At the risk of overcooking a review, I can state with no degree of insanity that Andrew Repasky McElhinney’s new feature “Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye” is a new landmark in underground cinema. The film is an artistic assault on both the senses and sensibility. Mixing equal parts of surrealism, eroticism and silliness into a vibrant package rich with lush cinematography and a challenging soundtrack, is a brilliant achievement that demands attention and challenges the audience in a way that few films today can even dare to achieve.
McElhinney was last seen with his 2001 film “A Chronicle of Corpses.” While I was not a fan of that work (a strange 18th century slasher flick that seemed like “Dementia 13” chopped into “Barry Lyndon”), the film had ardent supporters including Dave Kehr of the New York Times, who pegged it for his Top 10 list. If anything, “A Chronicle of Corpses” was a stylish and original production and it showed that McElhinney had a gift for filmmaking.
Well, his gift has blossomed with “Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye.” Inspired in spirit (but not content) by the French theorist’s once-scandalous 1929 novella (intertitles from the book are flashed on screen between sequences), the film is a tapestry of wild images which are mature in more ways than one.
The opening scene comes from a 1950s medical training film that shows childbirth, which is obviously the ultimate result of love-making. The film then switches to a gaudy setting which may be a nightclub or may be a private home. A phonograph is playing a Fred Astaire record with candles perched in a diamond formation on the record. On a stage are two women in a demented burlesque routine: they have oversized top hats covering their heads and shoulders and faces painted on their bare torsos (their breasts have become eyes, their navels have become mouths), and their slender legs sport tacky fishnet stockings. As they tap dance in this bizarre show, a young Johnny Depp look-alike plays with a joystick, as if he is controlling the stage action. The joystick is then replaced with his own home-grown joystick. When the routine has ended, the Johnny Depp knockoff is having dinner alone at a sumptuous table while one of the women plays piano in the nude. A black man in leather fetish (complete with a whip and handcuffs dangling from his belt) acts as butler, but then goes to answer the door and finds a young blonde sailor.
What happens next will probably cause more than a few people to leave any screening of this film: the leather daddy strips the sailor, ties him to a bed, and begins to indulge in actions which the authors of the Book of Leviticus labeled as a definite no-no. The Johnny Depp ringer interrupts the action with a shotgun. From there, we find one of the dancing women emerging from a toilet stall with a bloodied bandage wrapped around her eyes. It looks as if she has been blinded and she walks with outstretched hands in search of physical guidance from her environment. She finds and dons a top hat, which is fetching — although it might have been more practical to find a shirt, as her upper torso is naked. She stumbles about and trips over a dog cage where the other dancer is curled up with a long chain around her neck. Opening the cage door, the women are reunited and begin to slowly undress each other. The first woman’s bandage is removed and there is a sense of relief since she has not been blinded. The two women then make love in a long, long, long sequence. Clearly the actresses were having fun since they frequently find it difficult to keep straight faces. By the time this is over, the Johnny Depp fella takes the long chain and pulls the caged woman out of the room and into another adventure behind a closed door.
The next part of the film takes avant-garde filmmaking to a new height. It is morning and the club/mansion is shown in the sunlight to be a rundown, decrepit place. The caged woman enters wearing a negligee and sporting a comically dark black eye. She is smoking a cigarette and looks feverish. She walks across a dirty, litter-thick floor and up a long staircase to a lonely landing, then down a dark hall.
And then, that shot is repeated again. From a slightly different angle, but with the same set-up and conclusion. And then again. And then again. And then again. And then again. It almost seems like the classic “Gong Show” episode when all of the contestants came on to sing “Feelings” — until the end of the show when the audience lost whatever feelings it may have possessed. The woman finally comes into a lonely room where two dogs are roaming freely. She looks out of the window and speaks the only line of dialogue in this film: “Jackie! Jackie! Jackie O!” We then see what she is viewing outside of the window: Jackie Kennedy, all pretty in pink, captured on film by Abraham Zapruder as she is riding in a Dallas motorcade with her president husband past a certain grassy knoll. The woman turns away from this sight, pulls up her negligee, urinates on the floor and becomes hysterical.
Elsewhere in the house, the other woman is sitting in a dirty corner smoking a cigarette. She pulls off her shirt and reveals a long scar on her stomach. After feeling herself, she extinguishes the cigarette on her arm.
The film ends with a three-way between the women and the Johnny Depp character. They are all naked and, quite frankly, don’t look very attractive. Their skin tone is pallid, their enthusiasm for the sexcapade is mechanical, and one of the women actually starts coughing after giving oral gratification. The film flashes an intertitle with a rich line from Bataille: “Arranging narrative is a bourgeois mania.” And then the Johnny Depp fella sends us off with a money shot right into the camera (in a moment that will make all of us thank God this was not a 3D film!).
It would be easy to dismiss “Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye” as deranged pornography. The film is too artistic in its composition and execution to ever be mistaken as XXX filth. The color sequences, with rich cobalt and fiery crimson shadings, is among the finest DV cinematography I’ve ever seen and the soundtrack’s wild blend of ominous music and innocent-yet-sinister everyday sounds (clocks ticking, seagulls crying) mirror the off-kilter world of the characters shown here (and kudos are in order for having sonorous organ music playing during the close-up of the blow job in the finale).
But what does it all mean? “Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye” gives us characters (or perhaps caricatures) of sexual excitement: the movie star handsome leading man, attractive women in show biz sleaze-tease costumes, the blonde young sailor, the well-endowed black S&M expert. And there’s enough sex going on here to rival a week’s worth of Playboy Channel titillation. But (to steal a line from the old pop tune) – where is the love? The individuals here are not driven by a genuine emotional need for belonging, but by a ravenous carnality devoid of romanticism or passion. There is almost no dialogue, so nothing passionate or sincere is spoken. And the only words are directed at a beloved icon, someone literally beyond our window in more ways than one.
The sex drives of the characters inevitably takes them onto a dead end road: the gay coupling ends in death, the women’s lesbian session finds them without pleasure in the ghastly harsh morning light, and the final three-way is without sensuality for any of the participants. Their playtime has left them empty and with nothing to show for their efforts. Even the seemingly endless repetitions of the woman going up the stairs reminds us of endless mornings after when passionate one-nighters end in abandonment. This happens all of the time, especially to those who never learn from their mistakes (as embodied by the woman on the stairs).
And where does the audience fit in? The viewer can easily take the wrong role of being a voyeur, but the film is not about voyeurism. It is a film designed to make the viewer stop and think about what they’ve witnessed. For those too dense to get it, the final sick joke is a below-the-belt variation on a spit-in-the-eye–which is the ultimate insult against voyeurism. In setting this shot up, McElhinney poses two questions in one: And what the hell have you been looking at? And is this what you’ve been wanting?
Yes, “Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye” is a pornographic film. But not unlike “Last Tango in Paris,” it is not pornographic for the sake of feeding audience depravity. As with the Bertolucci masterwork, it brilliantly shows what happens when one’s physical appetite cannot be fulfilled. The results are either darkly comic and tragic, depending on the viewer’s mindframe. But McElhinney’s route to these results, as with the Bertolucci, is nothing short of stunning.