[Content Warning: This review discusses rape; also, spoilers for the entire piece.]
Spoiler warnings are pointless. If you knew every plot point before watching, Belladonna of Sadness would still gobsmack you. More than plot, this film lives through images, images more decadent and luxurious than even the plot description suggests. From equal parts Klimt, Victorian fairy-tale illustration, and Yellow Submarine, Eiichii Yamamoto concocted a delirious feminist fable. A fable, albeit, unable to fully articulate its vision.
Newly-wed peasants, Jean and Jeanne, cannot satisfy the local lord’s taxes. In lieu of gold and cows, the court kicks Jean to the drawbridge, and rape Jeanne. After Jeanne stumbles home, her husband, in a mad rage, almost strangles her to death. Sleeping alone, Jeanne spies a phallic pixie calling himself Satan. In exchange for her submission, Satan will grant her power. She refuses his offer, and his next. Both times Satan rapes her, but grants her worldly power, first financial and sexual. The villagers cohere around her new-found power, which displeases the Lady, wife of the rapist Lord. The Lady bristles that a commoner should have more authority than her. She locks Jeanne a dungeon, under suspicion of witchcraft.
At Jeanne’s zenith of misery and hatred, Satan asks for her submission. She assents, but not because she is too broken to resist; she wants power greater than all who wronged her. After a pop-art sex scene between Jeanne and Satan, the black death crashes upon Europe.
With her witchcraft, Jeanne cures her village, and starts an orgiastic cult. Hearing of this, the Lord offers a deal: reveal her secrets to the court doctors, and he will grant her the second highest seat of nobility in the land. She refuses. She will accept nothing less than everything. The court ties her to a stake. After feckless resistance from the village men, the guards light the pyre. Watching her burn, all the women villagers’ faces morph into her own. Cut to the French Revolution, where text emphasises the role women played.
That’s just the plot. At the top, I likened Belladonna to Yellow Submarine. They diverge in content, tone, and budget, but align in ambition. They both aim to prove what animation can do, but what none before had dared do.
Though I hesitate to call Belladonna animation. Sometimes sequential illustrations give the illusion of movement, but those sequences are sparse. Mostly, Belladonna limits itself to static illustrations, with perhaps a pan or zoom for dynamism. Look at any screenshot and you’ll approximate watching the film. Yamamoto does not hide this limitation, nor does he let this limitation be a shortcoming. Belladonna begins with a black line cutting horizontal across white. Panning left, this line accrues new lines, forming into trees, buildings, and people. Dashes of blue appear, then pink, then a myriad of water-colours, until there emerges a panorama. Yamamoto begins thusly to show the audience that limited animation can still stun.
For the most part, those actually animated sequences flow smoothly. Our first time seeing Satan, he spins in the air, fairy-like. Other times, the animation chops from insufficient frames, but such cases seem directorial decisions. When a manacled Jeanne marches in lock-step between guards, the jerks of their legs add an eerie ethereality to the sequence.
In an interview on the Cinelicious Blu-Ray, Yamamoto relates how intended to make pornography mixed with true love. If that was the brief, the writer and animators failed on both counts. On paper, true love is present. Jeanne does reunite with Jean, but he’s such a feckless non-entity that the viewer feels nothing between the couple, much less love. As for pornography: if the animators aimed for titillation, their failure was serendipitous. Undeniably, many shots are sexual, and undeniably, many shots prioritise the male gaze, but the film is quite un-erotic. I doubt the rapes would arouse even a rape fetishist – there is little arousing in a woman literally tearing in two. In those sex scenes not outright horrifying, the WTF-ness on screen will raise gasps and chuckles before erections. The pagan orgy explodes into literal animalism, as genitalia morph into jungle beasts. Maybe that’s someone’s fetish, but their pleasure is very much a by-product of the scene, rather than the core effect. Belladonna uses sex and rape for thematic ends, without wallowing in pornography.
Belladonna explores female subjection and liberation. Even if its execution sometimes shades away from ambiguous into muddled, Belladonna does not settle for Manichean didacticism. In an otherwise positive review for the New York Times, critic Glenn Kenny accuses the film of positing the ‘power of feminine sexuality is essentially demonic.’ This evaluation misses the film’s viewpoint, caricaturing it as a product of a bygone ideology.
Kenny’s criticism falters by assuming the demonic beginnings of Jeanne’s sexuality implies evil. Belladonna paints witches as enemies of the church and state. In a pre-modern work about witches, this opposition would indeed imply witches are harmful deviants. But Belladonna arose in the post-modern era from a non-Christian nation; and we can see that from Yamamoto’s less than worshipful treatment of the church. Most obviously, a priest always stands beside the rapist Lord, exerting no force of moral restraint.
In a scene near the end of the film, the Lady and Lord interrogate Jeanne’s followers. A man says Jeanne rid his wife of labour pains. In Genesis 3:16, God told Eve, and thus all women, ‘in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.’ Labour pains are punishment for original sin, yet Jeanne cures them. Another woman tells the Lady her husband wants sex nightly, but they’ve already too many children. She says Jeanne told her a way to have sex while avoiding pregnancy, implicitly sodomy. To a puritan, such fruitless fornication is a sin; to secular humanist, it is a matter of personal taste. Finally, an old woman says Jeanne showed her ‘the host of hellfire wailing for her grandson.’ Her grandson died in one Christendom’s wars. He burns for his service to the church and state.
From the church’s perspective, Jeanne is a devilish witch in all three cases, dismissing God’s punishment of Eve, advocating barren sex acts, and showing old women what must be illusions of hellfire. To a modern viewer, a humanist viewer, this all seems common sense. Of course, women shouldn’t have to suffer labour pain. Of course, couples should be allowed to have sex without fear of pregnancy. Of course, marching under Christianity’s banner is no safe-guard from punishment. Vitally, all Jeanne’s ‘sins’ are decidedly fine from a humanist perspective, that is, fine from the audience’s perspective. Though Jeanne’s solution for the woman who wanted more sex with her husband is worded ambiguously, I read Jeanne as encouraging sodomy. Maybe Jeanne teaches the woman a painless method of abortion, but this would obscure the scene’s intended effect. The scene exists to side us, humanists, with Jeanne’s morality, and set us against the church’s morality, for it calls Jeanne’s morality sin. While abortion is fine from a humanist perspective, in the 70s, it was not so obviously fine as sodomy. If Jeanne did suggest abortion, some viewers might have suspected, ‘Ah, well, she is leading the villagers down a dark path. First abortion, then what?’ But Yamamoto ensures Jeanne’s cures are agreeable to the audience’s morality. Her cures are not Faustian pacts, nor are they solvents of morality; the only morality they dissolve is the archaic morality of the church.
This is why I disagree with Kenny’s accusation that the film views female sexuality as demonic (read: evil). If God’s agents are not categorically good, why assume Satan’s are categorically bad. Satan does rape Jeanne multiple times, and the film does depict these as horrific acts, but what Jeanne does in response cannot be dismissed as horrific because of that.
If Belladonna does not conclude that witchcraft equals evil female sexuality, it also does not conclude that witchcraft equals total female liberation. Under Satan’s wing, Jeanne is undeniably more powerful and free than she was a peasant. As a female peasant she was prey to the jealousies and lusts of other humans. As a witch, she rules over her village, rules over pleasure and pain, and rules over sickness and health. But the film does not paint her transformation in black and white.
Jeanne gains liberation from the kingdom’s patriarchal structures, becoming a sexually free and powerful witch, only after Satan rapes her. Satan is explicitly male, and implicitly a phallus. Jeanne escapes from powerlessness at the hands of state-protected rapists by allying with a more powerful rapist. To be wholly accurate, the sex immediately preceding Jeanne’s witch-hood is arguably not rape. Crushed by the world, her misanthropy encourages her to willingly accept Satan’s patronage. Nevertheless, Satan initiated her ruin with his gifts to her, gifts he raped her for. Jeanne’s female empowerment results from a man raping her.
This is irony in search of a point. Maybe the point is that patriarchal oppression is everywhere, and even in seizing power a woman must suffer, or even exploit, said oppression. Maybe the point is her rape by Satan awakened her to her own sexuality, or was metaphor for her sexual awakening. (After her second rape by Satan, she grows sultry, and gains command of her sexuality.) An unpleasant implication, but possibly present. I’m having to stretch for these points. Ambiguity is admirable, but this is confused.
I need not say Belladonna is a difficult watch. The surreal treatment of rape can only take the edge off so much. For those who can surmount that first obstacle, the difficulty of Belladonna is not a failing. Beautiful and grotesque, languorous and savage, the film’s style redeems its budget. It even has something non-trite to say, despite mumbling a lot of the words.