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Archive for November 2016

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No. 21 –Viva (Anna Biller, 2007)

So far in this project, I’ve watched some good films, some interesting films, some disappointing films and some legit travesties. Viva is the first film that I really loved. And I really loved it. Like, run out and buy the dvd loved it. Like, drag my boyfriend in from another room and force him to watch clips on youtube loved it. Like, stress about the terrible ineffective ineloquent blog post I’m about to write about it loved it. I’m not sure what I could write that would live up to the beauty and fabulousness of this film. So let’s see how this turns out…

Viva is an extraordinarily dedicated recreation of the 1970s sexploitation movies with a feminist twist. Written, directed and starring Anna Biller, she demonstrates an eye for mise-en-scene that makes Wes Anderson look like an underachieving house painter. Biller plays Barbi, a bored wife recently fired as a secretary for refusing to give it up to her sleazy boss, who undertakes a journey of sexual awakening. Her psychedelic adventures, full of wife swapping, nudist camps and orgies are kitschy more than kinky, and cheeky rather than hardcore, but underneath there’s a chill. Biller’s mission statement is to engage the sexploitation format from a woman’s perspective, with all the dangers that entails. After all, the sexual revolution was far more successful for men than women, who are still fighting the same slut/prude labels to this day.

Barbi is a passive personality, eager to escape mundane suburbia by playing whatever role a more commanding influence suggests. We see her first lounging with her neighbours, blushing as her more daring neighbour Sheila flicks through a copy of Playboy, then talked into a modelling shoot by Mark, Sheila’s lascivious husband. Barbi’s husband Rick is loving but aloof, and often away on business, leaving Barbi to the mercy of her curiosity and attempts to engage wither own desires. Egged on by Sheila, who wants a rich older man who will buy her things, Barbi gradually explores her sensual power, firstly as a model, then recruited as a prostitute, rechristening herself as the cool, confident, liberated Viva.

All of which sounds quite sordid and heavy, but the film is hugely enjoyable. Aside from the look of the film, which is filled with rich colours and extraordinary sets, the film’s dialogue and characters are a frothy delight. Think men in moustaches and speed suits, camp leering at nudist colonies and swinging orgies, Swedish musclemen popping over to borrow sugar and bizarre music interludes dedicated to fine whiskey. Jared Sanford in particular is a joy as the sleazy Rick, all wide eyes and wider lapels. The language is stagey and the acting mannered to the point of wooden, evidence of the film’s dedication to authentically recreating the amateurish sexploitation performances rather than a reflection of the talents of Biller’s cast. There’s little wonder that some people view Biller’s film as a satire on 1970s kitsch.

But there is a more subversive edge to Viva. Dazzled as we are by the look of the film, and the snickering enjoyment of scenes with nudist colonies and camp hairdressers, and the musical number where Sheila frolics with a white horse while shilling whiskey, there are moments – accurate to the sexploitation genre – that turn the stomach of the modern viewer. One encounter sees Barbi drugged and waking up beside another man. Later in the film she is explicitly raped by a partner she has repeatedly refused to sleep with until she is ready, leading to one of the most striking sequences in the film, as the camera’s focus switches back and forth between Barbi’s face and black-red apples in time with her breath, followed by a nightmarish, psychedelic animation of apples and kaleidoscopic imagery, then back to Viva’s face as blood runs down the camera. She wakes up surrounded by naked bodies and leaves, appalled – not what at she did, but that she wasn’t able to do it on her terms. And then the film moves on, and the audience is expected to move on too (as the 1970s viewers would have), but something lingers, not only in us, but in Barbi. None of the men she encounters are any better than her boss at the start of the film. No matter how liberated she is, Barbi is still vulnerable to the whims of men, and their prioritising their own desire over her well-being. Even her husband rejects her after the attack.

Barbi is an unusual character for a protagonist. At first she seems like an innocent, but there’s more to it than that. She has a deliberate blankness (recalling Catherine Deneuve’s character in Belle Du Jour), peacefully existing as a wife and secretary until her husband and boss let her down in different ways. Her attempts at exploring freedom and experiencing pleasure beyond the social norm are similarly disappointing due to the greed of her sexual partners, and so she returns to Rick and their suburban life but now she is cynical and silent, observing her companions with a raised eyebrow and a contemptuous look. Finally we see Barbi preparing for a musical performance, and it’s a celebration that she is at last able to tell her own story in her own terms, but as ever, there’s an undercurrent, as Barbi is fussed over by her male producers. A woman’s sexuality is only acceptable if it can be commodified for the benefit or titillation of men.

All of which makes Viva sound as harrowing a watch as Irréversible. This is entirely untrue. Viva is fizzy and decadent and witty, Biller cleverly playing with irony and meta-humour and just plain silliness. Mark happily exclaims at one point, “there’s never been a better time to be a man,” adding, practically to camera, “enjoy it – it will never happen again.” Rick and Barbi’s biggest fight ends with him flamboyantly, awkwardly exiting with altogether too much skiing gear. And the frequent references to White Horse Whiskey, who is Biller’s 1970s world is clearly funding the film.

Biller objects to the idea that Viva is a sexploitation spoof. We watch with an ironic eye, but Biller in sincere in her love for this era of cinema, its aesthetic and technical styles (the film was made on sound stages with era-appropriate sound recording), and further, Biller is sincere in her concern for Barbi’s journey and her suspicion of the “freedom” of the sexual revolution. Pleasingly, Biller has released her follow-up this year, The Love Witch, an equally lush production with hints of the occult. Hopefully it won’t be so long before Biller makes another film, because we need filmmakers like her. Anna Biller is something special.