Have You Seen… Belladonna of Sadness? (1973)

When taken as a whole, this is a majestic work. The first, and most overt, element to deal with is the film’s visuals. This is one of the most astonishing animated works I have seen. It mixes the approach of classical (or traditional) art with the freedom of 70s psychedelia. Our compositions and our poses could have dropped straight out of the renaissance but then the film also trades in art you would see in Fantastic Planet or Yellow Submarine. It is in this duelling identity that the film finds its brilliance, as it is about these juxtapositions – and about control. 

Forms are controlled through art, identities likewise. The way Renaissance and wider traditional art (my art vocabulary is limited) frames and views bodies is specific. I am reminded of the Guerilla Girls’ seminal art-protest at the Met museum in 1989, which used provocative – and purposefully dehumanised – imagery of a woman right next to the slogan: ‘do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’. It’s a great work of art and makes a pertinent – and sadly still vital – point about the scope for femininity in art. 

Art as a professional enterprise is a male dominated space, yet the visual arts – painting specifically – are disproportionately focused on women. We see art of women so frequently yet we rarely see art by women – unless we seek it out. Though this is getting marginally better. The art depicting women is often of women in repose and accidentally nude. In traditional art, those breasts just can’t stay in – yet any kind of object will tastefully cover a dick. Dicks are very resistant – very good at remaining artistically modest – yet those tits just cannot be contained. It’s almost as if the artist’s interest are explicitly shown. In these same works, women’s faces – or identifying features – are often obscured (sometimes only by hair). Women exist solely as bodies to so many male artists. They do not exist as people.

Belladonna of Sadness is a film that is very much aware of this context, and it uses this context very smartly. It is aware of a divergence in artistic movements, as it is very much part of a more anarchic and transgressive art boom that was targeted at traditionalism in the artistic space. Our central figure is a woman and is an object the film focuses on in most frames. She is traditionally beautified and has features of the classical nude. She is pale as alabaster, her breasts will not be contained, her nipples are practically plot points and her long flowing hair can be used to obscure her identity. At points, the frame’s focus concentrates on her breasts, or on her groin, in a way that is leering. Her nudity is not incidental – after all, her nudity is at odds to a clothed world and often exists over blank backdrops. 

To begin with, this is a problem. The film fully engages with the male gaze and puts the viewer through it. At the end of the film, I still think it is an issue – though at the end it is very clear why it is done. The ultimate point to be made is that you can critique without replicating and there is a way to convey a gaze without conforming to it. In reality, this film wants us to know that our protagonist is inherently sexualised – that the world only views her as a solely sexual object. That is why she is focused open and why she exists in opposition to so many thing. Yet, there are ways this can be suggested and better ways to make the point. My mind immediately goes to modern works which use the female lens so well: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Nightingale and Hustlers. The Nightingale deals with the explicit sexual assault this film deals with but knows better how to film it – which stems from who is behind the camera more than anything. Belladonna of Sadness deals with sexual assault in a way that is necessary for its plot and argument (and the argument is worth hearing) it just does not do so hugely well.

There is an element of beautification to sexual assault in this film, because the film is beautiful. However, the framing does not help this. This film lingers on the wrong parts and sensationalises the wrong things. Though, in the end, it is limited to a small part of the film and mileages will vary. For a lot of people it will be inherently too much, and those people are the ones you should listen to. There are also powerful voices though, and important voices – ones better positioned than mine, who can convey their more positive view even better. I recommend reading Samantha’s words on this film – better yet, I recommend talking to Samantha about this film.

At a point though, the film bends and unveils a real brilliance. The opening third, perhaps more than, is an onslaught of feminised abuse in a hyper stylised fashion. It is a lot. And then, the film makes its approach make sense. We build towards a scene where our main character submits sexually to a male figure for her own benefit. It is a transactional scene, one that is de-eroticised, and it gets to the crux that the film needs to: sex, under the patriarchy, is an expression of power. Women are controlled by men, under the patriarchy, through sex – yet this also gives women a weapon – which is why so many men, and conservative artists, fear female sexuality. Sex is power; the misogynists don’t want power in female hands.

The imagery of this scene is where things shift; the ‘sex scene’ is an explosion of mutating imagery and is so far removed from sexuality. It is overbearing, explosive imagery and that is the point here. This is not about sex. This is about power. Our character is doing what she can to gain leverage in a system and has been reduced, by the patriarchy, to an existence of a single verb. Her scope is limited so she weaponises that scope. This scene is a literal deal with the devil scenario, again showing the lens attached to female sexuality, yet she only gains from it. In perhaps the film’s strongest moment she says she wanted this pact to make her ugly. Her beauty is a curse and makes her the focal point of male attention. I was reminded of a character in Infinite Jest that wanted to hide her form as she felt her overt beauty was a disfigurement – it defined how she was viewed and she was imprisoned by it. This film plays in that space.

This woman has been exhibited to us and now we see that we, the audience, were functioning as the patriarchy. Her body cannot not be sexualised, she will always be an object – a thing to ‘conquer’ and destroy – under the patriarchy. Her beauty is a curse (but is only so under a patriarchal system: it is made to be a curse). And, while the film could have expressed this idea with more tact, it is a brilliant point.

But things get better, as she keeps her beauty. The rest of the film is about empowerment and it is fascinating. But it is also about the limits of empowerment. The visuals become more psychedelic, the artistic sensibility has moved, and our figure uses her beauty for herself. She owns it. She is still mainly nude but the way she is framed starts to change: her pose is proud and certain, not downbeat, not victimised. Maya Angelou’s immortal words come to mind:

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

And our protagonist does rise. And she does use the meeting of her thighs, yet all is different. The imagery is now much more democratic vis-à-vis nudity. There are cocks everywhere, bursting in surrealist fashion out of anything, and it feels like a genuine sexual revolution. Sex was power against her but now sex is power for her, and the pieces in the game have changed. The imagery is also much more yonic, and in an empowering way. The imagery of beauty in the film no longer comes from female suffering as it did in the first act (and in so much of traditional art, just think of works like The Rape of Proserpina in which critics note how the pain of the assaulted women is core to the work’s beauty), the beauty comes from strength – or resilience. Flowers start to dominate the iconographic range also. In fact, her tool to get by is a flower.

Our character now has power and solves issues – in a fable like narrative construction. Her poses are poses of control and dominance – importantly so – but the means she has for her success are floral. She is able to make something out of flowers that helps. This is unsubtle but symbolically beautiful. Flowers are relegated to the feminine, or locked to women by expectation, and here we see a reclamation of that symbol. Here the mind goes to Hamlet, where the death of Ophelia (infamously beautified in a famous work of art) comes after her distributing flowers. Her fragile mental state is somewhat mirrored by the fragility of flowers; her still existing beauty, yet it is suggested it is wilting, linked to the same symbol. And this is how floral imagery is often used: the precious, beautiful thing that is fragile and wilts with time. In this film, the symbol is purely strength: a reclamation of the feminine and a changing of semiotics.

The final ripple comes when the patriarchy wants to take her back – because now she is of use to them. The patriarchy does not want women having power, but it does want their power. A plot movement involves those in charge trying to use a power they could never produce and then it shows the consequences of this. Sadly, things cannot be happy. The patriarchy (here gleefully linked with religious iconography – power structures are power structures) will always crush. But this film shows that this is not inevitable, it is just a numbers games. It is a complicity game. If we are to conform, like traditional and static art, the patriarchy will win. Yet ,this is a fluid and everchanging work in which the visual field matches the politics. We must be in motion; we must break through barriers. We must take back what is used against women, harnessing its power to take down the patriarchy.

The film ends with imagery of the French revolution (known works of art) – it builds towards a famous piece of a woman at the front. It presents the future of revolt as female. Here, it misses the mark. The idea is tempting but it is simplistic, as the female we see is yet another example of that traditional pose. The breast hangs out as she holds a flag – the men manage to keep their clothes on. In making a point about the future of femininity, but from a male perspective, the film overshoots. It replicates the imagery of subjugation and control, seemingly obliviously. And this is a shame. That aside, this is a wonderful work with an important argument told through innovatively visual means. You should watch it, but be warned, the missteps it makes will be fatal flaws for many.

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