Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Sweet Violence (1962)

Juvenile delinquent movies are always fun, but trust the French to come up with a classy juvenile delinquent movie with a touch of sophistication. Sweet Violence (the French title was Douce violence but it was also released in the US as Sweet Ecstasy) is such a film.

Director Max Pécas, later to become something of a legend among European exploitation film-makers with a string of erotic thrillers and sex comedies, had had a major hit in 1961 with Daniella by Night (also released with the delightfully lurid title Daniela, Criminal Strip-Tease). That movie, a spy spoof with a dash of sex, had made Elke Sommer’s reputation as a sexy new star. It seemed logical to follow it up with another movie starring the same actress. Sweet Violence was a change of pace however. It’s a tale of bored rich kids living a life of fashionable alienation, existential chic and casual sex. It owes something to the French New Wave, and also (it appears to me) owes quite a bit to Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse which had been a sizeable hit in France. Like the protagonist of Bonjour Tristesse these young people are playing dangerous and destructive emotional and erotic games.

Olivier is the younger brother of a wealthy and successful actress. He finds life empty and meaningless, and he drifts into the orbit of Maddy and his friends, who have elevated empty and meaningless into the guiding principles of their lives. He falls under the spell of Elke (Elke Sommer). You only have to take one look at Elke’s eye make-up to realise she’s a bad girl and she doesn’t care. Elke already has a boyfriend, but in this crowd sexual partners are changed frequently so she is happy enough to engage in some erotic game-playing with the rather innocent Olivier. A wild ship-board party ends with the fiery destruction of an expensive yacht, and leads indirectly to a confrontation between Maddy and Olivier. In an American JD movie this would end with a game of chicken involving drag racing and hot rods. This movie’s climax does involve a game of chicken, but it’s done in a much more interesting and original way (which I won’t spoil for you except to say that it involves cranes and a building site).

Sweet Violence tries to be both an art-house movie and an exploitation movie. As an art film it doesn’t really make the grade but it does capture a certain mood of wistful youthful disaffection rather well. There are some effective sequences, and it’s superbly photographed (in black-and-white of course, the way God meant movies to be).

As an exploitation movie Sweet Violence is all tease. Despite the lurid DVD cover art the sex and nudity is all implied, not shown. There is one slightly perverse scene, in which Elke Sommer is trussed up and her sexual favours are auctioned off by her boyfriend, but it’s clear that she is a more than willing participant in such games. It’s all very very tame by later standards. In the late 50s French movies had achieved major box-office success on the American art-house circuit mainly by virtue of their sexual frankness in comparison with Hollywood movies of the time, but by the early 60s American exploitation movie-makers had upped the sexual ante to a point that made stuff like Sweet Violence seem very tame indeed. Sweet Violence did however have a sufficiently amoral tone and atmosphere of sexual license to make it very successful commercially.

The appeal of the movie today is mostly due to its style. And it has plenty of that. Gorgeous locations, great 60s sports cars, a boppy jazzy poppy soundtrack, wonderful clothes and fabulous hairstyles. It’s also delightfully camp and its attempts to be wicked and immoral are enormous fun. And it has Elke Sommer, an actress who had absolutely no need to take her clothes off in order to be sizzlingly sexy. She gives a pretty decent performance too. Sweet Violence is a treat for anyone who loves the early 60s.

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