Jul 9, 2013

Mata Hari (1985)

Without question, executed Dutch spy Mata Hari was a social-climbing slut and real-life femme fatale whose talent for flesh-peddling and leading on men for her own personal gain not only led to her own premature demise, but also the inadvertent deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers due to her espionage work. Although essentially a big budget softcore flick disguised as a spy thriller and World War I period piece, Mata Hari (1985) does a passable job in portraying the life and death of a female spy whose hypnotic sensuality was more deleterious to Europa's military officers than any flying bullets. Directed by the late great Curtis Harrington (What's the Matter with Helen?, The Killing Kind) and produced by Cannon Films, as well as starring the delectable yet tragic Dutch whore Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle (in)famy in the role of a historical Dutch whore, Mata Hari is relatively sympathetic to its protagonist, if not portraying her than a less than ingenious exotic dancer whose rampant moral looseness and weakness for aristocratic gentlemen put her in a wayward and wanton web of deceit, degeneracy, and—eventually—death. A woman who grew up in a broken home and who married a Dutch Colonial Army Captain twenty years her senior living in the then Dutch East Indies (what is today Indonesia) at the mere age of 18 after reading the man’s ‘wife-wanted’ ad in a newspaper, which enabled her to socially climb to the Dutch Upper-class and live in relative financial privilege, Mata Hari (born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle) ultimately faced physical and emotional abuse from her husband (who kept a concubine), so she escaped to the wonderful world of xenophilia by studying Indonesian culture and customs, joined a local dance company, and de-Christianized herself “Mata Hari” (Indonesian for “sun” or literally “eye of the day”). After the death of her son under dubious circumstances relating to complications with syphilis (some believe that both of her children contracted the disease from their parents; others believe they were perniciously poisoned by a vengeful servant) and divorcing her husband, Mata Hari moved to Paris, France and dedicated her life to decadence and degeneracy as a so-called ‘artistic’ dancer, absurdly proclaiming to be an authentic Javanese princess and ultimately becoming the mistress of various wealthy industrialists, bluebloods, prominent military officers, and politicians. Essentially ignoring her entire back story before she became a celebrated dancer turned spy, Harrington’s Mata Hari is mainly held together via a fictitious bizarre romantic triangle between Mata Hari and two friends/military officers, French Georges Ladoux (ironically played by Swiss-German Oliver Tobias) and the German Karl von Bayerling (further ironically played by Occitan French Christopher Cazenove). Sort of like Jean Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece La Grande Illusion (1937) aka Grand Illusion meets Emmanuelle (1974), Mata Hari is softcore cinema with a couple campy shades of class that owes any ‘artistic’ merit it has to auteur Curtis Harrington’s exquisite, if not absurdly eroticized, direction. 

 Mata Hari (Sylvia Kristel) is a bisexual babe who will screw any and every handsome (and sometimes less than handsome) man in a military uniform and when she runs into brothers from different mothers, Georges Ladoux (Oliver Tobias), a dark-haired Frenchman and Karl von Bayerling (Christopher Cazenove), a blond-haired German, admiring Indonesian art at a Paris Museum in 1914, they inevitably form a threesome on opposing sides of the war effort after the Great War breaks out. Hari enjoys mystifying her own background, proudly proclaiming to her gentlemen callers, “They told me I was a predestined soul, dedicated to Shiva, god of the mysteries of love.” After boarding a train and spontaneously engaging with carnal knowledge with a ‘handsome traveler’ (Derek de Lint) who is absurdly killed during mid-coitus, horny Hari finds herself a murder suspect of sort, but is ultimately freed by her charming kraut boy toy von Bayerling, a classic gentleman and rare German Francophile who flirts with the exotic dancer with conspicuously cheesy lines like, “You remind me of Paris. Of everything that’s intriguing, innovative, different.” Unfortunately, von Bayerling’s frog friend seems to be a lesser gentleman, as he frames Mata Hari as an informant and declares she join the Allied spy effort after running into her in Paris again where she is performing a six-armed Goddess Kali act. Mata Hari also has the misfortune of being blackmailed by two crazy kraut villains, a certain ‘Fräulein Doktor’ (Gaye Brown)—a demented doctor of psychology and mastermind of German intelligence who is quite butch, to say the least—and her Svengali-like assistant Wolff (played by Fassbinder superstar/perennial villain Gottfried John). Of course, being a dainty ditz with big tits, Hari’s main motivation is attempting to go behind enemy lines disguised as a nurse and rescuing her Aryan charmer Captain von Bayerling after she learns he may have been hurt. In the process of her espionage escapades and sex-scapades, Mata Hari gets a number of fine young European men killed, but she almost makes up for it by thwarting an explosive Teutonic assassination plot masterminded by the nefarious Fräulein Doktor and her wolfish associate Wolff. Rather unfortunately, Mr. Ladoux catches Hari in a rather compromised situation where she is arrested for spying, given a show trial, and executed while her guilty French lover watches on. Possibly owing to Curtis Harrington’s homosexuality, friends-turned-enemies Karl von Bayerling and Georges Ladoux find reconciliation over the mutual melancholy as a result of Mata Hari's very public execution, proving the truism ‘bros before hoes’ can be classy when in the context of old school European military officers. 

In his posthumously released memoir Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business (2013), director Curtis Harrington wrote regarding Mata Hari, which was incidentally his last feature-length film, “I think it turned out well. One French reviewer even said something to the effect of, “Kristel shows acting talent in this film that we had not suspected she had.” As was the pattern with many of my feature films, Mata Hari was better received in Europe than in the United States.” And, indeed, with its anti-war message and fratricidal and anti-romantic characterization of World War I, relatively respectful portrayal of the European aristocracy, depiction of an orgy and a lesbian Ménage à trios, poetically stylized battle sequences and sex scenes (including a female masturbation scene that producers forced Harrington to add to the film), and adulation of a high-class hooker, it is easy to see why the average John Wayne-wannabe American filmgoer might not have taken too kindly to Mata Hari. As proven by the unsealing of formerly confidential German documents in the 1970s, the real-life Mata Hari was indeed a German spy and not simply a scapegoat whose ‘glamorous’ execution, to quote one of the French military characters in Harrington’s film, would simply “do wonders for the Army’s morale.”   Like the real-life Mata Hari, star Sylvia Kristel, who came from a broken home and was even molested as a child, was sexually exploited and thus would inevitably learn how to exploit her own body for personal gain.  While Ms. Kristel was far from the greatest actress in the world, she was certainly a great choice for Mata Hari, even if her performance is totally eclipsed by Greta Garbo's legend-creating performance in the pre-code Hollywood flick Mata Hari (1931) directed by George Fitzmaurice.  As Harrington wrote in his memoir, “Sylvia was a huge star in France, and her fans came out in droves.  These days Mata Hari enjoys a certain cult status among them, and maybe even a few fans of my own. I do believe I was able to add my touch to the proceedings.”  And, indeed, without Harrington's cultivated, if not compromised, direction, it is hard for me to imagine that I would enjoy Mata Hari as much as I do as a sort of lavish art-sploitation flick with a modest budget directed by an underrated auteur from a different era who was not a huge fan of Josef von Sternberg and friend of James Whale for nothing.  As Mata Hari demonstrates, if anyone could bring class to celluloid exploitation trash and glamor to a glorified porn star, it was Curtis Harrington.

-Ty E

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