Sunday, 10 November 2013

Laura's Toys (1975)

Laura's Toys, released in 1975,  is fairly typical of Joe Sarno’s mid-1970s softcore sex films. Anyone familiar with Sarno’s work knows that this means they’re in for something that is a good deal more than just softcore porn. Sarno’s perennial preoccupations with the emotional consequences of sex are on full display, there is real acting, an intelligent script and sensitively drawn characters.

Sarno started his career in American sexploitation movies in the 60s and right from the beginning his movies were unusual in their emotional sophistication. For those unfamiliar with the genre American sexploitation movies combined extremely mild erotic content (many would easily qualify for a PG rating today) with an extraordinary amount of quirkiness and often downright weirdness. As long as they contained at least a moderate amount of the required content of nudity and sex the film-makers working in this field were more or less free to do anything they wanted to do. The result was a fascinating output of movies that displayed the unconventional visions of some interesting low-budget film-makers.

When these movies started being taken seriously (at least by some movie fans and even scholars) a couple of decades ago Sarno was one of the two singled out as the directors most worthy of respect (the other being Radley Metzger). Sarno’s specialty was the psychological sexploitation movie. Some have gone so far as to see him as a sort of low-budget American Bergman. While it might be going too far to describe Sarno as a great movie-maker he was undeniably intriguing, distinctive, intelligent and often provocative. At the very least he was an important minor, but very genuine, talent.

By the end of the 1960s sexploitation was essentially dead as a genre, having been replaced by softcore porn movies. The main difference, apart from the considerable increase in the amount and explicitness of the sex, was that these softcore features generally lacked the appealing campy oddness of the earlier sexploitation genre. Metzger and Sarno however continued to pursue their personal obsessions and their movies of the early to mid 70s are as interesting and as worthwhile as their earlier films. Sadly the softcore erotic movie proved to have a very short lifespan. By the end of the 70s hardcore porn and video had killed the softcore erotic feature.

1970s softcore porn feature films were also notable for their surprisingly high production values and visual quality. Being intended for theatrical release they were shot on film, and often on 35mm, and were made with considerable care and attention. Directors like Sarno and Metzger would invest a quantity of time and effort on getting the lighting right that would be imaginable in a porn movie a few years later. And these movies had scripts. The actors were real actors. Almost all were trained actors. They needed to be since they had actual dialogue. In a Sarno movie, a great deal of dialogue.

Which brings us to Laura's Toys. Sarno’s script (he acted as writer-director on all his movies) presents us with a fairly typical 70s Sarno setup, although love triangles are a little unusual in his work. We have a group of people, in this case a man and two women,  who inhabit what seems to be a stable situation but there are major tensions underneath. The arrival of an outside character sets up the sexual and emotional powderkeg. Eventually, as in so many Sarno movies, a new stable system comes into being but since the characters have been forced to do some growing up the new system is more stable than the original one.

The initial system in this film comprises three people - Walter (Eric Edwards), Laura (Rebecca Brooke) and Anna (Cathja Graff). Walter is an archaeologist searching for an ancient village site on a tiny island off the Swedish coast. He is married, apparently very happily, to Laura. The one minor problem in their marriage is that Laura has no interest in archaeology. Anna is Walter’s assistant, a fellow archaeologist. The tension comes from Anna’s infatuation with Walter, an infatuation that Walter is aware of and which flatters him.

Anna can offer Walter something that Laura cannot - a girlfriend who shares his passion for his work. Laura on the other hand is far more beautiful than Anna, far more sexual, and she is amusing and charming. Walter and Laura are deeply in love and the sexual chemistry between them is intense. Appearances would suggest that Laura has Anna fairly comprehensively outgunned and that her marriage is in little danger.

Then Hanni (Anita Ericsson) reappears in Laura’s life. Hanni and Laura had had an intense long-term lesbian relationship some years earlier. The two women had lived in an atmosphere of non-stop sex, not just with each other but with a succession of other women and men whom they drew into their little circle. For Hanni and Laura sex was a playground and other people were sex toys. Laura had tired of this. When she married Walter it was a serious step for her into the adult world. She intended to make her marriage work. It’s not that Laura grew tired of sex. Far from it. She simply became tired of sex that didn’t mean anything. 

The central focus of the plot is the three-way power struggle between Laura, Anna and Hanni. Walter is the stake but he’s not really a player in this game. All three women are much stronger characters and all three are determined to win.

Commercial demands in 1975 were such that a softcore erotic movie such as this had to include a very great deal of nudity and sex, and had to have the requisite quantities of straight sex, lesbian sex, threesomes and group sex. That had become the established formula and if you wanted financing you had to follow that formula. At the same time such movies had to have a plot. If you were a director motivated by a desire for a quick buck that was no problem. You simply constructed the flimsiest of plots and got on with shooting the sex scenes. But if you were a Joe Sarno and you wanted to make a movie that would be both a successful softcore porn movie and a proper movie you faced a major challenge. You had to find a way to include the required sex scenes whilst still telling a coherent story about real people, you had to integrate the sex scenes into the story so that each sexual encounter actually advances the plot, you had to make the sex scenes mean something to the characters. Sarno had no interest in simply stringing together random couplings.

In this respect Laura's Toys succeeds surprisingly well. Each sex scene does advance the plot and it does advance the charter development. When the characters in this movie have sex they do so for a reason, and the reason is not mere lust. As a result the sex has the extraordinary emotional intensity that the sex scenes in Sarno’s movies always have, and this emotional intensity is the ingredient that gives them their very considerable erotic charge.

Several of Sarno’s mid-70s softcore films were in fact edging close to the borderline of hardcore, featuring real rather than simulated sex. In effect they were shot as hardcore but edited as softcore. The sex in Laura's Toys was certainly real. Given that Sarno was more interested in the emotional impact of sex than in the mechanics and that he was always more interested in showing us the faces of people having sex rather than body parts this might seen an odd choice. In fact it works. The fact that the sex is real gives it the intensity Sarno wanted.

The sex scenes involving Hanni and her friends are particularly interesting. There’s something very cyclical and repetitive about them. Since Sarno was very good at filming sex scenes in an imaginative way this would appear to be a deliberate choice on the director’s part. It certainly has the effect of emphasising the futility of Hanni’s incessant pursuit of pleasure. Hanni is simply going around in circles on a non-stop sexual merry-go-round. As Laura tries to tell her, Hanni has become a sexual Peter Pan. She refuses to grow up and accept emotional responsibility. Laura is tired of playing Wendy to Hanni’s Peter Pan.

Eric Edwards was a competent actor but was perhaps just a little too young and pretty to be an entirely convincing eminent archaeologist. He does however handle the extended and sensitive flirtation between his character and Anna extremely well. There are a couple of wonderfully subtle moments that capture the growing intimacy between Walter and Anna and the nervousness of both characters abut where this might be leading. There’s a particularly nice moment when he takes Anna’s glasses out of the breast pocket of her shirt. It’s an almost harmless action but it’s just a little too intimate to be appropriate between a man and an attractive young female assistant and it gives us the first faint hint of the sexual tension between them. Cathja Graff’s reaction is superbly subtle.

Cathja Graff is generally excellent. It’s also worth saying that her orgasm scenes (which everyone involved in the film confirms were most certainly not faked) are among the most erotic moments you’ll see in any sex movie.

Anita Ericsson has the trickiest rôle, Hanni being the least sympathetic major character. Ericsson manages to make her something more than a mere destructive manipulator.

It’s Rebecca Brooke (whose also acted her real name Mary Mendum) who dominates the movie. She was a talented actress who appeared in quite a few of Sarno’s movies and always gave him fine performances. Laura is the most grown-up and complex of the characters and she’s a woman determined not to slip back into her adolescent persona. She understands that while the pursuit of sex might bring a great deal of pleasure it’s emotional commitment that brings happiness. Brooke is superb and handles her character’s growing emotional maturity with consummate skill. It doesn’t hurt that she was also a remarkably beautiful woman with the ability to project an extraordinary sexual power.

Retro-Seduction Cinema have done their usual magnificent job with this DVD. The anamorphic transfer is superb. Picture quality is crisp, the colours are bright, contrast is good and print damage is very close to non-existent. The company also packed this DVD with some very worthwhile extras. There is a brief interview with Joe Sarno and his wife Peggy (who acted as assistant director on this film) and another interview with star Eric Edwards. There’s also a commentary track featuring Edwards and Sarno biographer Michael Bowen. The commentary track is a major plus. Eric Edwards proves to be a charming and amusing man and his insights into the adult film industry then and now are perceptive and provocative. This is the sort of DVD that reflects a genuine respect for both the movie and the DVD purchaser.

This is not a perfect Sarno movie, not quite in the same league as the superlative Abigail Lesley is Back in Town, but it’s still a Sarno movie and it’s a pretty good one. Its minor defects are more than outweighed by its strengths and Rebecca Brooke’s performance alone is enough reason to buy this one. Highly recommended.

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