At the Movies: Belladonna of Sadness, Exoticism from France to Japan
Loosely inspired by La Sorcière, Jules Michelet’s 1862 history of witchcraft and the occult, BELLADONNA OF SADNESS tells the story of a young woman who makes a pact with the devil to exact revenge after being raped and driven from her home. This brief synopsis, however, does no justice to the visual spectacle of the film, which proceeds as a series of still images flashing onscreen. Spectacular watercolor paintings by Kuni Fukai marry the art nouveau artifice of artists like Aubrey Beardsley to ’60s psychedelia; the film’s North American distributor, Cinelicious Pics, describes it as “equal parts J.R.R. Tolkien and gorgeous, explicit Gustav Klimt-influenced eroticism.” So states Amazon’s blurb for not the movie, but for a companion book with, among other things, pages and pages of stills. And make no mistake, the visual art of this film is exotic and stunningly beautiful. And also erotic — although animated, this is not for children. It is for the most part a series of stills with relatively confined motion, not to mention a dollop of Freudian symbolism where sometimes not entirely expected (and thus at times, at last night’s Indiana University Cinema midnight screening, also provoking giggles). And, oh yes, while based on a book by a French author, with very French subject matter, BELLADONNA OF SADNESS is a Japanese movie.
To quote Amazon once more, this time from its page for the movie itself: One of the great lost masterpieces of Japanese animation, never before officially released in the U.S., BELLADONNA OF SADNESS is a mad, swirling, psychedelic light-show of medieval tarot-card imagery with horned demons, haunted forests and La Belle Dame Sans Merci with J.R.R. Tolkien influences. . . . [P]roduced by the godfather of Japanese anime & manga, Osamu Tezuka and directed by his longtime collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto (ASTRO BOY and KIMBA THE WHITE LION), BELLADONNA unfolds as a series of spectacular still watercolor paintings that bleed and twist together. A young woman, Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) is assaulted by the local lord on her wedding night. To take revenge, she makes a pact with the Devil himself (voiced by Tatsuya Nakadai, from Akira Kurosawa’s RAN) who appears as a sprite and transforms her into a black-robed vision of madness and desire. But the book it is from is not a novel, but a treatise on witchcraft in the Middle Ages by highly nationalistic French historian Michelet (1795-1874) whose works include a multi-volume, impassioned account of the French Revolution. This, in its way also, informs the movie.
And, as said above, the film is infused with eroticism, more terrifying, however, than sexy, especially in the earlier sequences. As for the Tolkein, I think it can be overstated, but is it horror? Yes, in its own way — where’s a good exorcist when you need one (in this case, wherever, it’s too little too late)? Yet also domestic drama gone bad, the sad married life of Jean and Jeanne, medieval French peasants, which brings the rise of Jeanne to much more, and not necessarily for evil either. And a paean to feminism as well, as a number of other reviewers have seen it.
In any event a beautiful film and one worth viewing.