Thursday, June 24, 2010

La Papesse (1974): or, Dreams in the Whip-House

I had never heard of director/novelist/playwright Mario Mercier before I came across a copy of his 1974 movie La Papesse (aka A Woman Possessed), but what I saw in my initial viewing of this extraordinary film was enough to make me curious enough to go digging. A writer whose work was censored mightily in France upon its publication, Mercier was a spiritualist and eroticist whose tales of witchcraft, necrophilia, and sexual cruelty earned it comparisons to the work of the Marquis de Sade, specifically his infamous magnum opus 120 Days of Sodom (the inspiration for the just-as-infamous film adaptation Salò by Pier Paolo Pasolini). According to this excellent article on Esotika Film's website, the Censure Française thought just as little of Mercier's work in filmmaking, banning La Papesse from the start and calling it “nothing but an uninterrupted succession of scenes of sadism, torture and violence, and a total and permanent disregard for humanity, displayed in a crude and revolting fashion.”

Looking back from our perch on the apex of filmic cruelty here in 2010 such a pronouncement might seem a little quaint--the violence and torture on display is nothing compared to what goes on today, or even in American films of the same era (*cough*Texas Chain Saw Massacre*cough*). What the censorial board missed--and what Mad Movie Fans will appreciate, I hope--is that Mercier's film is a sexy, surrealism-tinged journey into a dark fairy tale that kept me fascinated and thinking about it long after the end credits.

Also: lots of boobs.

Laurent (Jean-François Delacour) is a frustrated artist, and like many artists in the 70s is not averse to wandering off the beaten path in search of inspiration. As it turns out these searchings--as they so often do in cases like this--lead directly to the hairy feet of SATAN. "Somewhere in the world," the narrator tells us, Laurent discovers "a cult whose ancient origins spawned in night." In the opening scene he is being initiated to this cult by Iltra (the gorgeous and enigmatic Geziale) and her henchmen Borg and Steve. The ceremony involves being buried up to his neck in a fire-ringed pit and having a bucket of snakes dumped on his head! Laurent screams like a little girl, which apparently does little to cement his cult-member status.

Snake Bite

Back home, Larent gets into a dinnertime squabble with his fed-up red-haired wife Aline (Lisa Livane, I think), who's had it up to here with his pretentions to a "life of magic and spectacle!" Laurent thinks marriage should be "a rubber band, not a chain," a view Aline surprisingly doesn't share. Perhaps still smarting from his serpentine sissiness, Laurent decidees to man up and lay down the law: "Either enter my world, or I'll eliminate you!" Realizing too late that statements of this nature are likely to result in neither sex nor sammiches, Laurent storms off for his next cultish ordeal.

It's here we get our first taste of Mercier's transgressive sexual ideas: in an eerie, dreamlike wastescape, Laurent is strapped to a cross and brutally whipped by Borg till he passes out from the pain. At the same time Aline is plagued by BDSM nightmares, seeing herself similarly crucified (nude, naturally) and flogged by a group of gray-robed Inquisitors. Through the aura of a vaseline-smeared lens, Aline is taunted by her torturers--"Look, doggie, at the exit that awaits you!"--and then inexplicably aged 50 years before she wakes up in a sexy sweat, thankful it was all a horrible (?) dream. The whip-stripes on her back, however, tell a different story.

"Hi there--we're here to take your baby away."

Having become aware of Aline through Laurent's psychic link to her (or else through his piteous wailings for his wifey to come save him from the mean skinhead's lash), Iltra calls in the leader of the cult, an unnamed Witch Queen equal parts Rollin vamp and Meyer babe. "You have a nervous woman--she will make an excellent subject!" the queen tells Laurent, and just like that we've shifted our focus from the crybaby painter to his reserved but much more interesting life partner.

Back home, Aline wanders into the woods and is beseiged by visions of malicious nature spirits and then chased by a couple of mysterious thieves, in a scene that reminded me strongly of the dreamlike imagery in Lemora: a Child's Tale of the Supernatural and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. She stumbles back to the house where Laurent and Iltra are waiting for her. "I can't stay alone here, in this shack of misfortune!" she cries, and it just so happens Iltra knows a place where she can stay instead...


Aline is installed in the cult's communal living space/haunted curio shop, where heads hang from hooks and random cultists tear strips of raw meat off suspiciously-shaped hams. Iltra and the Witch Queen offer Laurent a bargain--let them have his woman, and he can be one of the gang. The painter is all to happy to take that deal, and so begin Aline's trials. First she's turned out into the woods again, nearly nude, while Borg attacks her clad in gladiatorial armor! She gets the best of the skinhead, whipping him into submission with a cat o'nine tails in a scene to titillate tops and bottoms alike. Steve gets similar treatment, cementing the movie's status as a BDSM-stravaganza.

I've mentioned the dreamlike atmosphere of the piece a couple of times, but it really bears emphasizing again. Mercier expertly creates a world that starts out weird but recognizable, then slowly, inexorably spirals into the the darkest realm of fantasy and fairy tale. The weird craggy landscapes, shadowy forests, and stylized acting all combine to nudge us further and further into the dream/nightmare world in which Aline is trapped, so that by the time the REALLY weird shit starts to happen, we're more or less ready to go along for the ride.

Aline feels a little cross

Things go even further into BDSM Fantasy Land in the days that follow, as Aline is kept in the stable like a hog and forced to eat slop from a trough--which one of the male cultists had already pissed in for flavor. To add humiliation to...well...all that previous humiliation, Aline is then tied down, spanked viciously, and branded on the ass with a hot iron! Laurent, showing his first iota of human compassion for another person EVER, starts to feel bad about Aline's treatment, but is reassured by his Culty Mistresses: "Don't worry--she's being reformed!" Holy Story of O, Batman!

I don't know if Mercier was influenced by Vicar-fave director Jean Rollin's visual style, or their both being sex-and-fantastique-centric French directors in the 70s just meant they shared a lot of the same zeitgeist, but the cult ceremony scenes that follow reminded me very much of similar scenes in Rollin movies, specifically The Nude Vampire and Requiem for a Vampire. The cultists come down the rocky terrain bearing torches, all dressed in primary-colored robes (not as diaphanous as those Rollin favors, but still), and then cast Aline into an open grave. "In spite of you, you are our wife now!" the Witch Queen tells her, then sics the Charles Manson-esque Steve on her to consummate their "marriage." While the grave rape goes on, the cultists sacrifice a rooster (WARNING: ACTUAL CHICKEN SNUFF), and squeeze its blood into a golden chalice. Then, on cue, Steve interruptuses his coitus in order to add another kind of cock juice to the brew!

Okay, so maybe the Censure Française had a point after all.

The cult recommends Cuivre Reserve Château Bottled Nuit San Wogga Wogga.

The Witch Queen's plan becomes clear when she preaches to the group: "I have a mission to prepare the women of all races"--to be sexy, sexy overlords, apparently. (And I, for one, welcome them!) Invited to give the Witch Queen "the kiss of submission," Aline instead bites her and runs off, chased by Borg and his dog. Making lemonade out of bloody lips, the Queen orders the Wild Rumpus to start--where "rumpus" here means "Nude Epileptic Seizures and Group Sex!"--and takes Laurent to her altar to impregnate her with the devil's child, or something.

Meanwhile Aline runs through another dreamscape to a dark cave, where Borg walls her in. Lost in the dark, she's visited by a green-winged, Nosferatu-fingered spirit "that eats sexual things"--luckily (?) for her, "eat" here is a euphemism.

"Please, just try to relax."

After this ordeal we come to an even wilder finishing quarter hour in which Laurent, feeling protective of his former love or else pissy about being left out of all the lesbonic fun, turns on the cult and tries to save Aline at last. But is the Witch Queen too powerful? Will virtue triumph over vice? If you were paying attention to Mercier's literary influences above, you might have an inkling as to the answer.

Also, you get to see the Witch Queen in a gold belt and silver finger extensions--and nothing else--being whipped by her cult as part of a final ceremony to bring about whatever prophecy they've been waiting for the whole time. Or else just because she's into it, which seems a lot more likely.

Learn to Love It

This is a wild, WILD movie that came out of nowhere and knocked me over. Satanism, witchcraft, BDSM, fairy tale demons and wood sprites, hippie orgies and improbably ornate ceremonial gear (including Iltra's amazing breast-baring gown, complete with black-ringed fuchsia pasties)--this movie just really has it all. Add to that some gorgeous cinematography and even more gorgeous women, and bestowing the 3+ thumb rating on this one is a no-brainer.

If you get a chance to see this one, definitely take it. The version I had sported some occasionally clumsy subtitles (lots of male/female pronoun confusion, and occasional untranslated exchanges) but I could pick most of it up from context, and the visuals were the important thing anyway. Now I'm definitely interested in finding a translation of some of Mercier's novels, if they exist, and seeking out his other two films. If any parishioners have info on Mercier and his work, please let me know!

Some more great images from La Papesse (1974):

With that belt buckle, I'll just bet he will!

Geziale: Smokin' Hawt

Witchcult Today

"When I give Borg the signal, you may feel a little pressure..."

You'd do it too

A little head for everyone!

I don't think she's talking about the World Cup, somehow...

"..but then I know you to be a Demonic Priestess bent on sexual domination, so clearly I cannot choose the wine in front of me!"

I'm sold.

The Big Borg Wolf

"Kermit was right, this sucks!"


The Duke of DVD said...

My heavens, what a movie! This movie is shooting straight to the top of my must-watch list. Fantastic review, Vicar, as always! Once again you shove us face-first into the quivering mass that is BDSM, Satan-fueled cinema.

Note: This review reads way better if you put the words "the" or "a" before every mention of Borg. *wink*

Joe Monster said...

This flick seems pretty darn groovy. I've previously seen Lemora and, though at first it took me a while to warm up to it, I think the dreamy, surreal mood is something I can grow to love in film. It looks like this would be a good place to head to next. Thanks for the review! It seems like quite the titillating good time.

Borg and Steve? Not Luther? Or Ghengis? Or Balthazar? Just... Steve?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Joe Monster--even better, because it's in French "Steve" doesn't rhyme with "leave" or "sleeve," but with "Bev" or "Heav" as in "heaven."

It is to laugh!

If you can find a copy of this, give it a look, by hook or by crook!

(I'm a poet, in weren't aware of that fact.)

Soukesian said...

Saw this last night. Words fail me, though your review certainly didn't! Thanks for the tip. I dragged out my old copy of Tombs and Tohill's "Immoral Tales" for the piece on the director, and was stunned to read that Witch Queen Geziale and her followers were an authentic coven! Publicity nonsense perhaps, but I want to believe. Not much on the web about this in English- the cult don't have a website - any Francophone readers able to confirm?

db said...

Just saw this and it is AMAZING -- I'm tempted to call it a LSD and bondage fueled decadent retelling of the Gospels, tho that sounds like I'm being tongue in cheek, but no! Seriously! Beautifully shot, great score, amazing performances, like an old-country Lucifer Rising. Excellent review!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Soukesian--sorry it's taken so long to respond, but that's interesting stuff indeed! Sorry to hear there wasn't more info--don't most cults have websites nowadays?

@db--it's definitely all that and unclassifiably more besides, isn't it? :) Glad you liked it--and thanks for the kind words!

corisco said...

In fact...the blonde girl, Iltra, on the movie is the actress Erika Maaz, not Geziale, that is the priestess.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the correction, corsico! Sorry for the mistake.

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