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  • 18
  • Action, Adventure
  • 1984
  • 100 mins

Gwendoline

Gwendoline

Synopsis

Emmanuelle director Just Jaeckin's final film, a comedy romp based on a bondage cartoon strip from the 1940s, is surprisingly reserved about its sex, if entirely unreserved about its B-grade status

About

'The Adventures Of Sweet Gwendoline' was one of four adult comic series written by John Willie (real name Coutts) for the 26 irregular (in every sense) issues of his S&M magazine 'Bizarre', published between 1946 and 1959. Featuring an innocent heroine who was repeatedly tied up and menaced by (mostly female) tormentors in various states of undress, it is one of the earliest examples of Western fetish art, and continues to exercise a tight grip today over the iconography of the whole bondage-and-domination scene.

So it is hardly surprising that Just Jaeckin, director of erotic classics like Emmanuelle (1974), The Story Of O (1975) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981), should also have been attracted to turning these ribald cartoons into a live-action film. What is perhaps more surprising is just what a confused mess Gwendoline - Jaeckin's final film - would turn out to be. Made at a time when Jaeckin was desperate to slough off his reputation as a pornographer, Gwendoline tries to offset its ultra-light erotica with comedy, adventure, romance and even kung fu. The results - a soft-core mix of The African Queen, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Flash Gordon and Cannibal Holocaust - can only be described as half-cocked.

Having left England for the far east in search of her missing lepidopterist father, virginal convent girl Gwendoline (Kitaen) is rescued from Chinese gangsters by gruff smuggler Willard (Huff), who is then part-bribed part-blackmailed into escorting Gwendoline and her 'maid' Beth (Zabou) upriver to the legendary land of Yik Yak.

After a journey of seemingly interminable squabbling, 'wacky' knockabout humour and gratuitous toplessness ("Take off your clothes, quick!" barks Willard the moment it starts to rain), the trio finds a lost tribe of Amazons living in a diamond-filled volcano and ruled over by a very camp Queen (Lafont) who takes discipline a tad too seriously. Cue Gwendoline's metamorphosis into a leather-clad gladiatrix, Willard's transformation into a sacrificial stud, and a climactic (if coy) sex scene where the earth really does move.

The acting in Gwendoline is a mix of wooden, cardboard and plastic, the dialogue is risible (and not helped in the English version by some truly terrible dubbing), the plot simply nonsensical, the pace plodding, and the erotic content strangely modest in what is strictly a tits-only affair. There is an unexpectedly high level of violence and gore that sits rather uneasily amidst all the misfiring comedy and paraded nipples, as though Jaeckin is incapable of settling on a tone for the film.

The whiney performance of leading lady Kitaen (best known for her appearances in a bunch of Whitesnake videos, and in Bachelor Party) is so God-awfully annoying that not even her big 1980s hairdo can offer adequate distraction, and there is not enough chemistry between her and Huff for a bacterial culture to develop, let alone an engaging love-hate relationship of any plausibility or interest. Only Zabou shows any talent for acting, even as she struggles to find any kind of substance to her on-screen character.

Of course all this will be sweet, sweet music to fans of cheese and sleaze, by whose inverted standards films are always better for being worse - and Gwendoline is something of a classic in B-grade folly. Most surprising of all, though, is that such hokum should enjoy exceptionally high production values, thanks to the design work by Françoise Deleu, and Claude Renard, and François Schuiten's costuming.

The Chinese port where the film opens, though clearly a studio set, exudes a fantastic exoticism, while the volcano scenes in the film's second half occupy a stylised territory somewhere between a James Bond villain's secret lair and the chateau from Salo: 120 Days Of Sodom redecorated by the makers of Barbarella There we see oddly aestheticised machines of torture, duels to the death, and even an underground chariot chase (the chariots drawn, naturally, by half-naked women). It may be BDSM-lite, but it still offers a lysergic feast for the eyes.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Zabou, André Julien, Bernadette Lafont, Vernon Dobtcheff, Jean Rougerie, Brent Huff, Tawny Kitaen
  • Director: Just Jaeckin
  • Screen Writer: Just Jaeckin
  • Writer (Book): John Willie
  • Producer: Jean-Luc Voulfow, Jean-Claude Floury
  • Photographer: André Domage
  • Composer: Bernard LeVitte, Pierre Bachelet

In a nutshell

Beautifully designed, if poorly executed (and far too silly to be erotic), Jaeckin's final flight of fantasy becomes grounded by his inability to find a direction.

by Anton Bitel

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