Friday, 29 April 2022

Mata Hari (1985)

The 1985 Mata Hari starring Sylvia Kristel is a movie that critics find it difficult to discuss without a certain sneering tone. It is after all a Cannon Group film and that in itself is generally held to be synonymous with cinematic schlock. And Sylvia Kristel was after all just a softcore porno star wasn’t she?

And the fact that this is a sexy spy movie with quite a bit of nudity seems to confirm that the sneers were justified.

But in actual fact the idea of making an erotic spy movie based on Mata Hari is perfectly sound. Mata Hari was after all a real-life spy who used sex as her primary tool of the trade. And Sylvia Kristel is appropriately cast - like the real Mata Hari she is Dutch and like the real Mata Hari she has a beauty that seems slightly exotic.

The problem with making a movie about Mata Hari is that everyone knows how the story ends. Everyone knows that Mata Hari was shot as a spy by the French. That doesn’t make her story any less interesting but it does mean that the audience knows from the start that the heroine is doomed.

The real Mata Hari was in fact an extremely interesting woman. She achieved great fame as a dancer in the pre-war period. She was one of the pioneers of modern dance. And she was notable for performances which combined art and eroticism. She posed for nude photographs. As her career as a dancer started to falter she established an extremely successful second career as a courtesan. She was a notorious woman who flaunted her sexual promiscuity and was unembarrassed and unapologetic about being a whore.

What she wasn’t was a super spy. She was manipulated by both the French and German intelligence services but her espionage activities were trivial. She was executed mainly for daring to defy conventional morality. At a time of patriotic hysteria and national security paranoia the French authorities were only too happy to make a scapegoat of Mata Hari.

Fräulein Doktor, whose name was actually Elsbeth Schragmüller, was another real-life lady spy although unlike Mata Hari the Fräulein Doktor was a trained professional agent. The Fräulein Doktor’s career has also been widely fictionalised and sensationalised. She makes an appearance in this movie, as a somewhat sinister psychiatrist who acts as advisor to German military intelligence. Fräulein Doktor is a Freudian and tends to see sex as being the main motivating force for humans.

In the movie Mata Hari (Sylvia Kristel) is clearly more interested in sexual and romantic adventures than in being a spy but the German intelligence service has convinced itself that she can be made use of. The Fräulein Doktor is also keen to introduce Mata Hari to the joys of sapphic loving.

As depicted in this movie Mata Hari is cynically manipulated by spy agencies and by men. It’s not that she’s a stupid woman. Any ordinary person caught in the kind of web that intelligence agencies are capable of spinning would be bewildered by the multiple layers of deceit and betrayal that are the stock-in-trade of professional spies. What really gets Mata Hari in trouble is her complicated romantic entanglements with French spy Ladoux (Oliver Tobias) and German spy Karl (Christopher Cazenove). They’re both dashing and handsome and Mata Hari falls under the sexual spell of both men, and falls in love with both men. She is a woman who has no interest in the rules of conventional morality. She sees no problem in loving two men at the same time.

Mata Hari really doesn’t want to be a spy at all. She is not merely manipulated into being a spy, she is given virtually no choice.

Some movies are just never going to get a break from critics. This movie is a case in point. Its director, Curtis Harrington, has never received the critical respect that he deserved. The movie comes from the Cannon Group so that’s a black mark against it for most critics. And it’s a spy movie that features frequent nudity and sex scenes. Mixing genres still upsets a lot of people. And Sylvia Kristel was too willing to take her clothes off ever to have a chance of being taken seriously as an actresses.

The fact is that this is a spy movie and it’s an erotic movie. It’s an erotic spy movie. Deal with it. It’s a movie for grownups.

There is nothing gratuitous about the nudity or the sex. Mata Hari’s fate had little to do with her trivial spying and everything to do with the fact that she was an unashamed sexual outlaw. She believed in giving in to her sexual urges. The entire plot of the movie hinges on the consequences of Mata Hari’s sexuality. It is absolutely crucial to show that she is swept away by her lust for two men. Had she given the matter careful thought she might well have concluded that it would be healthier to have nothing to do with either man but she’s not capable of rational thought when her appetites take over.

And her dances have to be erotic because Mata Hari’s dances were erotic and she would never have attracted the attention of the spooks had it not been for the eroticism of her performances.

The nudity and the sex are really the core of the story and it’s all done quite tastefully and I really have no idea why some critics adopt a sniggering tone when talking about this film.

In fact when I see so many reviewers who simply dismiss this movie as rubbish I find myself wondering if they saw the same movie I saw. The movie I saw was not just fairly OK, it was extremely good. Seriously, this is a good movie. It was shot in Hungary to keep costs down and whatever money was spent on this movie is up there on the screen. It looks exquisite. It has a slightly hazy soft focus look which is clearly deliberate and I think it works.

The costumes are absolutely gorgeous.

Oliver Tobias and Christopher Cazenove as Mata Hari’s lovers both give fine nuanced performances. Gaye Brown as the Fräulein Doktor is chilling, as she should be.

Sylvia Kristel’s performance works. Mata Hari is supposed to be confused and out of her depth, she’s not supposed to be an ice-cold professional and she’s certainly not supposed to be a kickass action heroine.

Joel Siskin’s script plays fast and loose with the historical details but it has some interesting twists and we’re never quite sure which of Mata Hari’s lovers will betray her, and to Mata Hari that means more than life itself.

I can’t see anything wrong with the way Curtis Harrington directs this film. He appears to me to have known exactly what he was doing. He manages some decent suspense, there are a few action scenes, the sex scenes are sexy, the pacing is fine.

There’s a definite atmosphere of decadence which I really liked. Too many movies with wartime settings get all carried away with the jingoism and the heroic stuff so the decadence of wartime Berlin and Paris in this movie is refreshing.

And did I mention the topless female sword-fighting scene? Mata Hari and another courtesan fight a duel, topless. The scene is actually quite well done. It’s not an epic swordfight because these are not expert swordsman battling it out, they’re prostitutes, but they’re clearly trying to hurt each other.

Despite the topless duel there’s nothing camp about this movie. It’s a serious movie about sex and espionage and betrayal and the price women pay for sexual freedom but it never lectures the viewer. It is a movie for grownups who don’t need to be spoon-fed a message.

Mata Hari combines intrigue, decadence, eroticism and romance in an entertaining package. And yes, I am seriously going to highly recommended this movie.

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