Delta of Venus
Delta of Venus
reviewed by Greta Christina
When I told a friend of mine about Delta of Venus, his response was to describe a cartoon he once saw in the New Yorker. The caption read, "Life is too short for soft-core porn."
That's Delta of Venus in a nutshell. The actual review of this movie is going to be very short. In a word: Stinkeroo. We're talking seriously boring, folks; ill-conceived, poorly-executed, unrelievedly dull, and a complete and utter failure in the clit-hardening department.
Directed by Zalman King (the same genius who wrote 9 1/2 Weeks and wrote and directed Wild Orchid), Delta of Venus is a quasi-mainstream art-sex movie loosely based on the wonderful collection of short stories by Anais Nin. There's a vague plot about the erotic and artistic awakenings of the main character Elena (Audie England), who is loosely based on Anais Nin, and her torrid and painful relationship with Lawrence (Costas Mandylor), who seems to be loosely based on Henry Miller. But the plot is pretty much a joke, a frayed and tenuous thread whose sole function in life is to string together the various erotic stories and fantasies that Elena experiences and/or imagines.
Hmmm. A bunch of sex scenes held together by a tissue-thin plot. Sound familiar? Sound like almost every porn movie you've seen? Well, you got it 100% right, my friend; pick up your prize at the door. So why does Delta of Venus fall under my jurisdiction as the Spectator's mainstream film critic? In one word: NC-17.
One might ask what difference there really is between NC-17 and X. There does seem to be a distinction of some sort, although, like many of our culture's distinctions having to do with sex, it gets rather hazy and inconsistent when you examine it closely. There's the obvious legal difference, of course; NC-17 is copyrighted by the Motion Picture Association of America, whereas the X rating is not. In practical terms, this means an NC-17 movie is one that the studio bothered to submit to the MPAA and get rated. An X rating, on the other hand, is given to a film by its manufacturers, who aren't big Hollywood studios and couldn't give less of a fuck about the MPAA. (It also means, in theory, that movie theaters and newspapers that won't exhibit or advertise porn flicks should be able to handle the NC-17 stuff. However, in practice, the theaters and newspapers have been pissants, and an NC-17 rating makes it almost as hard to get access to the mainstream movie infrastructure as the dreaded X does.)
There is, of course, another difference, one that has to do with the somewhat murkier world of marketing and promotion. To a potential audience, NC-17 signals some degree of serious artistic quality. This seems to translate as no insertion shots, reasonably high Hollywood-style production values, and a somewhat better pretense at "redeeming social importance" than most porn flicks have. (That may be a bit unfair of me; "Henry and June," the first film to get the NC-17 rating, has more than just a pretense at redeeming social importance; and, in fact I would argue that many porn flicks do as well. That aside, I think the point still stands.) X, on the other hand, signifies...well, X signifies smut. And more power to it.
But if Delta of Venus and Showgirls are any indication, there's another, more significant difference between NC-17 and X. The difference: X is better. X is hotter, X is more interesting, and much of the time, X is smarter and better made.
I do realize that there's a big problem inherent in making an NC-17 movie, and that's getting acting talent. After all, Michelle Pfeiffer and Meryl Streep probably aren't going to do arty soft-core porn flicks, even if you ask them nicely and offer them lots of money. (Neither are Antonio Banderas or Ralph Fiennes, more's the pity.) And if you're trying to make a nice respectable NC-17 art-sex movie instead of a nasty old X-rated porn flick, you're probably not going to hire Nina Hartley or Jeff Stryker. Which puts you in a bit of a bind; you have to find non-porn actors and actresses who will nevertheless do almost-explicit sex on screen.
Unfortunately, non-porn people who'll do sex stuff doesn't seem to be the deepest talent pool in the business. If the quality of acting in Delta of Venus (or Showgirls, another recent NC-17 loser) is any indication, it's a very shallow pool indeed. Audie England's performance as Elena is just terrible, the worst of both worlds; she can't do a hot sex scene, and she can't act. Her idea of deep emotional expression is to pout. She pouts when she's angry, she pouts when she's horny, she pouts when she's lonely, and when she's having an orgasm she closes her eyes and -- you guessed it -- pouts. Costas Mandylor as Lawrence isn't much better; his performance consists primarily of a whole lot of smoldering stares. Very blank smoldering stares. He seems to think that smoldering consists of lowering the chin, staring very hard at the camera, and emptying one's mind of all conscious thought.
And the overall quality of the movie is peculiarly dispassionate. It's infested with scenes of people dancing wildly through the streets of Paris, supposedly signifying a mad impetuosity and a surrender to sensual possibilities. But the execution is so fake, so forced, that it winds up having the exact opposite effect. It doesn't have the feel of people giving themselves over to the moment; it feels like people making a stilted and self-conscious attempt to give themselves over to the moment. Worse, the sex scenes are...well, boring. Tepid. At best, one or two of them were sort of pretty, interesting to watch, kind of. Not one of them made me wet, and not one of them gave me something to think about the next time I whacked off.
Which leads me to the most important quality that I feel makes X a better animal than NC-17: honesty. Even the most pretentious X-rated porn flick, with the dorkiest arty special effects and camera tricks, is still very clear about its purpose, which is to get your dick/clit hard and get you off. That's not to say that porn filmmakers are never trying to express themselves artistically or politically; I think, at least sometimes, they are. But there's a straightforward quality to X-rated flicks, a direct and unabashed appeal to the audience's desire to look at people having sex, that is almost completely lacking in the world of NC-17. (An odd tangent: My computer's thesaurus program gives the synonyms for "explicit" as "definite, distinct, precise, specific, candid, frank, outspoken, unreserved." Well, maybe it's not a tangent. Maybe it's exactly the point I'm trying to get across.)
So if I like X-rated films for their honesty, the obvious implication is that NC-17 movies are, to some extent, dishonest. (Or, at any rate, that Delta of Venus and Showgirls are dishonest.) I realize that these are fightin' words, and I'd like to give an example of what I mean. That example, the one that annoys me to the point of infuriation, is the lack of what I call "nudity parity." By "nudity parity," I mean that male and female bodies are exposed roughly equally, with roughly the same degree of vulnerability. To put it more bluntly -- if a movie shows pussy, it should show cock as well. And not just one or two brief teasing shots flitting by, either. If there are buttloads of full-frontal female images, there should be buttloads of men in their full-frontal glory as well.
Now, nudity parity is tricky to do if you want your film to get an R rating. For some inexplicable reason (I'm sure it couldn't possibly be sexism), a naked dick is much harder to get past the MPAA than a naked pussy is. So when I review R-type movies, I do cut them a bit of slack on this issue.
But Delta of Venus isn't rated R. It never stood a chance of being rated R, and I doubt that anybody expected it to. Its subject is sex, it's full of sex scenes both tender and wild, and it parades female frontal nudity all over the damn place. But in scenes where male frontal nudity would be appropriate, it pulls every coy trick in the book; covering the guy with sheets, having him stand behind sofas, shooting him from the back or from the side or above the waist. (Showgirls, another NC-17 loser, did the same thing. The movie's only actual fuck scene took place, rather conveniently, in a swimming pool, and Kyle MacLachlan's nude scenes were carefully crafted to keep the camera away from his dick.)
Now, if nudity is so important for the movie's artistic statement about sex, then why is all the nudity female? I can only think of two reasons, and I don't think much of either one. Either the director is thinking purely in terms of images that will please a het male audience, or he identifies with the male characters and doesn't want to make them vulnerable by exposing their dicks to the entire adult free world. Either way, it's sexist and dishonest.
If Zalman King and Eszterhas/Verhoeven (the writer/director of Showgirls) are any indication, the guys who make NC-17 movies want it both ways. They want to make sex movies, but don't want to be treated like scum. They want to make smut, but they want some degree of respectability as well. And for all my criticism of the NC-17 aesthetic, for all my criticism of these filmmakers' lack of courage and vision, I can't argue too much with this desire. In a better world, they should be able to do that... and other filmmakers, better filmmakers, filmmakers with a serious erotic vision, should be able to do it as well. The distinction between NC-17 and X is, in essence, the distinction between erotica and pornography, between art and smut. And as such, it is useless, pointless, arbitrary, and ultimately damaging to the creative process.
Copyright 1995 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.