“My obsession. My illogical and unconditional love. My jewel of French cinema.”
Disparaging remarks about Just Jaeckin’s 1975 feature film Histoire d’O (Story of O) are today common place. One is used to reading about how the film veers away a little too much from the novel, how ridiculous the men’s clothing appears to us today, or the women’s coiffures, or how bad the acting is. In the UK we had to wait 25 years for the censor’s ban to be lifted. So, not surprisingly, reviewers and critics in Britain upon its final release, had little patience for a French film belonging to an era long gone. The days when British film-goers thronged to see Sylvia Kristel as Emmanuelle. Even established UK film magazine Sight & Sound damned the film with faint praise:
“For the most part, this tale of self-annihilation looks like a cross between a Biba commercial and a progressive rock video, awash with knee-booted, shaggy haircut ‘chicks’ drifting across misty landscapes in pseudo-medieval frocks… The film does, however, have a certain kitsch charm, awash as it is with appalling synthesised elevator music sweeping across the embarrassing dialogue dubbed into English.”
So I find it refreshing when someone tells me this forty three year old film improves with age, indeed gets better with each viewing. Even more refreshingly, one current Instagram-user is inspired to write of the film thus;
“My greatest discovery. My fetish My obsession. My illogical and unconditional love. My jewel of French cinema. My thesis never written. My before and after. The beauty in each frame. The elegance of each scene. I fell in love with Corinne Clery and her story from the first time I saw her years ago, and today I am still in love like the first day.”
I cannot help agreeing with such sentiments. The film is a minor gem. Certainly it’s the best translation to celluloid the book has acquired so far, even if it is not quite the film the book deserves.
It has been stated that as with many books, “the best adaptation to the screen is the one that is never done.” yet Jaeckin “captures a certain spectral atmosphere found in the text”.
Even after all these years Just Jaeckin deserves applause for even attempting to adapt the Réage text. The film is rich with good casting and a décor the set-designer should be eternally proud of. If budget restrictions demanded creative economy it hardly shows. And the film’s first half, the scenes at Roissy, are bathed in golds and browns creating an opulent and ideal setting for the radiant charms of the disquieting and angelic French actress Corinne Clery (who later became a Bond girl).
Art Director Baptiste Poirot, set decorator Olivier Paultre and cinematographer Robert Fraisse clearly formed a creative and fruitful team. Everything is mostly how it should be, if not more so. How lucky were the cast to find themselves surrounded by such professional and talented craftsmen such as these.
Paris born cinematographer Robert Fraisse has proved himself again and again in such films as The Lover (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), The Notebook, and Girl on a Bicycle. On Histoire d’O he worked side by side with cameraman Yves Rodallec.
The film’s romantic costumes are credited to one-time Dior studio assistant Tan Giudicelli (born 1934) who later became the 80’s master of formal dressing. He designed for Chloe & Hermes, opening his own design house in 1984, backed by Gunther Sachs, who at the time was one of the richest people in the world. His clothing was “wildly romantic and very feminine, with fitted waists, full skirts lots of attention to detail which in the over the top 80s could mean, embroidery, embellishment and luxuriant fabrics.” Of his perfumes Giudicelli stated they reveal “a delicate alchemy between the soul and the skin, between mystery and sensuality, between yin and yang”.
“O recalled the prisoners she had seen in engravings and in history books,
who also had been chained and whipped many years ago, centuries ago…”
Story of O screenwriter Sébastien Japrisot was born in Marseille of Italian descent. A former student of the Sorbonne, Japrisot won critical acclaim for his first novel published when he was just eighteen years old. As a screenwriter he was much in demand. After his death in 2003 his novel Un Long Dimanche de Francailles was adapted for the the cinema screen as A Very Long Engagement (2004).
“Jaeckin’s film stands the test of time”
Of Histoire d’O Necronomicon writer Andy Black maintains, “Jaeckin’s film stands the test of time rather well thanks to its stylised milieu and hedonistic concept…” and continues, “With Story of O being one of those all-too rare examples of an “intelligent” adult film, the plot may be rather pedantic in places but it is the psychological aspects of the central characters and their behaviour which provides the most riveting aspects, together with the stunning locations brought to screen by Robert Fraisse and Yves Rodallec’s vivid photography.”
‘O’ film director Just Jaeckin was born in 1940. His father was Dutch and his mother English and he spent the first five years of his life in England. He trained as a photographer in the army and later studied architecture and interior design in Paris. He became art director of Marie Claire and his photographs appeared in numerous glossy fashion magazines including Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. Later he worked for TV and made commercials.
He aspired to make a thriller but the first feature he was offered was Emmanuelle. Its astonishing success (the film was seen by 50 million viewers worldwide) led to Jaeckin being offered Histoire d’O the following year.
The offer came despite the blacklisting of Jaeckin. Regardless of the success of Emmanuelle in its homeland many critics and media people painted him as the ‘devil’. “This is the first film to talk about sexuality in a loving, beautiful way,” maintained Jaeckin, “showing that the woman is not a slut, or that two women have the right to love each other.” For some while Jaeckin was forced to suffer the applied stigma of “pornographer”, the one that has soiled the French cinema.
Emmanuelle spearheaded social change. It was of the moment, and despite the criticism which without a doubt, effected his health and well-being, Jaeckin saw his film triumph. “Films of eroticism didn’t exist.” recalles Jaeckin, “There were only pornographic movies, viewed by men only. Then, Yves Rousset-Rouard refused to release Emmanuelle on the X distribution circuit, preferring a traditional distribution circuit. The film was released on traditional movie screens, at a time when French society was changing.”
Of the film’s social significance Jaeckin stated, “That is Emmanuelle to me, and we owe a lot to the screenplay of Jean-Louis Richard.” And in a sentiment that could be similarly applied to Story of O, Jaeckin mused, “Emmanuelle, it’s not just me, it’s a whole team.”
Writers Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs later recorded, “Jaeckin’s contribution to world cinema, was to help define, or more accurately, popularise – a new form of eroticism: glossy, escapist, and decidedly bourgeois, aimed largely at couples.”
Upon the film’s release in France L’Express reported, “these films, and triumphantly History of O, have the audacity… hitherto unprecedented, to show that women want as much as men… For the film-maker Just Jaeckin, Story of O is above all, he says, “overwhelmingly A Love Story writ large.” ”
JUST IN RETIREMENT
Returning to photography and the making of sculpture in recent years Just Jaeckin with his wife Anne established the Galerie Anne & Just Jaeckin on the Rue Guenegaud in the heart of Paris, a showcase for their own work and that of other artists and photographers. Now retired from film making, Jaeckin (now 77) spends his retirement with his wife in their converted mill close to Saint-Briac in Brittany.
“Piece together incredible sets and atmospheric locations, intricate costumes a smart script and sympathetic (well acted) characters and you’ll start to get the idea of what makes a film like The Story of O so special. … The Story of O is a shining example of just how good erotic cinema can be.” Lawrence P. Raffel
text © Stefan Prince http://www.storyofo.info