Tuesday, January 18, 2011
David Hamilton's Bilitis
I undressed and climbed into a tree. My naked thighs embraced its smooth, damp bark, and my sandals walked on its branches. High up, among the leaves, sheltered from the heat of the night, I sat astride the spreading fork of a branch, my feet hanging free below. It had rained, and drops of water fell and ran along my skin. My hands were green in the moss, and my toes red from crushed flowers. I felt the beautiful tree vibrate with the wind's passage, and, so, I tightened my legs around it, and pressed my open mouth against the long, downy neck of the branch.
- from Bilitis
Bilitis suffers from the same (predictable) flaw that the movie adaptation of Lolita suffers from - casting the adolescent schoolgirl, just on the brink of sexual awakening, too old. But, like Lolita, the rest of the film is so enchanting (beautiful in Bilitis' case, depressing in Lolita's) that even this pivotal flaw fails to bring down the whole picture with it. And in both cases, the actresses do a convincing job of acting the character, in spite of the age disparity (which is even greater for Bilitis, who could, in my estimation, be anywhere from 12 to 16, but is played by a 25ish year old Patti D'Arbanville, versus the 15ish year old Dominique Swain playing Lolita, who is supposed to be 12-14). Interestingly, a lot of Patti's style (especially the hair) and mannerisms as Bilitis reminded me of Dominique Swain's Lolita (played twenty years later). I wonder if that was a conscious influence.
In any case, it's not surprising that a young character would be cast older in an erotic film, given modern paranoia about sex - especially in Bilitis' case, where the erotica is a primary focus, as opposed to Lolita, where anything that comes off as being erotic can be written off as an unavoidable consequence of depicting a destructive sexual relationship. It's a typical case of cinematic moralism: controversial sexuality is only forgiven when it's being used to preach the evils of sex. David Hamilton - operating out of France, I believe - is thankfully above this crippling influence, and yet we still get a 25 year old "schoolgirl", for better or worse. Frankly, the film, while highly erotic, is not at all explicit, and none of Bilitis' scenes involve anything that a young-looking 16 year old, having legally reached the age of consent in many jurisdictions, couldn't handle. She doesn't even really have sex at all - just a fair bit of kissing and touching, and generally being naked, which wouldn't be such a big deal if it weren't for our sex phobia.
The basic theme of the movie is the sexual awakening of a young schoolgirl named Bilitis. She develops a crush on the school photographer, but she's reluctant to submit to her heart's desire. During summer vacation, she stays with an older family friend named Melissa, who is married, and beautiful in her own right. There, she learns about love. First with the photographer, who happens to work on the beach. But all the men in her life are rough and single-minded, and insensitive about her virginity. In a passionate moment while the husband is out on a business trip (with a fling of his own), Bilitis and Melissa surrender to their attraction to one another and make love. The experience is wonderful for both, and Bilitis falls in love, while Melissa stresses that their relationship cannot continue. "Even if you love me more than anyone in the world, you'd still need a man." So, Bilitis goes out looking for a man to hook Melissa up with (somebody that will treat her better than her abusive, cheating husband). And she ends up falling for the photographer, whom Bilitis is on the outs with, but as much as she hates to see them with each other (and not her), she allows them their happiness and returns to school having lost her first love. It's a touching story.
The film itself oughtn't really to be judged on the usual merits of motion picture entertainment. You could call it an art film. It's not interested in telling a story the same way every other movie you watch does. It attempts to do so, but it's pretty obvious that the story is an excuse for the atmosphere and cinematography, and not vice versa. It's more like a dream than a standard narrative. Hamilton's films are basically moving photographs, with music and sometimes dialogue, and just a bare semblance of a story. You watch them essentially for one purpose - to be wowed by David Hamilton's passionate embrace of the beauty of feminine grace. So if you like David Hamilton's photography, you'll probably like his films - not necessarily as films, but as an extension of his art. And if you don't like David Hamilton, then chances are these films will bore you (or possibly offend you, if you're an uneducated prude). Personally, I think they're beautiful. And watching this one has rekindled my interest in collecting his other films. Even in spite of the fact that I'm concerned about picking up transfers that may be edited, or not have the proper language (this one was in English). In the end, seeing them, even in an imperfect form, is better than not seeing them at all.
And I'm very impressed that the DVD I got includes the film soundtrack as a bonus feature. The music is very pretty, but there is one song in particular that I liked, which becomes rather dramatic, even to the point of having some electric guitars come in the background. I'm really happy to be able to so easily track down that song, without even leaving the disc! It's just too bad the soundtrack isn't also included in CD format.