A POPULAR KICK among filmmakers in 1968 consisted of finding a beautiful actress and having her portray someone whose single-minded intent in life was super-consummation — by whatever means her particular quirk demanded she work it out.
It added up to screenfuls of nutty erotic women and, curiously enough, the ones who suffered least for their sins came out of Hollywood. The Europeans, who are supposed to know what fun is all about, this year produced a crop of tortured case histories of femmes fatales who not only didn’t enjoy themselves very much if at all, but who also ended up permanently among the damned.
In a sense, watching these strange women determinedly pursuing sexual satisfaction with great numbers of men was a tossup between reading a nudie comic strip (“Can Cynthalia Ever Find Physical Happiness With One Man?”) and watching an oldfashioned mystery story with all the clues in the punch-line.
There was Catherine Deneuve as Belle de Jour, a frigid wife working out her masochistic fantasies in a small-time brothel and going through a series of episodic encounters with the clients before arriving at a catastrophic end to her career.
There was Jean Seberg in Birds in Peru, as a nymphomaniac who spent the whole movie walking a desolate beach in search of tranquility and sleeping with everybody in sight — and who was foisted off on us as some kind of tragic and sinister figure to whom psychiatric therapy is no answer.
There was Essy Persson in I, A Woman, as a superslut with a vaguely implied father hangup, who broke the hearts of one man after another until the finish of the movie threw us the clue that retribution was on the way.
The focus in these films, all made by Europeans, was on Freud and the bizarre, and on themes which were a throwback to 1930 in the sense that they seemed to be trying to reach some judgmental conclusion about weird women. The message seems to be: She Who Sins For Whatever Reason Shall Go On To Eternal Damnation (But Isn’t It Fun Watching Her Do It?). Men are the innocents and women are self-seeking forces of evil bringing pain and destruction down upon those around them. The three I’ve mentioned could have been played by Pola Negri.
Why now, in 1968, are these corny messages reeled off in the guise of Now It Can Be Told? Now what can be told? That there are a lot of weird women in the world? Perhaps the Europeans are still engrossed by the old-hat concept of the mysterious female.
The Americans, on the other hand, tell us that under the apple-pie exterior lies an apple-pie heart. It may be like watching a commercial on The Good
Life but it was a relief to see Shirley MacLaine in The Bliss Of Mrs. Blossom, as a beautiful woman in a beautiful house wearing beautiful clothes and making two men happy.
By some unheralded oceanic shift of the morality code, Hollywood is now the place where a promiscuous woman is not necessarily a hardcore case in need of intensive analysis or someone who has to pay some terribly profound price for her lack of conventional morality.
Anne Bancroft in The Graduate was depicted simply as a woman who preferred young lovers. The judgment of her actions and the accompanying sordid punishment did not happen here. She did not exactly end up having the best time of her life, but at least when she lost her man and her daughter to each other, you were not made to feel that some predetermined evil destiny had stepped in.
There was some hope for her future and, somehow, that was more believable and universal than the inescapable dooms we were asked to project for Deneuve, Seberg and Persson.
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