Six years before Just Jaeckin hit it big with his soft-focus, epic version of Pauline Reage's novel, The Story of O
, this Belgian oddity was made. While it doesn't precisely follow the story put forth in the novel, it is blatantly inspired by the novel, referring to it by name.
The film introduces us to Michel, a young, rich man, who at the beginning of the film is throwing up in his kitchen sink during a wild, decadent, late-'60s party. We also discover that the last maid he had has quit, so a friend recommends he places an add for a live-in aid. Shortly after, shy, young Gisele arrives at the lavish apartment building while Michel is at work, finding a note on the door telling the new help to come in. Michel had specifically wanted an older aid, but after meeting Gisele is convinced to let her stay.
Gisele is introduced to Michel's wildly reckless lifestyle, and handles it almost completely apathetically, remaining virtually mute and vacant in response to all that's going on around her. She just keeps up with her duties and keeps to herself.
One night, Michel tries to have a conversation with Gisele, discovering that she had once lived with her aunt and uncle, but her aunt got jealous when her uncle was paying more attention to her than his wife. So Gisele has more or less "escaped" to the city, and whether or not this is an improvement or not is not exactly ever revealed.
After their discussion, Michel more or less rapes Gisele and Gisele ends up falling in love with him, never having received that sort of 'love' before. Michel tells her that she is going to be his "O," (irritatingly spelled out as "Oo" in the subtitles of the version I was watching) and he is going to teach her the ways of modern living and loving, vaguely explaining the narration that takes place in The Story of O.
Unfortunately for Gisele, Michel is no Sir Stephan. He doesn't have the same type of character as the main players in Reage's novel, rather, he's simply seeking new sensations, and his handling of events complicates the relationship.
The film itself is beautiful to look at in the same way the films that Radley Metzger made notorious through his company Audubon films; it's decadent, colorful, and an utter time capsule of how the rich and "liberated" lived at the time (at least according to the movies). And for a majority of the film one wonders if it's another simple cash in on the "rich people sex drama" that ends up terribly misrepresenting it's source material, but some of the turns it takes reveals it to be something more.
The Story of O was initially published in 1954, and, in the same way it became chic in the US to be seen catching a screening of Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat with your girlfriend/lover/wife, it slowly rose to a popular acclaim and it became very chic to have read the book, a topic of discussion often brought up at bourgeois dinner parties.
Though it's pure speculation on my part, I'm fairly confident in the idea that most of people who read the novel while it's popularity peaked didn't quite understand it. I don't say that in an elitist sort of way, rather I mean to imply that in the same way the general public don't understand the actual implications and ideas behind S/M, I'm almost sure that a core audience accepted it as purely 'shocking' titillation that just happened to be well written. But the idea in the novel goes much further than that-- it really recognizes O as an utterly liberated sexual being. Early feminist organizations protested the book and some critics still claim that, despite being written by a woman (the apocryphal Pauline Reage was eventually revealed to be Dominique Aury [aka Anne Desclos]), the book serves to do nothing but objectify a woman in the most blatant and powerful way possible. Which is more or less missing the point, because O is actually the character who has the most control in the novel, but the novel succeeds in showing O actually arriving at this point through a progression of events.
But enough about the novel, the film is relevant because it manages to show a misunderstood interpretation of the novel by a chic jet-setting member of the bourgeois. Michel, bored with having everything he wants, attempts to reenact the novel in order to spice up his sex life. But Michel replaces the implicit trusting power exchange that's present in actual S/M with testosterone fueled machismo. It doesn't help Michel's case that Gisele is utterly naive and virginal. The place that each finds themselves in, for a while, creates an illusion that sustains itself until Michel goes away on a business trip and Gisele spends the better part of a month with one of Michel's friends, Leni.
Aware of what is occurring between Michel and Gisele, Leni gives Gisele a copy of The Story of O to read so she can understand what's going on. And while Gisele still insists that she loves Michel, she seems to actually understand his motivation in terms of the more degrading acts he insists upon. And after the two reunite, the relationship grows sour. Gisele is no longer the virginal, naive girl that she was when Michel left, as Leni served to actually introduce Gisele to a more modern life. Gisele begins to stand up to herself and doesn't obey Michel's every whim.
And Michel becomes somewhat crushed by this discovery; the fact that his "slave" is no longer in a position of ignorance, and he doesn't know how to handle it. He tries to win her old self back by acts of cruelty and violence, but Gisele cannot shed the knowledge she has gained. Finally, within the last minutes of the film, Michel finally finds his epiphany, and finds himself understand that he has been ridiculous, and that he really honestly loves Gisele. And it is a beautiful realization, but an unwanted one.
Like I mentioned before, until the direct inclusion of The Story of O in the narrative of the film, I simply thought the film was a terribly weak and misguided attempt to cash in on the popularity of S/M in high society sex dramas (think Radley Metzger's The Image [aka The Punishment of Anne] or various scenes and incidents throughout the films of Max Pecas and Jose Benazeraf). However, once the connection is drawn between the popularity of Reage's novel and the character of Leni pointing out that Michel is just bored and looking for sensation, everything comes together in a cohesive whole.
That's not to say the film is perfect; the narrative flow is flawed and the progression of time is unclear. If it weren't for different outfits that the characters wear one couldn't tell that the day had even changed, let alone an extended period of time. There are also some extemporaneous details that are interesting additions to the sets of the film, but add little to the actual content (for example, a large book of Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux's work is very clearly displayed in one scene). However, that can be overlook as there are also some very nice details that actually serve to subtly add to the plot, such as a large poster in Michel's kitchen of the 1966 French film Qui Ítes vous, Polly Maggoo? The William Klein film served as a "satirical art house movie on mid-sixties French society" (description taken from Wikipedia). It's interested that this is included, as the inclusion more or emphasizes that the commentary on the popularity of S/M and how it is constantly misunderstood in popular culture was utterly intentional. This is interesting as the general audience of the chic, escapist erotic dramas were people who wanted nothing more than sensation.
So all in all, despite it's flaws L'Etreinte is what I imagine to be a dead on critique of popular culture's assimilation of "outsider" sexual fetishes/practices. Aside from it's social commentary, the characters that decorate the film are very attractive, and the wonderful interior decorating is enough to keep a fan of modern industrial design fully entertained.