side, the film looks great with a nice variety of locales, and regular Jaeckin composer Pierre Bachelet pulls out all the stops with a haunting, sexy score that's screaming for a CD release one of these days.

A potpourri of French and American actors, Gwendoline was shot with Kitaen and Huff speaking their lines in English, while the rest of the cast (except for Zabou, who's curiously dubbed way out-of-synch in all versions) speaking French. The complete French cut of the film was fairly easy to locate via various European and Japanese video releases (sans subtitles), including a bare bones French DVD release. Fortunately the much-needed US and UK special editions should satisfy everyone thanks to both the English and French tracks presented in both Dolby stereo and 5.1 mixes, with optional English subtitles (complete for the French version, or partial for the Chinese-language bits at the beginning in the English cut). For some reason the Bachelet score is much more powerful and effective on the English track, particularly the standard stereo version, so that one gets the highest recommendation here; check 'em both out for comparison, though. Image quality is excellent, with the rich colors and marvelous production design details (from the 1920s period details of the first half to the wild, Barbarella-style imagery of the Yik Yak section) coming through very clearly.

The biggest of the extras on the UK version is a 17-minute Jaeckin interview, "The Perils of Just," and a differently-edited, longer version on the US disc entitled "The Last Temptation of Just," in which he discusses the film's cast in affectionate detail (referring to Kitaen as "like a sister or daughter") and covers his own filmmaking philosophy as applied to this project. Jaeckin also contributes an engaging commentary track in which he goes into more detail about coordinating the film's shooting and his thoughts about its comic origins, among other topics; it's certainly more valuable than his disappointing, 20-minute chat on Ventura's Story of O DVD. Also included on the UK disc is the American title sequence, a delirious French theatrical trailer, a UK promo, a stills gallery, a Lui magazine photo shoot for the film containing lots of provocative nude Kitaen shots, a breakdown of BBFC cuts demanded for the film's theatrical and video releases, and trailers for other Nucleus films (Between the Legs, The Ugliest Woman in the World and Fausto 5.0). Sporting a particularly atmospheric set of menu screens, the US release (available in the uncut international version or the shorter US cut, which may play better for fans used to its cable incarnation) drops the UK promo and BBFC essay but adds on the action-oriented American trailer (which barely hints at any S&M content), plus an uneven but pretty raunchy audio interview with Willie by the famous Dr. Kinsey. All in all, it's great escapist fun for the open-minded that's aged surprisingly well.

Watch some clips from Gwendoline!
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Color, 1975, 92m. / Directed by Just Jaeckin / Starring Corinne Clery, Udo Kier / Ventura (US R1 NTSC), Heatwave (Hong Kong R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1), GCTHV (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1), Force (Australia R4 PAL) / WS (1.66:1), Arrow (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

The first and most successful adaptation of the scandalous S&M novel by the pseudonymous Pauline Réage, Story of O (Histoire d'O) is that rarest of birds, a soft erotic film that actually works. While the elements of bondage and submission in the story have earned its legendary reputation among the home video crowd, the film also ranks as perhaps the most successful attempt outside of Radley Metzger to lend elegance to bare flesh, far outclassing director Just Jaeckin's previous moneymaker, Emmanuelle. O (Corinne Clery), a beautiful young fashion photographer, is escorted by her lover, Rene (Udo Kier), to the gothic Chateau Roissy where she endures a succession of humiliations and erotic experiments designed to test her physical and emotional limitations. Desiring only to please Rene, she willingly submits to each new demand without question. Back in Paris, O resumes her romantic relationship with Rene, who strangely hands her over into the care of the older Sir Stephen (Anthony Steel). A primary member of the Roissy coterie, he performs a serious of mind games with O, who begins to feel unease about her status as a pawn in what appears to be a world of scheming men, focused on their own pleasure solely at her expense.

In design and execution, Story of O is essentially the erotic mirror to Dario Argento's Suspiria, an orgy of visual style in which the story takes a back seat to the relentless succession of powerful images and stunning music (composer Pierre Bachelet never topped himself after this one). Like Argento's film (which also features horror icon Kier, coincidentally), the curtain raising sequence is so magnificent in every respect that there's no way the rest of the film can compare-- but it's still a very enjoyable ride. Clery, who later appeared in Moonraker, the brutal Hitch-hike, and Lucio Fulci's The Devil's Honey, looks ravishing in every shot and makes for a compelling heroine, though the men do little besides lounging around in their chic designer suits. The film itself takes some liberties with the source novel, including an additional scene at the end which makes for a far more satisfying resolution; in 1996, a very long Spanish-produced miniseries for European television attempted to reproduce every word of the text but couldn't approach its big screen predecessor.

A regular video favourite since the early '80s, Story of O enjoyed numerous VHS incarnations but only two laserdisc releases, one from MGM in the US (a cropped but colourful transfer which stupidly omits Bachelet's main title theme) and one in Japan (also full frame, in French with Japanese subtitles). The original French cut of the film (also issued on VHS in Australia, of all places) runs about 10 minutes longer, consisting mainly of a scene in which Rene calls O from work to tell her to disrobe and remain naked until he comes home (which she does) and a sequence with O and her model protege, Jacqueline, walking near the beach and having a jealous tiff over one of O's female conquests. The Japanese version was subsequently issued on DVD (again, no English subtitles), while the English print first received the DVD treatment in Hong Kong from Heatwave, an adult video label with an outrageously smutty promo opener on their discs. The image is completely unmatted, exposing a filmed hard matte slightly under 1.66:1 for most of the film but full frame during certain shots. The sound quality is acceptable, though some slight warbling can be heard during the opening credits. For some reason, the back of the packaging only includes promo shots from the vastly inferior Story of O 2, a British-French coproduction which avoided almost everything that made the original work. An Australian release from Force is comparable in terms of both content and quality. The British disc from Arrow features a nice but mildly battered 16:9 transfer of the standard English cut, with the additional scenes tacked on as a supplement (with no audio!). More respectable is the French DVD, which offers a sparkling transfer of the English language edition with optional French, Spanish, or English subtitles, or the longer French cut with the same subtitle options, as well as the stylish European trailer and a host of extras relating to softcore French erotica. The latest release out of the gate came from the U.S. courtesy of Ventura, whose disc largely repackages the contents of the French disc but with a few variables worth mentioning. The 1.66:1 transfers of the English and French cuts look comparable to the PAL French disc, with the French taking the slight edge in terms of clarity and condition of film elements. The disc also carries over the trailer, drops the unrelated erotica ephemera, and adds on a Just Jaeckin commentary; he speaks in French with no subtitles over the French cut, while an English voice translator speaks over the English cut. Apart from using the word "fantasy" about 300 times, he sets the record straight about the novel's origins, discusses the roles of various people behind the camera, and offers his own views about the story's meaning. However, he only talks for 22 minutes, so don't settle in for a lengthy listening experience. For some reason the French track doesn't feature a subtitle option (you can only access it from the main menu by selecting "Francais"); the scene descriptions above should be enough to guide viewers to the extra footage.

Color, 1981, 82m. / Directed by Shuji Terayama / Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Illiers / Anchor Bay / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

During the late '70s and early '80s, countless filmmakers scrambled to cash in on the controversial firestorm ignited by director Just Jaeckin's Story of O, a stylish and popular S&M epic based on the scandalous novel by "Pauline Réage." Hardcore and softcore imitations abounded, with one mediocre legitimate sequel, Story of O Part 2, rearing its head in 1984. A few years earlier, however, another sequel of sorts appeared with Fruits of Passion, based very loosely on Réage's follow up novel, Return to Roissy. This kinky, surreal film was produced by Anatole Dauman, the soul also responsible for Nagisa Oshima's blend of art house pretension and hardcore sex, In the Realm of the Senses. The combination is even more delirious here as the film chucks aside conventional narrative, instead contenting itself with any bizarre path the actors feel like following. Shortly following the events of the original story, the naive, beautiful and submissive O (Isabelle Illiers) accompanies her master and lover, Sir Stephen (Klaus Kinski), to 1920s Hong Kong where he enlists her to work in the House of Flowers, the most demanding brothel in town. The creepy Madame (played by cross-dressing actor Peter, also in Akira Kurosawa's Ran and the fifth Guinea Pig film) explains that refusing any client's demands will result in starvation, gang rape, or torture on a wheel. The despairing O submits to her fate and keeps a picture of Sir Stephen on her wall to sustain her through the ordeal. Meanwhile Sir Stephen makes deals with revolutionaries while dallying with local prostitutes and a scheming French blonde (Pauline at the Beach's Arielle Dombasle) who urges him to leave O for good. The other women at the House of Flowers include a failed actress who constantly hears a piano playing underwater and participates in amateur porn films. O fails to establish a connection with the other women but does her job, observed often from the street below by a young man hoping one day to hire her services. Naturally, it all ends quite bizarrely and tragically.

Rarely seen outside of its initial theatrical run, Fruits of Passion bounced from one video label to another in a horribly butchered, 74 minute edition which featured dreary image quality and few aspects of interest. Anchor Bay's DVD makes for an eye opening revelation; not only is it beautiful to behold and now far more significant as an aesthetic achievement, but this print contains eight minutes of extremely graphic, often hardcore footage. Not really lingering or exploitative, the added scenes are all the more jolting for their unexpected integration into the story, with even Klaus himself participating in a few scenes of blatantly unsimulated coupling. Since this marks Anchor Bay's first hardcore title, one can only wonder how much it will impact any of their future title choices. The direction by poet Shuji Terayama (who died shortly after this film's completion) features a number of startling touches, with a particular and haunting emphasis on water (the submerged piano, a floating doll, the climactic door-bursting). The music score by "J.A. Seazer" is likewise a beautiful achievement, delicate and haunting with a memorable main theme. The film isn't perfect, with Illiers in particular given little to do besides mope around naked and occasionally suffer the abuse of her clients. Compared to the original O, Corinne Clery, she simply fades off into the woodwork. Otherwise, this compares favorably to the original and now earns its place as one of the best films from the final days of classy erotica. The DVD also includes a graceful, striking animated menu design and two language options-- one completely dubbed (poorly) into English, the other retaining the Tower of Babel audio mix of English, French, Cantonese, and Japanese with most of the actors' original voices. Only the latter really works in the context of the film, which thrives on intercultural confusion.

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