Gwendoline first published by Film4
Summary: Just (Emmanuelle) Jaeckin’s final film, a comedy adventure romp based on a bondage cartoon strip from the 1940s, is surprisingly coy about its sex, if entirely unreserved about its B-grade status.
Review: ‘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 SM magazine Bizarre, published between 1946 and 1959, and also appearing in a few other publications (like Wink). Featuring an innocent heroine who was repeatedly tied up and menaced by (mostly female) tormentors while in various states of undress, it is an early example 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; but 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 ultralight erotica with comedy, adventure, romance and even kung fu, and the results – a softcore mix of The African Queen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flash Gordon and The Mountain of the Cannibal God – 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 (Tawny Kitaen) is rescued from Chinese gangsters by gruff smuggler Willard (Brent 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 (Bernadette 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 egregious dubbing), the plot simply nonsensical, the pace plodding, and the erotic content strangely modest (in what is strictly a tits-only affair) – and 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-awful that not even her big Eighties 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 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 at which 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.
Verdict: 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.
© Anton Bitel