Friday, 4 June 2010

Roxanna (1970)

It was a common enough strategy in the 60s and 70s to try to avoid censorship problems with erotic films (and other exploitation movies) by giving them “redeeming social value.” This usually took the form of dire warnings about the horrific consequences of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and everything else that makes life fun. Nick Millard took this to something of an extreme, his 1970 film Roxanna being a case in point.

Millard (credited here as Nick Phillips) gives us another of his extraordinarily harrowing tales of excess and self-destruction. One can’t help feeling that in Millard’s case it wasn’t just a pose to placate the moral watchdogs, that in fact Millard’s view of the 60s and 70s really was as bleak as his movies suggest.

Roxanna is a young woman consumed by her sexual obsessions. She seeks out every form of sexual deviance, from lesbianism to sex with transvestites to shoe fetishism. Her sexual excess is accompanied by excess in every other possible area. Rather than being liberated she finds herself trapped in a never-ending cycle of pleasure that comes at a price.

There’s very little in the way of plot, and there’s no synchronised dialogue, only an occasional voiceover narration. Millard doesn’t need anything else. He tells Roxanna’s story entirely by visual means.

Sexploitation movies of this era required at least a modicum of acting ability from their stars. In some cases the acting is truly awful while in others it’s surprisingly good. In this case the performance of Louise Thompson in the title role is quite remarkable. Roxanna’s gradual disintegration is moving and at times quite horrifying. The scenes where she’s twitching as if she’s being torn apart from inside are quite difficult to watch. While movies like this might have been aimed mainly at a grindhouse audience the odd thing is that very often titillation is combined with sheer existential horror.

Sexploitation icon Uschi Digard appears as one of Roxanna’s lesbian lovers, while Lynn Harris (who gave a fine performance in Millard’s later Pleasures of a Woman) plays Roxanna’s final lover, Patricia, who takes excess every bit as far as Roxanna does.

The Retro-Seduction Cinema DVD, in common with most of their releases, includes a host of extremely interesting extras. An all-too-brief interview with the eccentric but entertaining 42nd Street Pete (a walking encyclopaedia of 1960/1970s sexploitation and erotica) is a highlight.

And there are no less than two other short movies on the disc, including Seduction Cinema’s 2002 remake of Roxanna. They did this with several other of Nick Millard’s films, including Pleasures of a Woman. The idea of remaking 70s sexploitation/softcore might seem pointless since much of the fascination of the genre is its time capsule quality but surprisingly these modern versions are nowhere near as bad as you might expect. In fact they’re not bad at all. Misty Mundae relishes the opportunity to do some real acting and her performance is quite effective.

But it’s the original 1970 version of Roxanna that is the main reason to buy this DVD. Millard’s despairing vision of the hangover that followed the binge of the sexual revolution is depressing but makes its point. There’s more than enough sex and nudity to have kept the grindhouse audience satisfied. Modern audiences will be more interested by the overwhelming pessimism combined with a certain degree of sympathy for a woman drawn irresistibly towards the abyss.

Very few mainstream Hollywood movies have ever dared to be quite so unrelentingly bleak.

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