Feminine Sexuality in Cinema (4/4) Belladonna of Sadness (1973)

In a series that has so far explored various live action Italian films from the ’60s, Belladonna of Sadness is the obvious black sheep. As improbable of an entry as it may be, I found this film shortly after Femina Ridens along with the various other Italian BDSM movies, so in my mind the two are inexorably linked. Similar to Femina, I found Belladonna indirectly thanks to the internet. In this case, I was browsing images on Google (I forget why) and stills from the movie came up. I thought they looked stunningly gorgeous, and I couldn’t believe they were from an animated film. I looked up the premise, which is that a woman sells her soul to the devil after getting raped by a nobleman, and I knew I had to see this thing. Now that I have, I’m pleased to say it has that same experimental spirit, the same bold sexual themes, and the same pro-feminist message as Ridens does.

As much as I enjoy it though, I do not actually have much to say this film. Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to write this post is because I couldn’t come up with a compelling hook for my review. I think this is due to the story being so straightforward, as well as the fact that this is just such a unique experience that it must be seen to be understood. So much of what stands out to me about it is the visuals, and it’s just better for you to see them yourself. I truly feel that everyone, especially animation fans, ought to watch Belladonna of Sadness at least once in their lives. I don’t expect everyone would enjoy it per se, (my boyfriend didn’t) but it’s just so unlike any other animated film that it will expand your appreciation for the craft. For me, it’s the same jubilant feeling I got when I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time, where I’d never seen anything like this before, I didn’t know movies could do things like this, and I left with a newfound amazement at what the medium was capable of. In fifty years, there’s still never been a movie made like it since, for better or worse, so now it exists as a permanent monument to a road not taken in the industry.

Sadly, the copyright holders for this film are incredibly draconian, so there are basically no scenes of the actual film on YouTube: just trailers. You’d think with a niche obscurity that’s 50 years old they’d appreciate a little free publicity and viral marketing, but apparently not. Sometimes greedy corporations get in their own way.

The Most Beautiful Woman Ever Drawn

Belladonna is almost certainly the most unusual animated film I’ve ever seen. In many extended sequences, there actually is no animation at all, only still images. Often the drawings are presented on large canvases which the camera slowly pans over with accompanying narration or dialogue. This may sound lazy, but because the animators do not have to worry about drawing movement for 30 frames a second, they can spend their energy making the pictures as highly detailed as possible. Often, the characters are rendered using a watercolor style unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a motion picture. I would hazard a guess that the most beautiful frames ever in an animated movie are contained within the runtime of Belladonna–it is among the most visually spectacular films I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. I know I’m saying the same thing a dozen different ways, but I really cannot emphasize enough how impressive the illustrations are. They are worth the price of admission alone.

Not only is the art style absolutely brilliant, the character designs are truly inspired too…for the most part. I love the titular Belladonna’s (Jeanne’s) character model; you’d be hard pressed to find even one scene where she doesn’t look absolutely adorable. The lord and lady of the manor are very well drawn too, I especially love how the former looks like a living corpse wearing a crown of bones. (Perfect symbolic depiction of a blood sucking aristocrat, if you ask me.) The court attendant (who has a crush on the noblewoman) is appropriately small and ridiculous looking, with a puffy tuft of pink hair and matching complexion. His stature mirrors his impotency in the story, and his jester-like appearance contrasts appropriately with the scary looking knights around him. I cannot offer the same praise to Jeanne’s husband (Jean), who looks kinda dopey and plain. (Maybe that was the point?) The devil initially looked really cool when he appears to Jeanne the first two times as a penis-shaped trickster figure. Unfortunately, during Satan’s climactic scene in the film, when he takes Jeanne both carnally and spiritually as his partner, he reverts to a very bland vampire-looking design. There is nothing creative or intimidating about Satan’s appearance in this final form, and for a movie that’s otherwise so audacious, that really bothered me. I would have loved to see some lion-serpent Yaldabaoth or seven-headed Beast of Revelation type shit rendered in this art style and it’s a shame the filmmakers seemingly had so much imagination except when it came to this crucial figure in the story.

I just mentioned the scene where Satan joins carnally and spiritually with Jeanne, which is certainly the most memorable of the entire narrative. Without discussing plot details (see next section) this sequence is notable for its lysergic, fast-paced animation which sits in stark contrast to anything that’s come before. While the devil is having his way with our protagonist, a series of seemingly random, Yellow Submarine esque imagery begins to flash onscreen, including contemporary and surreal figures. It can only be described as a fever dream, the point in the movie which stoners time their highs around. If I were to hazard a guess, I believe the people we see flashing on screen are meant to represent the devil’s influence in the world: the film is insinuating that he is largely responsible for our modern culture. (I think.) This kick-starts a trio of similar psychedelic montages, the other two depicting the black death as a bunch of amorphous shadow creatures and a wild orgy under the influence of Jeanne’s hallucinogenic garden. These scenes are easily as trippy as anything in The Wall, The Thief and the Cobbler or Fantastic Planet. They are a welcome bit of fun in what is otherwise an unrelentingly tragic story.

The Story & What It Means to Me

Belladonna‘s story is a mixed bag for me, and I’ll address criticisms first. The narrative is incredibly straightforward and relies a lot on montages and voiceover narration to explain the events going on. We don’t get very much of Jeanne’s internal thoughts, her feelings towards others, or doubts as to whether she’s doing the right thing aligning with Lucifer. She’s a passive character whom things just kind of happen to, and things continuously get worse for her in a sort of misery porn. While not necessarily a bad thing, there’s also very little overt humor to offset the bleak story, so viewing the film can be more than a little daunting if you’re not in the right mood. In 1.5 years, I’ve watched this movie four times and I have never gleamed any new insight from it beyond what I got in my first viewing. That’s incredibly unusual for me when it comes to dramas and art films, so I think that speaks more to Belladonna‘s lack of nuance or multilayered theming.

That being said, the misery porn is kind of the point, since this film is all about the plight of women in medieval society. Notice how our poor heroine can just never win no matter what she does. When she follows society’s expectations of how a good virginal maid ought to be, she is rewarded by being publicly raped and humiliated by her lord. When she tries to enter man’s domain and earn an honest living for herself as a seamstress, she draws the ire of the noble lady and is attacked by an angry mob. When she gains magical abilities from Satan and starts solving everyone’s problems with her magic plants, she is burned at the stake as a witch. No matter how useful Jeanne tries to make herself to others, she just can’t please the powerful men around her. This culminates in the various women watching Jeanne’s execution becoming inspired by her sacrifice. The film’s final montage explains that this rebellious spirit would see women rise up to lead the French Revolution against the very system which destroyed their beloved icon. I always interpreted the feminine chants of “Belladonna…” in the film’s opening to represent the women repeating her story after death. They didn’t know her name so they referred to her, the mother of female defiance, simply as “belladonna.” This theme is very well telegraphed to the viewer, and while a bit too on the nose, I always get a chill up my spine when I see the ending.

While Jeanne suffers, her husband offers little assistance. This is the man who tried to honor kill his wife via strangulation after she came home from a gang rape which he knows was not her fault. (I mean, is it ever?) This is a man who squanders every opportunity to get ahead and provide for a better life for his wife. He is either too apathetic or drunk to shield his wife from the mob, much less look for her after she flees the village. He only seeks her out on the orders of the lord, as bait to get her to return to the village. Jean was never worthy of Jeanne, he represents every lousy marriage which countless women were forced to remain in before divorce was destigmatized. In a lonely, miserable world, the only person who bothers to comfort Jeanne at all is Satan himself. In many ways, this is meant to show that it’s our society that was (is?) the real evil, that women turned to witchcraft because they had no other alternative. I have to say, as a lover of theology, I really liked this conception of how the devil operates, where he can only thrive in a cruel world where people are allowed to fall through the cracks. Lonely, resentful souls are his fuel, and the world we live in churns out an awful lot of them.

Lately, I’ve been having some fun playing around with ideas for pseudo-Christian and Gnostic religious movements, and it’s interesting how much Belladonna inspired me in this regard. She’s pretty much a perfect archetype for the moonchild I’ve described at length before, an innocent victim of our broken civilization. I love her enchanted garden, full of impossible herbs and fruits of knowledge with the power to solve all humanity’s troubles if we only left women to their devices. It’s such a wonderful set piece, a genuinely hopeful place in a world of brutality. This final iteration of Jeanne was almost certainly an intentional reference to the old polytheistic goddesses’ sacred groves, a distinctly female theology which was sadly wiped out by the advent of orthodox Christianity. I truly believe that with the erasure of proto-Judaism’s Asherah and proto-Christianity’s rejection of the Gnostic aeon Sophia (who was even a member of the Trinity in some sects) society left women with no role models or sense of belonging to their own culture. This, I feel, has had disastrous consequences for us all ever since, and Belladonna seeks to address the most egregious of them. It’s definitely a profound concept that needed to be explored, and certainly a more revolutionary one 50 years ago when the movie was released.

Possibly the single biggest WTF moment in cinematic history, and I’ve seen enough weird obscurities over the years to know. It’d be crazy on its own, but when you consider that nothing that came before in the film is drawn like this, that this very serious story is suddenly spitting wacky cartoon anachronisms at you, it hits so much harder.

2 Comments

  1. We have talked about this movie before. Some of the art is beautiful, but it is not in an animation style I like. I also have difficulty relating to the theme and plot of the movie. Glad you found a movie you like. It just does not fit my taste or interests.

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  2. That closing video is something else, with some fantastic music to boot. I can imagine this film might become an obsession! “The road not taken” can yield fascinating results. Thank you for this. Crazy that it’s nowhere to be found online.

    Like

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