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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Story of D
by Donald Levit

The center of writer-director Pola Rapaport’s first full feature, Writer of O, is Dominique Aury, pen name of Anne Declos (1907-98). Despite a long career in the world of French letters, as translator, reader and editor for Gallimard publishers and as an author and critic awarded the Legion d’Honeur, and particularly given the notoriety of Britain’s John de St. Jorre’s sensational revelation in The New Yorker in 1994, the surname Aury remains unrecognized. Researching for a book about Olympia Press, St. Jorre uncovered her as the writer behind a second nom de plume, Pauline Réage, whose 1954 Story of O/Histoire d’O inflamed and scandalized the public and judicial systems of two continents and was continued in 1969, with considerably less succès de scandale, as Return to Roissy.

Challenges of the Production Code like The Outlaw, I Am a Camera, The Moon Is Blue, I Am Curious (Yellow) and its (Blue) sequel are often funny today, just as many literary scandals (smuggled in from Paris by tourists) in retrospect seem well-written but not so very good as books, after all, including Aury-Réage’s huge success of its day. Just Jaeckin, by the way, made a glossy soft-core Story of O in 1975, followed a dozen years later by Eric Rochat’s Part Two and its added sexual seduction of an entire conglomerate.

The current film is interesting for its footage of the 1950s French capital and powerful cultural élite, along with recent interviews with literature’s survivors (among them Greenwich Village’s Barney Rosset, Grove Press’ pioneer owner and First Amendment champion). But they are elderly now, their enthusiastic assessments of Story of O overblown and behind the times, as a rereading clearly shows.

Effective, too, is the recreation of Regine Deforges’ 1975 interview with the authoress (played by Catherine Mouchet). But the highlight is the close-up real interview with Aury at eighty-nine in her country estate, so delightfully humorous and pixie-like that one would immediately love her as an aunt. The director’s “interest in people who kept profound secrets about their personalities” spurred the film, but one must question if the result merits seven years’ planning.

Everything goes along on one even keel, intercut with Director of Photography (and Rapaport’s husband) Wolfgang Held’s heavy, jet black-cream flesh-carmine red-dominated voice-over scenes from the novel (Pénélope Puymirat as O) alternating with fictionalized moments of Aury’s Paris life adapted from her essay, “Girl in Love,” and revolving around her all-night writing and twenty-year love affair with the older literary lion Jean Paulhan.

The concept would be raked by feminists such as Susan Brownmiller, for whom “pornography is the undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda,” but while the mild Aury says she wrote O as simply a “love letter” to Paulhan, men of letters talk of a novel of high talent and a strike at the Bowdlers and Mesdames Grundy and analyze it as a consideration of freedom via unconditional submission, fulfillment found in pain, stimulation through debasement, liberation by way of sex and art. All of this is to protest, and read in, too much. Perhaps many a retiring businessman/-woman is a wildcat in the boudoir or, if not so physically, at least in the unfettered, unacted imagination. Dif’rent strokes. Paulhan’s defense of de Sade does not mean, or not mean, that in private he was other than a kind and considerate lover.

For the moment, censorship leans toward the political rather than the sexual, though the pendulum will swing one day. If this film had devoted more of its eighty minutes to this serious post-9/11 issue, it would have been more topical; and had it featured more of the engaging aged Dominique Aury and less pseudo-literary and –psychological speculation, it would have been on surer footing. 

(Released by Zeitgeist Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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