Gwendoline
France | 1984
Directed by Just Jaeckin
Starring
Tawny Kitaen
Brent Huff
Zabou Breitman
Color
| 105 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Severin Films
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Gwendoline on DVD
Jaeckin's most famous film
   
 
5
    8   10 = Highest Rating  
Guest Review by Jon Allen
Not just for cult fanatics, Just Jaeckin's Gwendoline is something of a mixed bag... but that's not to say that the film lacks merit. With a comic flair that enhances the overall silliness, the film somehow works on the level of pure entertainment. Like it or not, that's all it really needs.
    Jaeckin, famous for his '70s softcore international hits Emmanuelle and The Story of O, made his last film (1984) with the idea that the sensuality and soft-focus erotica of the previous decade's work would not find its way into Gwendoline without detailing an affable adventure movie first and foremost. Adapted, albeit mostly in name only, from the fetishist/bondage comic strip by John Willie, the film (known in the U.S. as The Perils of Gwendoline In The Land Of The Yik Yak) sketches the naive, virginal 'damsel in distress' character whose clothes are always torn, and who might as well be running through the jungle in stiletto heels and fishnet stockings.
    As many have noted, Gwendoline is like a cross between Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the lumbering, sophomoric comic qualities of 1980's Flash Gordon. And it starts out that way, at least, with Jaeckin taking us into the middle of the action. We are introduced to Gwendoline almost right away; she and her faithful friend Beth (actress and director Zabou Breitman) escape a convent and find themselves in China with the hope of finding the incredibly rare butterfly that Gwendoline's father had obsessed over. Tawny Kitaen, made 'famous' later on as Tom Hanks' would-be bride in Bachelor Party as well as her appearances in the MTV videos for hair metal practitioners Whitesnake, is at the mercy of a bad script and carries some baggage but also a very discernible lack of talent. While she most definitely can be somewhat lauded for her effort in Jaeckin's film, she ultimately is a failure, almost as if there were a hyper-realized vision as Willie's comic strip character, a mental adolescent who cannot think for herself, a girl/woman who desperately wants to be with a man but knows little about how they communicate or what they are after. Still, it gets better.
    After being discovered by Chinese gangsters on a loading dock, Beth and Gwendoline are turned over to a crime boss who will sell them for money. However, the two are serendipitously saved by Willard (Brent Huff of Nine Deaths of the Ninja), a man who's after money owed to him by this same crime boss. He unwillingly rescues the two, but wants nothing to do with them; he's committed to the shady underworld scene he calls home. Gwendoline and Beth want to search for the former's vanished butterfly-hunting father, and they collectively bribe Willard into helping them venture into Yik Yak, a land few enter and where Gwendoline's father disappeared. Early on in their journey, they discover through a colleague of Gwendoline's father that he had been sacrificed by a savage tribe to appease ancient wind spirits. Willard seems ready to turn back, but the fearlessness of Gwendoline and Beth shame him into continuing the trek.
    It's in the first 45 minutes or so that we're served notice of the total lack of enthusiasm on Willard's behalf. Of course, this friction is necessary to move the story along; Jaeckin hopes to underline their budding relationships with a steady dose of humor. A scene in which Willard, leading the others through a jungle, actually convinces the women to remove their shirts in an effort to use the garments to capture valuable drinking water during a rainstorm is completely unnecessary, yet funny and politically incorrect, as it highlights what kind of man Willard is and how willing his nubile female companions are. It may be Jaeckin's intention to depict a flimsily realized heroine, blindly attracted to Willard, but it ultimately dates the film, as Willard and Gwendoline make advances on each other and yet operate on two wildly different metaphysical and emotional planes: Willard, the brute, and Gwendoline, the child. Willard is especially confusing, as he seemingly despises Gwendoline and yet, almost clinically and contradictory to his nature, desires her in some carnal, passionate way, as if he has every intention of deflowering a convent escapee from the beginning. (She is Tawny Kitaen, it must be said.) Somehow, these two are comparable to the relationship of Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, ripe with comic machismo and an unnerving attraction that's bound to be consummated in the end.
    Still, what makes it work is the change of locale. Jaeckin lacks a real energy in direction and obviously can't get the best from his actors, but the exotic scenery and beautifully shot images allow the three to move with relative ease to their final destination, all while maintaining a weirdly compassionate relationship in the face of danger. The above-average production values are something to commend and the music, while also dated, suits the proceedings well. Sounding almost like post-New Wave symphonic Europop, it compliments the more action-packed scenes and gives the film an almost Brechtian grandeur.
    An hour in, the threesome escape the same jungle tribe that sealed the fate of Gwendoline's father and descend into a huge fissure in the earth. Here they discover he fabled butterfly but, at virtually the same moment, Beth is kidnapped (again), this time by a leather bikini-clad female soldier from an underground (literally) empire of Amazons ruled by an evil queen (buxom Bernadette LaFont)
a world of torture devices and fetishistic costumes influenced by the designs of Fritz Lang and H.R. Geiger. The Queen's domain is a converted cave above an ancient volcano that, according to legend, will one day erupt and loose a fabulous treasure in diamonds embedded at its core.
    The last half hour of Gwendoline is a visual masterpiece, even if many of its set-pieces are clumsy. Jaeckin again is distressingly off-kilter with his direction; the legend that dictates the Queen's kingdom is confusing, but he allows enough room for slapstick action that these missteps are almost forgivable. Towards the end, we are fully aware that with Gwendoline having to save Willard (and Beth) from the peril of the Queen via a bout with the Queen's warriors, our leads are invariably in love. The fast pacing and frequent injections of comic relief (as unsuccessful as some of them are) permit the viewer to thoroughly enjoy the interactions of the fearless trio.
    Gwendoline is not without its faults. The acting is stiff and Jaeckin, quite honestly, is better suited for the film as a cinematographer. But it's fun, and as a cult film it succeeds with room to spare, due to the humor, intentional or not, as well as the laughably inconsistent line readings and performances. For a film with such a proud display of relative sleaze and exploitation standbys (gratuitous nudity, awful dialogue and even worse dubbing, bad fight scenes), it plays almost like a real adventure film
especially in the film's last quarter, the 'chariot race' scene in particular. The music, exotic locales, and beautiful camera work are enough to make it worth watching again. And what comes across more than anything are the aural and visual pleasures; even the interplay between Willard, Beth, and Gwendoline is entertaining. Apparently, what's missing from the original release is not softcore melodrama, but rather, an abundance of fight scenes that are happily restored in this, the director's cut. It only gives notice to a film that strives for instant Euro-action status, one that can be viewed over and over with the fun of a comic adventure on which it's loosely based.

Released by Severin in June 2006, the Gwendoline DVD contains a beautiful anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer (the colors are simply breathtaking) and two first-class 5.1 audio options, French and (dubbed) English. The disc's special features chiefly the on-camera interview of Jaeckin and his audio commentary are designed, in some ways, to give the impression that the movie has enough grace to elevate it beyond cultdom. It's evident that the director is proud of his last film although fully aware of its inherent faults. In the interview featurette he discusses his plans to make an adventure film that would, or could, be seen as a separate entity from his softcore works of the 1970s. Jaeckin reveals that they were able to stretch out the relatively small budget farther than initially planned, allowing for additional spending on some of the production and props in the film's second half. Contained in the commentary is some interesting info concerning Tawny Kitaen not related to the production of Gwendoline, as well as the pictures from her Lui magazine layout inspired by the movie. The stills, taken by Jaeckin and presented in gallery form on this disc, serve notice of the gaudiness of the film but also his strengths as a photographer. The commentary is of special note because Jaeckin does not override the movie with superfluous chatter but rather lets the viewer pay close attention and enjoy the film as he injects certain insights with appropriate timing.
    The most interesting feature, and perhaps the most difficult, is the Kinsey Institute interview with John Willie, recorded in 1962, in the last year of his life. Willie was noted for his work on Sweet Gwendoline but also his love of alcohol. He had by this time developed a brain tumor, and that is perhaps why the man sounds virtually possessed, knowing possibly that he was in his final stages. He sounds thoroughly inebriated while intimating his love of women
specifically naive women in heels and stockings, always in trouble and how his interest in fetishism informed many of his adolescent experiences. It's 43 minutes of poorly recorded sound, but also something of a revelation: a man aware of his demons and accomplishments and yet one who might not have been conscious of his own cult status. 12/15/07

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