Aug 31, 2013

The Satin Spider


If Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid (La Paloma, Shadow of Angels aka Schatten der Engel) attempted to direct a sub-high-camp lipstick lesbian-themed Nunsploitation flick, it might have resembled the decidedly decadent dandyish dyke-fest L'araignée de Satin AKA The Satin Spider (1984) directed by French auteur Jacques Baratier and starring Ingrid Caven (who was incidentally Schmid’s filmic diva/muse and Fassbinder’s ex-wife) and Catherine Jourdan (The Girl on a Motorcycle, Eden and After). Co-penned by French feminist filmmaker Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, Anatomy of Hell) and based on the marginal 1921 proto-surrealist play Les Détraquées written by Pierre Palau and Polish-French neurologist Joseph Babinski revolving around the murder of a young girl at an all girls school by the principal and her accomplice, which alpha-surrealist André Breton referenced in his iconic novel Nadja (1928), The Satin Spider is a pleasantly politically incorrect combination of sensual Sapphic sleaze, wacky and wanton pop-psychology, macabre diva worship, pseudo-spiritual surrealism, Dietrich-esque teenage drag king debauchery, and other tastelessly tasteful things that is more likely to interest fans of high-camp European arthouse cinema and sadomasochistic Sapphic Gothic girls than art-antagonistic fans of Women in Prison films (WiP) and other forms of Euro-sleaze and exploitation cinema. Although virtually unknown today, The Satin Spider director Jacques Baratier won the Jury Prize at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival for his celluloid fable Goha (1958) starring Omar Sharif and would go on to director other notable avant-garde works like the campy and surreal sci-fi flick La poupée (1962) and the expressionistic gothic ‘game’ flick Piège (1970) starring Bulle Ogier and playwright/filmmaker Fernando Arrabal. Baratier’s penultimate work before his death in 2009 at the well past ripe age of 91 years old, The Satin Spider is clearly the work of a man who had to sacrifice some of his artistic vision for sex appeal so as to get more perverts into theaters, but one must respect an elderly old school auteur who has the gall to direct a femme fatale-filled film about lethal and lecherous lesbians. A perversely poetic and pathologically phantasmagorical work crammed with lurid, sordid, and sensually sacrilegious themes typical of filmmakers/writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Georges Bataille, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Cocteau, and Fernando Arrabal, among countless others, that unquestionablly makes for the perfect double-feature with the abnormally good nunsploitation flick Killer Nun (1978) aka Suor Omicidi starring Anita Ekberg and Joe Dallesandro, but also makes for a bittersweet guilty pleasure for Werner Schroeter fans, The Satin Spider—a perverse period piece set in decadent France right after World War I centering around a kraut carpet-muncher-controlled French Catholic school for girls—brings reasonably superlative style, but not much substance, to lesbo pederasty, aberrant Catholic mysticism, morphine-inspired exorcisms, and molestation-based mental illness. 

 It is the early 1920s and Madame de Challens (Ingrid Caven) is the hot yet patently pernicious and perverted Aryan headmistress at the French Catholic Les Fauvettes School for Girls and she rather enjoys her job as it gives her the perfect cover for molesting beauteous young girls and converting them to the cock-less world of lipstick lesbianism. Solange (Catherine Jourdan) is the headmistress’ semi-butch lover and the gynocentric gym/ballet teacher of the school who sports a bleach blonde dude cut reminiscent of Mia Farrow from Rosemary's Baby (1968) and has an unhealthy addiction to morphine and satin fabric, the latter of which has turned her into a reckless kleptomaniac who cannot help but steal any and every piece of satin she spots in stores. Due to her debilitating satin sickness, Solange has been arrested many times, which has led her to be put under the observation of a perverted psychologist, who wallows in parading around the luscious lezzy in front of his quack soul-doctor friends. When an ebony-haired and large-eyed teenage debutante schoolgirl named Lucienne (Alexandra Sycluna), who lost her Iron Cross-decorated Teutonic father during the Great War and has never been mentally the same since, runs away from the Les Fauvettes School for Girls, she brings back a peculiar police inspector named Levron (Michel Albertini), who questions principal Challens about the dubious suicide of a young pupil who apparently threw herself down a well. A callous and calculating cold cunt ice queen in existentialist hell who lost her ‘great love’ long ago (she ritualistically places flowers in a vase next to a portrait of herself and her dead girlfriend), Challens wears her innate emotional brutality and bodacious bitchiness on her sleeve, so the inspector concludes she might be a girl-killer when she chalks up the suicide of the child to mere “bad luck.” 

 Things get rather risky in the already radically risqué world of The Satin Spider when a bizarre love triangle develops between principal Challens, gym teacher Solange, and pupil Lucienne, with the former two vying for the attention of the latter when not rubbing bushes with one another. While Challens is busy looking at pornographic portraits she has taken of her pupils, as well as attempting to get into the panties of as many said pupils as possible, Solange takes Lucienne to a magical island mansion via boat, where the two delight in decadent romance. After Lucienne dresses up in ancient knight armor, Solange declares the regalia to be the “perfect chastity belt” and proceeds to sexually “conquer” her “piece by piece.” Whilst molesting young lass Lucienne in a melancholy morphine haze, Solange confesses her satin fetish is the result of being raped on a train as a young girl by a man (also played by Michel Albertini) with satin gloves, who ultimately died when the train crashed and whose presence (she constantly dreams/daydreams of him) and sexual prowess has haunted her ever since. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls from the Les Fauvettes School make their way to the mansion on the ‘Island of Sand’ for a naughty night of nympho hedonism.  After Ingrid Caven as Challens gives one of her iconic diva cabaret performances in the merry yet melancholy vein of Schmid’s La Paloma (1974) and Fassbinder’s Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975), a psychologist declares she has “an alarming urge for self-flagellation,” thus associating lesbianism with self-degradation. After Challens' charming camp act, a number of the schoolgirls put on male suits and slick back their hair, and as debauched drag queens, dance with other girls, eventually (de)evolving into an all out Sapphic orgy of the non-penetrating sort. The next day, Lucienne, who has a propensity for acting erratically and running away, disappears and inspector Levron smells foul play. As later revealed, a quack of a Catholic priest who has an unhealthy obsession with Thomas Aquinas performs an erotic exorcism on Lucienne while the girl lay nude on the altar. While assuming the exorcism was successful due to Lucienne's spastic snake-like movements that eventually result with the melodramatic collapse on the unclad girl, the lost lesbo soul was actually fed an overdose of morphine by Solange and has simply dropped dead. While in an opium-addled psychosis, Solange mistakes inspector Levron, who as an officer of the law has no problems groping the lunatic lezzy with his satin gloves, as the man who raped her long ago, but she is is in for a startling surprise when she is arrested for the murder of lovely fallen angel Lucienne. In the end, the Les Fauvettes School for Girls more resembles a lascivious loony bin for lipstick lesbians than a conserative place of Catholic studies. 

 In what upon superficial glance seems to a banal church scene during the first half of The Satin Spider, the school girls sing the symbolic song lyrics “husband of my soul” while with an icon of Jesus Christ superimposed in the background, thus assumedly insinuating that Catholicism breeds lesbianism while also making for the perfect cover for a cock-celibate crypto-carpet-muncher, thereupon making the film the inverse of the stereotypical homo priest pederasty. Like French auteur Alain Fleischer’s phantasmagorical surrealist Zoo zéro (1979), which also starred Catherine Jourdan, and Jean-Pierre Mocky’s absurdist horror flick Litan (1980), The Satin Spider is an idiosyncratic celluloid oddity that transcends the typically fine line between cultivated kitsch and cheesy Euro-sleaze, which also makes it a cinematic work with a very marginal audience. Aside from possibly its aberrantly amorous Sapphic sex scenes, The Satin Spider is also bound to offend lesbians, especially of the loony lipstick sort, as it portrays them as intemperate nymphomaniacs suffering from various forms of neurosis. For example, Solange became a Sappho sadist after being brutally raped, thus making her incapable of consummating coitus with men.

 Rather surprisingly, the most politically correct book Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video (1994) gave The Satin Spider a reasonably favorable review, stating of the film, “this psychological suspense drama drips with lesbian sexuality…The plot revolves around the disappearance of a girl and the ensuing police investigation, but it is not the thriller aspect that will interest the viewer but rather its bold, sensuous depiction of women loving women.” Not surprisingly, my girlfriend, who is rampantly and unabashedly heterosexual, found seeing her hero Ingrid Caven groping young girls to be rather revolting and even grotesque, which I cannot blame her for, and one can only assume what the actress' homosexual ex-husband Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have thought about it had he seen the film. Personally, I enjoyed The Satin Spider simply because Caven stars in the film in such an atypical role, even if she essentially plays the role she always plays; herself, albeit with a lily-licking twist.  A gynocentric Gothic psychodrama dripping with Sapphic sensuality and sizzling diva juices, The Satin Spider is like the The Magdalene Sisters (2002) from pussy purgatory meets the retarded but more beauteous stepsister of Day of the Idiots (1981), even if it is not especially sexually explicit in its imagery as a Nunsploitation film like Walerian Borowczyk's Interno di un convento (1978) aka Behind Convent Walls, but it certainly made me think wounded diva Ingrid Caven should have taken on more seductively Sapphic roles during her acting career.

-Ty E

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