It is a truism that one often finds in ‘lower’, more despised forms of entertainment more truth or insight than is allowed in official or respectable culture. Take the sexploitation film, for instance. These are surely the most functional kind of creativity there is, a vehicle of suggestion for a particular release. The less plot, distracting production values or acting the better, never mind ideas. What better type of film to subvert, to slip in ideas the prospective customer never dreamed he was going to get.
This extraordinary film says more about French society, sexual relations, race and existence than all the ‘proper’ films being made at the same time. There is a genuine satiric daring and Genetesque sensibility here than one can’t imagine any man being self-unaware enough to take it for what it purports to be, a sexploitation film. Because onanistic desire is a complete abandoning of defences, leaving us at our most vulnerable, our most free from hypocrisy, we are also open to other fears and desires we’d never admit in ‘real’ life, not even to ourselves.
The film opens with a married couple, good loving bourgeoisie, young, hard-working, thrifty, dreaming, like all middle-class French couples, of one day buying a house in the country. The sun shines, they make love, they get ready for work. So far, so normal, so respectable. Their work happens to be prostitution, both of them. Most of the film takes place in the man’s work place, a formerly aristocratic town house turned brothel, where wealthy women pay for quick, violent pleasure.
This is extraordinary enough in a sexploitation film – men as the commercial objects in a sexual exchange; women wielding economic, and hence social power. As in Genet, the brothel is both a rarefied space apart from the real world, and a space where the tacit tensions of that real world are played out. This is very much a post-68 film, where masculinity is passive and ridiculous: the sex scenes are all played for laughs, disrupted by stylistic tricks, emphasising the men’s inadequacy and ugliness.
But there is a political charge extraordinary for its time, and unthinkable today. In the film’s best scene, a black intellectual who plays gigolo for the money, adapts a tribal persona for a rich nymphomaniac. She fantasises being violated by a savage, and then goes home to repeat the experience with her eager, elderly husband. The simultaneous fear and fascination of the racial other, still poisonously prevalent in France today, has never been more compellingly expressed. An echoing scene has two female executives insisting on talking business throughout their session with a thoroughly humiliated john, who later agrees to be kept by rich, contemptuous feminist. Sexploitation taboos such as male homosexuality are also explored.
Allied to Genet is the film’s sense of role-play, where the johns assume names and personae, and every session is ritualised, theatricalised. The effect of this is that when the film leaves the brothel, and enters other, more respectable bourgeois spaces, it’s difficult at first to tell the difference, such is the similarity of decor, or the presence of servants. The point is that there is nothing natural about the respectability of the middle class, that it is just as much of a fake as these sex sessions; that capitalism, as Godard was saying more austerely at the same time, is prostitution.
The finale is an astonishing explosion of the carnivalesque, where the forces of the law become disruptive, fetishised sprites, forcing the ‘deviants’ to become ‘normal’ (one man becomes a woman), eroding all moral boundaries when it should be asserting them.