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Movie Reviews

Delta Of Venus  

Zalman King is probably the most "famous" of the soft-core film directors. Oddly enough, he is also one of the worst, by far. He first came onto the scene as producer and writer of Adrian Lyne's 9 ½ Weeks, a vulgar excuse for an erotic romance, complete with humiliation and sado-masochism. He graduated to director with such so-called classics such as Two Moon Junction, Wild Orchid, and the Red Shoe Diaries series on Showtime. This time out he tackles Anais Nin with a film version of Delta of Venus.
Well, actually I just told a naughty little fib. If Zalman King recreated Delta of Venus, then I'm a serious rival to Roger Ebert. What this movie has to do with Nin's famous erotic anthology is beyond me. Sure, there are numerous cute references to content in the stories, including a visit to a clairvoyant, an opium-induced orgy, and the discovery by fisherman of a dead beautiful woman (King omits, perhaps wisely, the necrophilia portion of that tale). The main character is named Elena, and I think I remember an Elena somewhere in the book. And a major plot point is based loosely on an event in Nin's life. But make no mistake, this is a Zalman King production; any usage of Nin is for the sake of laziness, or at least uninventive homage.

During the eve of World War II in Paris, a struggling writer (Audie England) meets Lawrence (Costas Mandylor), an apparently controversial and famous writer apparently modelled after Henry Miller. The two meet at an extravagant party for Lawrence, and he entrances her by a recounting of a strange party turned orgy of sorts. This turns her on a lot, of course, and soon afterwards, embark on a short-lived sexual affair. Short-lived, because just before he leaves for his book tour, he visits a prostitute, and Elena runs into the two as they engage in heavy petting right there on the sidewalk. As with any unoriginal movie involving romantic partners, there is a fight, and a bitter parting, which even a fool would know is merely a set-up for the climax, where they will of course meet again.
After the parting of Elena and Lawrence, Elena grows more financially desperate, unable to get even the most tedious of writing jobs. (I don't know about you, but don't you think that, even in the 1930's, when people were at their most desperate and would have dearly loved an escape, that there would have been a market for cheap and tawdry paperbacks; hey, the movies did pretty well at the time!) She is then offered a very odd proposition; an anonymous individual wants someone to write erotica for him, offering three cents a page.

Elena jokingly protests for about, say, ten or twenty seconds worth of screen-time, before diving into the project, and soon becoming obsessed by the need to write the sexual experience as accurately and as vividly as possible. And, as they all say, experience begets wisdom, so, besides writing about sex, she gets herself involved in many increasingly depraved encounters.

Wow, you say, all of these sexual encounters; what fun! Actually, this movie is quite boring. It makes the erotic movie Temptations seem like it was written by Billy Wilder. Actually, I think Venus would have benefited from a little more honesty; this is a soft-core film, for God's sake, not an art film! King wants us to take this film seriously!! The movie takes place during Hitler's rise to power, so we get shots of Nazis making life difficult for others in Paris, shots of protests and chaos in the streets, and of everybody speaking with pretentious seriousness (The dialogue is ridiculous, however, so nothing actually comes out with seriousness!). Apparently, with all the Nazis and decadence, King thought he was actually remaking Cabaret. The problem is that King has no talent in the storytelling arena. The subjects of Nazism and Hitler are not added to make a point, but because King somehow believes that he is in the 1950's, and is too scared to just go ahead and make a sexy movie. By mentioning "World War II", "Hitler", and so on, well, he's not making a pornographic movie, he's making something with "redeeming social value"!!!

More evidence that King is afraid of just going ahead with the sexy movie idea: he mixes the sex with violence, humiliation, and mental cruelty. The most ugly scene involves Elena's rape by a stereotypical Nazi in a darkened alley. She's raped from behind, adding to the cruelty. Yet she naturally (naturally!!) uses this act as fodder for another erotic story, and at the end she states she was the one who entered this situation - she wanted to see what sex was like without love. I don't know -- I think all of the sex acts she did with Mandylor are pretty good examples of sex without love, if, by love, you mean, heavy-duty romantic love. More cruelty is in the actual relationship between England and Mandylor. They fool around, she sees him with prostitute, she gets angry, and he tries to apologise for it (what an optimist!). Yet when they reunite, it is England who has to learn the lesson, that the two had the perfect bond, a wondrous love - because they found the truth about sex, which is not that it is beautiful, but that it is depraved and wicked, and so they must be wicked and depraved together. Mandylor already knew that, since he essentially stabbed England in the back with the whole prostitute thing, and now England herself has discovered how wicked sex can be. Of course, there is no mention of the fact that the women seem to be the exploited and the men are the exploiters in this type of arrangement.

Audie England is certainly game for all of the erotic situations. She is cold, with a pout (mouth parted, hair hanging over her eye, a cold glare), which I actually find attractive in a strange way. She is also a bit unusual in that she is not really voluptuous or full-bodied - she's thin, and kind of bony. Costas Mandylor plays the typical Zalman King male; aggressive and overpowering. The funniest part is that he used to be on "Picket Fences", on a fairly reputable televison network, and is now reduced to performing simulated sex acts for the King of soft-porn.
There is a lot of sex, but most of it is weirdly detached, because they are performed by anonymous people as part of Audie's voyeuristic adventures, and the script does not make us feel much toward these people and their acts. The only erotic moments that actually are interesting are the ones between England and Mandylor, because at least they are the main characters, and we can sort of follow what they're doing.

There is even one moment of real beauty - they make love in the apartment, he exploring her body with his hands, she immersed in the passion of the moment. Close-up of her taking his fingers into her mouth, panting "I can taste myself...". Sounds pretty extreme, maybe, but it is also just plain sexual, instead of violent, or cruel. If King weren't such a wimp, and actually made a pretty movie where a nice woman and a nice man got into a passionate affair (and actually remained monogamous -- what a shock it would be!), even if it were just all about sex, then maybe we would have a nice movie. But King is a fool, unable to see women in any way except as playthings for his male heroes, and more interested in depravity than beauty.

David Macdonald

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