Let’s switch things up a bit, shall we? I’m in the middle of another book that I’m very excited to write a review about, however this Sunday, I stopped by O Cinema in Wynwood and eagerly watched Eiichi Yamamoto’s newly restored Belladonna of Sadness.
This film was a doozy of incredible paintings, animation, music, narration and brutality. I feel the need to prepare the viewer if you see this landmark animation, because even though it’s beautiful and well done, it’s incredibly vile and graphic. After watching the movie, all I could say repeatedly was, poor Jeanne! Poor Belladonna! That poor, animated woman had a horrible life!
So, let’s get into a little background as there was a lot online regarding this film. The film has a cult following and this restoration was a project undertaken by the team at distribution company Cinelicious Pics (who put more than 1,000 hours of restoration to have this release ready for the US audience). I found this fantastic link over at Fast Company that thoroughly goes over what it took to restore this film and even includes a conversation with Cinelicious’s Paul Korver, founder and CEO, and Dennis Bartok, executive vice president of acquisitions and distribution of distribution arm Cinelicious Pics, Belove.
Essentially, the team had to get the original film, restore it to it’s original color and even had to go through some bootleg copies to find the 8 minutes of missing clips that were taken out at various points in the film. You know how I hate anything abridged, so I’m incredibly grateful that the film was released unedited and in it’s original glory.
I believe that KC Ifeanyi very succinctly summarizes the history of Belladonna of Sadness‘ origins in this quote from the article linked above:
Belladonna of Sadness was adapted from French historian Jules Michelet’s novel La Sorcière and was the third film in the trilogy Animerama started by Japanese manga and anime legend Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka created Animerama to revolutionize animated films, drenching his creations in sexually explicit overtones to cater to an adult audience—but the trilogy didn’t quite strike its intended chord with audiences. Tezuka exited the studio he headed Mushi Production shortly before the company filed for bankruptcy in 1973—the same year Belladonna of Sadness was released. Over the years, Belladonna of Sadness fell into relative obscurity, known and appreciated by a small, if not devout, audience—including Hadrian Belove, co-founder of nonprofit cinematheque Cinefamily.
– KC Ifeanyi, “Inside The Restoration Of Lost ’70s Animated Curiosity “Belladonna Of Sadness””
If I have to break down this movie to the bare bones, I would say the film is essentially
about how religion and misogyny has hurt more than helped the common man. This is totally different than what most reviews would say off the bat, but let’s dive into this and see if this conclusion is correct. The main character, the beautiful and pure, Jeanne is married at the beginning of the film to the poor farmer, Jean. Everyone in the village is thrilled about their marriage and in an act of solidarity and respect, they go to the feudal lord and his court with a donation for their marriage. The lord and his court, upon seeing how beautiful Jeanne is and how poor Jean is, ask for a wage that is impossible for the poor farmer to give and so the queen, jealous of Jeanne’s beauty and purity, says that she must give her maidenhead to the lord and his court.
What then ensues is the graphic rape of Jeanne by the skeletal looking lord and the rest of the court on her wedding night, while Jean is kicked out of the dark castle. The rape itself is so visually explicit that it’s hard not to cringe while watching it. As shown in the photo above, we see her body literally being torn in half in red. You can’t get more artistically visual than that…
Afterwards, she arrives at Jean’s farm with torn clothes and everything essentially goes down hill from there. Jean can’t get over what happened and strangles her when she tries to touch him. Jeanne is obviously devastated and bitter. There’s a scene directly following the strangulation where she’s looking at her reflection in a cloudy mirror and then starts to wash her body. The obvious devastation and hopeless that is shown is expressed very clearly, despite the blurry image, but something to point out, she does not break down. She looks at herself, as seen in the gif below, fixes her hair and starts to clean herself. This is a woman who preserves and we see several instances of her strong character and will to live, something that ultimately gets her killed.
Jeanne and Jean try to live their life to the best of their ability, but of course, the royal court has to ruin everything for everyone. They start to collect taxes that the village simply cannot pay. Jeanne, filled with frustration and desire, is courted by a small demon, who of course, looks like a tiny little penis. She starts to laugh again when she essentially gives the little demon a hand job (which is so ridiculous, but whatever, this is an explicitly erotic film, so let’s give two cheers for a phallic looking demon) and agrees to give the demon her body in exchange for helping her husband.
And so it goes, Jeanne gives more of herself to the demon in exchange for bettering her
and her husband’s circumstances. When Jeanne’s husband cannot pay the court tax, Jeanne spins cloth that is sold for an unimaginable price, which allows Jean to gain favor with the court and become the new tax collector. When Jean cannot collect any money from the villagers, because they’re literally starving, Jeanne gives more of herself to the demon in order to get money from the village money lender to pay off the taxes for the village. When the men have to go to war and Jean becomes an alcoholic, Jeanne dons a green cloak (meant to symbolize power and the devil) and becomes the village money lender that essentially feeds the entire village and even the jealous queen and her royal court.
What does she get out of this? Respect from the village. Power from the people. And, most importantly, hatred from the queen and the entire royal court. When the lord and men come back from war, the queen ensures that her hatred of Jeanne is shared by her husband and her page, who then tear off her clothes, rapes her in public, beats her and chases her to her house. Her pathetic husband doesn’t even try to help her when she begs him to protect her. Instead he locks the door and ignores her desperate cries for help.
What’s a woman to do who only gets punished for trying to help herself and better her circumstances? She takes her limp, naked, beaten body and crawls her way to the wilderness and finally gives her soul to the devil. And you know what? The devil and the wilderness treat her better than anyone in the village ever has!
Let’s stop here and reflect on the imagery that is so prevalent and important to this story. Jeanne, who at this point in the movie, is completely bare and fully submerged in nature looks more beautiful than she did in her previous life. The devil even tells her that he gives her beauty now for her wickedness, but is she wicked? Look at her beauty, look at her integration with nature.
Let’s juxtapose this with the image of the royal court.
Everything is gray and washed out. The queen is completely covered from head to toe. The lord looks like Skeletor with demonic eyes and a frail body (he lacks what Skeletor had in physique, but what can you do?). The rest of the court looks ghostly and they are surrounded by religious iconery and yet, all this court is capable of doing is spewing out what they believe God wants and hurting their underlings.
A woman’s sexuality is often compared to the work of the devil. Nature in it’s pure form is nothing if not abhorred by most societies. But what we have here is a situation in which the phallic devil is not someone who hurts others, but helps others. The religious institution that insists on female modesty and constrain is what hurts everyone. What we are taught is not necessarily true. What we see is what allows us to judge what is right and what is wrong. If you have to chose between Jeanne in nature and the royal court, the former looks a lot more inviting.
While Jeanne is frolicking along in nature with the devil and having a great, orgasmic time, the villagers are stricken with the black death. Everyone is dying and yet, Jeanne saves them with the juices from the Belladonna flower. Not only if she saving lives, she gives people food, fun and hope – something that really pisses off the royal court. The royal court’s mode of operation is – if anyone is happy, we must destroy it.
So…they do! But, not before a huge orgy happens with Jeanne at the front being banged by the devil. This movie is so weird and uncomfortable in some parts and then really jazzy and fun in other parts. I cannot emphasize enough how great the music in this film is and how much it lends to the entire plot. Also, the images change from scene to scene, sometimes there is animation, other times there are static shots where the camera will pan over a large image, or sometimes we see an entire scene being drawn out in front of us. Jeanne is rarely animated, instead we see her most of the time as a drawing or a painting. She’s literally the only person in the entire film who is consistently drawn beautifully, while everyone else is drawn simply or unattractively.
Look how beautiful the many faces of Jeanne are:
So, what does the royal court do to ultimately break down Jeanne? They bring back the pathetic Jean and have him plead with her to make a deal with the court. She does go to the court and they offer her everything – a noble title, lots of land, money – but she says no. She wants everything and so they burn her on a cross (how dare a naked woman ask for everything).
This is the only scene in which Jean actually tries to rescue Jeanne, but instead he is very graphically killed in front of her as she’s burning on her cross. Naked she comes into the world, naked she leaves the world. In the middle of the film, the court priest says that they cannot burn Jeanne because she is a witch and her soul will continue to live on in the people. The lord does not take heed to this warning and Jeanne’s soul becomes part of the women in the village. The faces of the women become the faces of Jeanne.
Then rather quickly and succinctly, we cut to a painting of a French woman, with her breasts exposed holding the French flag during Bastille Day. Large subtitles emerge, declaring that during Bastille Day it was women at the front of the line! Thus, thrusting us back into the fact that this film is based off feudal France and that Jeanne’s spirit did live on in all women who fought for French Independence. That scene is such a strange, random throw in to make it relevant to history, but ok. Her story has a point and her life had meaning for all French women. And in a sense, this a story that many women had to endure. Women have had to suffer at the hands of ruthless men for decades and we still are suffering, but to some degree hopefully it all leads to some sort of progression. The perseverance and strength of all women have to help the next generation of women.
So, would I recommend Belladonna of Sadness? I’m not going to lie, I left the theater incredibly confused and disturbed, but with careful thought and retrospection, I really did enjoy the film. It was something different and the images are gorgeous as much as they are disturbing and graphic. Also, the music and narration was really fantastic. So, if you have the opportunity to see this film, take a chance but beware of the graphic imagery and try to keep an open mind.