Byline: KAMAL AL-SOLAYLEE; Special to The Globe and Mail
Written and directed
by Anna Biller
Starring Anna Biller,
Jared Sanford and Bridget Brno
In Los Angeles circa 1972, two bored housewives discover the sexual revolution and make up for lost time spent in matrimonial servitude. Tired of pleasing their men, the brunette Barbi and the blond Sheila embark on an adventure of partner-swapping, nudist nature reserves and drug-addled orgies.
Changing their names to Candy and Viva, the two women meet a wily madam, a sugar daddy, a sadistic fashion photographer and that most depraved specimen of all mankind, a musical-theatre director.
That's all the storytelling you need to know about Anna Biller's debut feature, Viva, a "cult freak-out retro 1970s spectacle" that has been making the rounds of midnight-madness screenings at film festivals for more than a year. The American feature, shot from 2005 to 2007, is now getting a legitimate theatrical release, albeit a limited one.
It's not a movie without substance, by any means. For one thing, it is audaciously revisionist in its politics, using and abusing feminism and the liberationist promises of the sexual revolution at will. But its triumph is that of style - gloriously and revoltingly tacky style - over substance.
Or perhaps that should be substance through style. Part sly parody, part faithful re-creation of the sexploitation movies of the late sixties and early seventies, Viva indulges more than its heroines' sexual fantasies. In addition to writing, directing and starring as Barbi, Biller designed all the sets and costumes (not to mention writing the musical numbers and creating a psychedelic animation sequence).
Audiences are encouraged to think of Viva as a lost movie from the seventies, which is an intriguing but dangerous proposition. Even at their campiest best (or worst, depending), sexploitation flicks by the likes of Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger made a virtue of naturalizing the sexual ethos of the times. Despite all the stylization, there was a strong verite feel to their work.
Every last scene in Viva, by comparison, is directed and performed with a heightened level of self-consciousness. The cast - which includes Bridget Brno as Sheila and Chad England as Barbi's Ken-doll-like husband, Rick - becomes indistinguishable from the decor, dehumanized by too much mascara, too flimsy a negligee or too wide a tie. (Polyester fetishists will be in heaven by the end of the first reel.)
Of course, we're not meant to take it all seriously, but with a running time of two hours, that's a lot of mugging and intentionally banal dialogue to sit through. Even a film with the twin mantras of excess and indulgence could use another trip to the editing suite.
The plot twists start to betray Biller's short-film roots, with Viva unfolding like a series of loosely connected scenes. And in trying to tell the story in the glamorized language of liquor and cologne TV advertising from the seventies - the promise of a better sexual life with more acquisitions - Biller falls into the trap of overselling her own revisionist message.
That message comes loud and clear in Biller's own performance as Barbi/Viva. It's a deliberately joyless and hesitant turn, suggesting that sexual liberation doesn't necessarily guarantee personal fulfilment. Many women (and men) will disagree with Biller's conclusion, given the 35 years of hindsight she draws on.
But such ambivalence tempers the know-it-all feel of Viva and elevates it from an arch replica to a worthwhile critique of the sexploitation movies - and the era that made them happen.