A week ago, while visiting my aunt in NYC, I was torn between two (potentially) once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The first was scheduled for Friday night: a revival screening of possibly the coolest movie ever, Ken Russel’s The Devils. (Part of Lincoln Center’s now-over “Russelmania” festival.) Not only was this a chance to view this delirious slice of retro-debauchery (a nightmare collision of high-art pretense and sleazy nunsploitation) on the big screen but the film would be followed by a Q-and-A with the director himself, infamous “bad boy of British cinema” Ken Russel. (By the way, why the hell was Altered States not on the festival roster?) Finally, this living legend would answer the important questions:
“In which scenes was Oliver Reed drunk off his noggin?”
“Did you get lucky with any of the nuns?”
“Just what was the gunk in the clysters?”
(Not sure what a clyster is? Dust off your dictionary and get hip.)
But I had prior engagements. I had tickets to the My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult/Lords of Acid show in Philly, which was the next day. (A really fun show, incidentally.) If I were a more awesome dude, I could have caught the movie that night, then bussed back to PA the next day to pick up my friends and hit the concert. But I’m only human, and a pretty lame one at that, and lame humans need sleep.
However, I did have time to catch that afternoon’s Russelmania matinee, the 1969 screen adaptation of Women In Love, starring a quartet of well-respected English actors (three of whom I’d never heard of). I didn’t know this at the time, but Women In Love was a novel by D. H. Lawrence, who was infamous in his day for his sexual subject matter. Not that being offensive was difficult in the 1920s, when female orgasm was still viewed as a symptom of demonic possession, and semen was called “the devil’s jelly.” (I’m joking, of course. The ‘20s were actually quite debauched, what with the flappers, the bathtub hooch, and cars with properly big back seats.) So, Women In Love was inspired by a Roaring ‘20s smut-rag and directed by film-land’s trippiest art-house pervert. It has to be awesome, right?
Ever eavesdrop on a couple yammering about their relationship? How long can you tolerate their inane cutesy-wutesy twaddle before you lose interest? Your answer will probably determine your tolerance for Women In Love. Admittedly, there are some variables that may cause you (that is, me) to listen in a little longer. If they’re arguing about their troubled sex lives, that’s an extra 30 seconds. If they are well-heeled, quasi-bisexual Edwardian toffs, 60 seconds. If they’re naked? Hell, you’ve got an extra five-minutes. Impress me.
Women In Love follows the amorous exploits of sisters Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden), and their wealthy boy-toys, Gerald (Oliver Reed) and Rupert (Alan Bates). Well, “exploits” may be too strong a word, since the plot is comprised, mostly of social gatherings, picnics, weddings, and vacations. This meandering non-story makes “Pride And Prejudice” looks as focused and concise as Die Hard.
In most movies, plot (a heist, or murder, or space-voyage) drives the film while theme and message ride shotgun. In more pretentious, snob-friendly fare, the plot takes the back seat, leaving characters to slog through existential quagmires and petty crises without the burden of doing anything. Women In Love bashes the plot with a tire-iron, hogties it, and locks it in the trunk. Instead, we get an endless barrage of deep thoughts and philosophical riddles, dissecting the nature of love and desire. It’s cute at first, but at 131 minutes, it becomes an endurance test. Despite the book’s erotic reputation, the characters spend far more time picking each-other’s brains then bumping their Shakespearian-trained uglies.
So is Women In Love a joyless husk, empty of warmth and entertainment? Not quite. There are some oases in this dry, dry desert of a movie. For one, thing the cinematography is GORGEOUS. Also, Russel throws in just a dash of his trademark surreality, such as a scene where Gudrun (in some demented, trance-like search for “one pure experience”—a common pursuit in this movie) ballet dances through a herd of increasingly nervous cattle. Through the magic of score and camera-work, this silly act becomes painfully tense. I half-expected her to be gored by a ballet-hating, Philistine steer, and have the other characters explain it in Freudian terms of phallic symbolism.
Speaking of sexual symbols, Alan Bates delivers a scrumptiously inappropriate monologue on how to properly eat a fig. “The fissure, the Yoni, the wonderful, moist conductivity towards the center.” And, of course, there’s the infamous scene of Bates and Reed wrestling, naked, in a lavish sitting room, before a roaring fire. (For you penis-enthusiasts out there, Women In Love features a ground-breaking display of thespian willies.)
All the performances are good (Glenda Jackson got an Oscar for hers), but Women In Love (like all films) belongs to Oliver Reed. If you crossbred Marlon Brando, Claude Rains, and a trained bear, you’d get Oliver Reed. Built like a barrel, covered with a bristling pelt, sweating charisma from every pore. Of course his performance is hammy, but what else can you expect from this glowering, seething, pot-belly stove of desire and fury.
If you like erotic costume dramas, but find Dangerous Liaisons a bit too action-packed, then Women in Love might be your cup of tea (best served in fine china and drunk with your pinky-finger sticking out). Actually, scratch the tea analogy; films like this are best paired with some wine-flavored swill, drunk straight from the bottle, very late at night, alone, until your exasperation melts into sympathy and your twinging heart-strings resonate to the lilting legato symphony of images swimming before your eyes, until the film’s beauty overwhelms you and you start blubbering into your tub of ice-cream.
Actually, on second thought, isn’t that the best way to watch any movie?
Entertainment Value: 2 ½ vagina-figs.
Snob Appeal: 4 antique chairs.