Just Jaeckin’s The Story of O (Histoire d'O) was one of the most celebrated, and most infamous, erotic films from the golden age of cinematic erotica, the 1970s. Banned in Britain for 25 years the movie today seems very tame in its actual sexual content, but even more potent in its ideas.
A young woman known only as O (Corinne Clery) is taken by her lover Rene (Udo Kier) to a remote chateau at Roissy where she is to be trained in the art of sexual submission. It is made clear to O that she is free to leave at any time if she so chooses. Her training involves whippings, various humiliations and it also involves submitting willingly to the sexual advances of a variety of men.
O completes her training, and returns to her career as a successful fashion photographer. She finds that her appreciation of the erotic had ben enhanced, and her photographs of women have a much greater sexual charge than ever before. But her story has only just begun. In order to prove her devotion to her lover he wants her to give herself to other men. Specifically to his brother (although Stephan is not actually his biological brother). This is a test of her love. The results are not quite what any of the parties involved expected. She gives herself more completely to Stephan than anticipated, and to his surprise he falls in love with her.
An added complication is Rene’s infatuation with a beautiful model named Jacqueline. To facilitate Rene’s advances O seduces her first. These interconnected relationships are complex, and the balance of domination and submission is not at all what it originally appeared to be.
To appreciate this film you have to remember that this was the 70s. There was a growing feeling that pornography and art were not mutually exclusive categories. Porn was infiltrating art movies, and art was infiltrating sex movies. Films such as this one were not aimed exclusively at a grindhouse audience. Just Jaeckin had already had a massive crossover hit with Emmanuelle, a softcore porn movie that made it into the mainstream cinema world of the multiplexes. And became France’s most successful movie of all time. The Story of O was another attempt to reach grindhouse, art-house and mainstream audiences.
Something similar has been attempted by modern film-makers like Catherine Breillat (in Romance) and Michael Winterbottom (in 9 Songs) but there’s a major difference. One is never really convinced that a director like Winterbottom has the strength of his convictions. It seems like he tries to make the sex as tedious and ugly as possible in order to prove that he has actually made a Serious Movie. Ironically 9 Songs therefore ends up being mere mechanical porn. 1970s directors like Jaeckin on the other hand were not afraid to make serious erotic movies that were genuinely erotic.
Of course much of the controversy that surrounded The Story of O in 1975 centred on the theme of sado-masochistic sex. The obvious comparison was with the works of the Marquis de Sade, and that’s the comparison that virtually every online reviewer makes. And it’s completely wrong. For de Sade sex was both a political metaphor and a political weapon. The Story of O has no interest in politics - it’s concerned with emotions, with relationships, and with sex for its own sake. That doesn’t make it less significant unless you believe that human emotions and relationships are less important than politics.
This is one of a tiny handful of movies that treats the subject of sado-masochism seriously and non-judgmentally (another is Massimo Dallamano’s 1970 Venus in Furs). It’s made very very clear that everything that happens is entirely consensual. O was not a prisoner at Roissy. She could leave at any time. She is under no compulsion in her relationships with Rene and Stephan. And because she is free, she is in fact the dominant partner psychologically. Both Rene and Stephan are psychologically enslaved by her. Not just by her beauty, but by her personality. Her willingness to be absolutely submissive in a sexual sense paradoxically gives her the real power in these relationships, a fact that is made explicit in the final scene.
It’s also significant that the make characters are fairly two-dimensional. That’s actually a plus rather than a minus because the focus is entirely on O. We see everything from her point of view. She’s the most interesting character, and she’s the strongest character.
Of course if you find the subject matter distasteful you’re not going to enjoy this movie, which is fair enough.
As you’d expect from a Just Jaeckin movie, The Story of O is visually gorgeous. It’s the product of an era when porn movies had high production values, were shot in 35mm, had decent sets and costumes, had actual scripts and dialogue, and required real acting. It tries to combine ideas, art and eroticism and mostly it succeeds. It’s one of the fairly small number of erotic movies that one really needs to see.