AKA THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 104 mins/88 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Accompanied by her maid Beth, courageous but naive Gwendoline has come to China to find her father who went off to the legendary land of Yik-Yak chasing after a rare black butterfly. Immediately upon her arrival both are captured to be sold to a local casino-brothel owner, but are rescued by devil-may-care adventurer Willard. She convinces him with $2,000 to help find dad, but then learns that he was killed. Still, she’s determined to find this butterfly which she wants to name after him, so the three of them set off on an adventure beyond their wildest dreams….
I’ve always thought that Gwendoline was a film of considerable depravity, the few stills I’d seen from it giving the impression of a really bold melding of sex and violence, a weird companion piece to writer/director Just Jaeckin’s genuine BDSM classic The Story Of O. Only now though have I decided to check out this effort from the man who also gave us Emmanuelle. It was rather different from what I expected. It’s a Jaeckin film so it’s still dirty minded through and through and proud of it, but it’s an oddly innocent kind of dirty mindedness, as if it’s coming from the mind of a twelve-year old boy. For its first two thirds it’s a tongue in cheek spin on the conventional H. Rider Haggard-style adventure yarn [not so much Indiana Jones], though at times it’s hard to tell if it’s intentionally or unintentionally bad, with some examples of poor staging [action is not Jaeckin’s forte unless it’s action of the heavy breathing kind] and even more examples of poor acting, though I will say that viewing the French-language version is probably a better experience from the bits I looked at, even though it’s also post synched just like the English-language version. And then it all turns into an elaborate bondage fantasy, with Jaeckin putting his filthy mind to good use, though even here it’s quite tame, with no dwelling on pain and virtually no actual sex. One can admire Jaeckin for holding back on the sex [his rewrite toned down Jean-Luc Voulfow’s first draft of the screenplay] and going in some new directions, even if it reveals his perhaps limited writing skills. Still, for lovers of the offbeat there’s a fair bit to enjoy from something made at a time when a film which was often just an excuse for a woman to get her tits out was able to get made.
In 1946, John [don’t snigger] Willie [real name John Coutts], one of the first prominent fetish artists, created a fetish magazine called “Bizarre” and produced four cartoon serials for it, of which “The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline” was best known, and ran till 1959. He took the idea of a serial heroine a la Pearl White in The Perils Of Pauline and brought out the inherent sexuality, with Gwendoline kept in a state of undress throughout her adventures while the BDSM opportunities offered by seeing her tied up by the villain were exploited. Fast forward to 1984, and Jaeckin had to put much of his own money into Gwendoline. It was shot in the Philippines, Morocco and Paris for the scenes set in China and the city of Pikaho, which was actually one stage with roll-away walls that were dressed and rearranged before each scene to give the appearance of many different rooms. Just before the filming of the scene involving a boa constrictor, the snake intended to be used died through lack of oxygen, but this didn’t hold things up; they still used it and moved its body with cables. The US version The Perils Of Gwendoline In The Land of the Yik Yak lost sixteen minutes, mostly small portions of dialogue scenes to speed the pace up, though the loss of a fairly important scene where Willard finds out he’s been tricked by Gwendoline was also removed. In fact a quick skim through of this version shows that mainly Willard/Gwendoline material was cut. Professor D’Arcy’s role in the final section was drastically cut down too, plus one whole fight scene. In the UK, the film was meant to get a cinema release but in the end went straight to video. The three minutes removed cut out some of the bondage images and violent shots, a good example of the prudish nature of the BBFC back then. 2008 saw the first uncut release, on DVD.
Neat butterfly-dominated titles are followed by the black background transitioning into the black of a cart, then we get a really nice track down a busy Chinese street to alight on a moored ship while we see a car knocking down a food cart and a man absconding with a hanging bag of ‘something’ – and we can certainly see that the budget is up there on the screen. Our heroine is found in a box and immediately dragged off to some Tong folk who unusually for the time all speak unsubtitled Chinese. Despite being a redhead she’s going to be taken to be sold as a blonde, the first of many instances where we’re just not sure if the script is trying to be funny or is just crap. She’s rescued by Willard who jumps in through the window and adjusts his hat before battling the bad guys including a nunchuku-wielder in another scene that was originally heavily cut down in the UK to remove the awful sight of the weapon. Gwendoline falls in love with him there and then, but he’s hardly the dream guy she thinks he is. He only rescued her because the chief gangster owed him some money, and money is the only thing he cares about. We next see him gambling, but then pushing the hooker away he stole from another man with the excuse, “damn bitch, you made me lose” and actually smashes another man’s head onto the flipping table. Talk about going over the top. And Willard has almost supernatural strength too. A bit later he smashes another guy’s face into some prison bars which somehow disconnects his head from his ears. He leaves Gwendoline and her maid Beth twice, but they need him to help them, and Gwendoline is prepared to use underhand methods to achieve this. Her finding out the fate of her father could have been handled in one rather than two very separate scenes, but nonetheless the trio are soon their way to Yik-Yak by river, jungle and desert.
We get the expected encounters with pirates and tribespeople [and an amusingly fake alligator], while Gwendoline and Willard continually bicker in an African Queen fashion. The dialogue doesn’t have anywhere near the wit, but exchanges like, “when I’m close to you I feel safe”, “Well that’s funny, when I’m close to you I feel the opposite” raise a smile. And, despite not going for even slightly explicit sex, Jaeckin can’t resist doing things like making something erotic out of a short five-second bit of Gwendoline and Beth hiding under a table where we see a hand stroking a leg, or having somebody divulge some important information while he’s being fellated. And then we come to a really nice scene when our trio are tied up in a hut and, after the typical exchange about Gwendoline not having to die a virgin, Willard first strokes her face with a straw held in his teeth, then tells her what he would do to her. Gwendoline rather likes this, but then we cut to Beth and she’s really liking it – and then they all laugh and are still laughing when some of their captors enter. As well as being so sexy and good natured, the scene is also notable for being probably the only scene where Brent Huffy delivers his words well. Elsewhere, he seems to get every line delivery wrong and doesn’t have much charisma either. Why Jaeckin chose him over Keith Carradine [Sam Jones was the other contender] god only knows. Thankfully Tawny Kitaen, of Bachelor Party and Witchboard but probably most famous for lots of Whitesnake videos, does have charisma and projects an appealing wide-eyed innocence. It’s nice that her character tends to give as good as she gets as well even if she does say at one point, “I belong to you body and soul”. Everyone else seems to be mouthing French, though even with this the comic timing of Zabou Brietmanut [a lady much more to Doc’s taste than Kitaen] as Beth comes through.
After a whole hour, which really is a tease seeing as it’s the bondage imagery that was largely used to sell the film, Gwendoline, Beth and Willard finally get to Yik-Yak and the city of Pikaho, which is basically a big ongoing S + M party in a salt mine. Many centuries ago all the men died of a strange illness when the volcano above erupted. From then on men were only used for procreation purposes, then killed, while any woman who dared leave the place in search of a man was found and subjected to torture of a hugely elaborate sort. I couldn’t make out exactly what was actually being done during some of the glimpses of this stuff which seems to be a part of normal life in this bonkers place, though could not help but admire the limited but effective white-themed production design Françoise De Leu, and the imagination on offer which extends to things like a chariot race where the horses are replaced by more women. Ben-Hur it ain’t, and the scene doesn’t last long, while there seems to be a conflict between Jaeckin wanting to put on screen all that his pervy mind could think of but also trying to be subtle and concentrate more on the adventure aspects. The fight choreography doesn’t improve during some brutal female-on-female gladiator battles, and as soon as we meet a scientist living with these amazons, you know exactly where the rest of the plot is going, with borrowings from the likes of Cat Women Of The Moon, She and Barbarella, Geography gets weird, and Willard keeps on disappearing and then reappearing whenever the script requires him to do something. Still, there are moments of genuine suspense, like when one character has to be rescued from a situation where a single thread held in her teeth is keeping a bow from skewering her with an arrow. And, far more than Gwendoline and Willard, we feel the relationship between Gwendoline and Beth – a character we want to know more about – and care.
There seems to be some commentary at romantic expectation and reality, stronger than in the same year’s Romancing The Stone. Gwendoline gazes at her knight in ‘not so white’ armour with rapture, yet he’s a selfish, greedy womaniser. When the two of them are in a prison cell, Willard grabs Gwendoline roughly and forces his lips on hers, which is both a ruse to get the guard to rush in where he can be overpowered and him showing Gwendoline exactly who he is [and maybe in a subconscious way trying to put her off] even more than she’s already seen. Yet a minute later when Willard is about to leave them, she prepares for a tender goodbye kiss – and gets one on the cheek. But that’s about as sophisticated as things get and the moment when Willard suddenly ‘sees the light’ is a real groaner, so obviously quickly written just to push the plot [so much as it is] forward. But Andre Domage’s cinematography does well by the various locales – despite his other limitations as a filmmaker all of Jaeckin’s films do look good. The music score by Jaeckin’s usual composer Pierre Bachelet, coming off like a melding of Michael Nyman with ‘80s Euro Pop, may not help with the dramatic or exciting aspects, but then the film wasn’t going for that approach anyway. Instead, it’s unashamedly cheesy and camp. Those two words are way overused, sometimes to inaccurate and infuriating lengths – for example I would not describe very few Hammer films that way even though some do. But Gwendoline is both of those things, and more in a good than a bad way. In the course of writing this review, I’ve come to the conclusion that Jaeckin was just having a lot of fun with this movie, and therefore intended many of the possibly ‘bad’ aspects. I think.