Thursday, June 16, 2011


Pola Rapaport, 2004

As I've previously mentioned, I've been branching out lately and watching a lot of documentaries. Typically, the subjects are already of interest to me and, in the case of
Writer of O, of great interest. The novel, Story of O or Histoire d'O, was published in France in the mid-'50s under the nom de plume Pauline Reage. It is an erotic novel about one woman, the titular O, and her love-inspired journey through a world of dominance and submission. She agrees to a number of tortures and violations to prove her love for her boyfriend. Shocking and pornographic, though with a strong literary merit, the novel's authorship remained a mystery until fairly recently. Writer of O is the story of the real author, her life, and why the novel was written.

Story of O is another important work of fiction that helped shape my existence as a writer, reader, and critic. I first encountered it when I was sixteen or so, post-Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher Masoch, and was suitably impressed and surprised. Though Sade opened my eyes to a world of extreme perversions and the sublimely political power of subversion, Story of O presents the world of dominance and submission in a more realistic light, adding a uniquely personal perspective and an almost religious desire for personal obliteration and oblivion.

The people interviewed in Writer of O seem to be of a similar mind. They all speak of the novel reverently. Time is not wasted discussing the merit of a potentially pornographic work, rather writer and director Pola Rapaport spends most of the film exploring the identity of Pauline Reage and her motivations behind the racy novel. It turns out the author is none other than Anne Desclos, though she was more frequently known in post-War Paris as Dominique Aury.

In an interview with John de St Jorre for The New Yorker and later for his book Venus Bound: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press, which also includes chapters about the allegedly pornographic novels published by other literary figures like Nabokov and Henry Miller, Aury finally came out to the public, almost forty years after the novel was first published. During her younger years, she was a member of the inner circle of the illustrious Gallimard Publishers and became a literary figure herself. She was an obsessive reader and rose quickly above her position as secretary to become a respected critic, writer, and jury member. Her boss and lover, Jean Paulhan, initially spawned the genesis of Story of O when he told Aury that a woman could not write a successful erotic novel. Coupled with the fact that the unmarried Aury struggled to find a way to keep her married lover and renew their relationship, she wrote Story of O for him in a series of love letters. He, in turn, was delighted and soon saw to the novel's publication and included its introduction, "Happiness in Slavery."

That's probably the most romantic thing I've ever heard of, which is really where the power of the story comes across. Writing is a soothing and calming activity for me, particularly because it is a way to express emotions I otherwise ignore, so I definitely empathized with Aury. Despite the fact that she was in her late seventies during the time of the interviews, she spoke with a whimsy and frankness that made the younger author of O shine out. Ultimately the documentary reminded me why I write: to experience passion, regardless of the form.

Overall the documentary is sadly bland. It's a mixture of interviews, shots of scenery from around France, reenactments of Aury's life, past interviews, and reenactments of the novel itself.
I can't help but feel that most of the material Rapaport has to work with is literary. Writer of O would make a much better book than it would a documentary and it frequently seems like she is grasping at straws. The reenactments are silly and the adapted scenes from Story of O would be better replaced by clips from the various feature length adaptations already in existence.

Though I almost always neglect to mention this in my reviews, the documentary is in English and French with subtitles. It was released by Zeitgeist films and contains few extras, namely some interview footage with John de St Jorre. It's really only of interest for people who love the novel and either have not read St Jorre's book or want to see interviews with Aury. Finally, though the advertising and reviews refer to it as an "adults only" documentary, I would put it closer to PG13 than R. Particularly if we're considering Graphic Sexual Horror as rated NC-17. There is some nudity and sexually suggestiveness in Writer of O, but that's about it.

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