Tuesday, 12 September 2017
Leave It To Viva
Directed by Anna Biller
Anna Biller Productions/Shameless DVD Region 2
It’s really interesting seeing what is, effectively, Anna Biller’s first full length feature only a few weeks after seeing her second, The Love Witch (reviewed here), because I can now pick up on the tremendous similarities between the two and, temporarily at least, assign director signature traits to her (woohoo!). It also means she pretty much demonstrates, through her various artistic choices which follow through in both films, that she’s very much an ‘auteur’ director in the sense of captaining her specific celluloid ships through the same route. If you see what I mean.
Like The Love Witch, Viva uses a slightly surreal, ‘on the surface’, over the top acting style which I personally associate with American TV sitcoms from the 1950s - 1970s. It’s more overtly signposted within the text here, to a certain extent, due to the fact that Biller seems to be trying her best to make an early to mid-1970s US sexploitation picture and, although the highly comical acting method demonstrated in Viva (and in The Love Witch, for that matter) is certainly not endemic to that genre (although obviously some movies, like Doris Wishman’s films, use it almost by default in terms of the talent of the actors and actresses available), it’s at least ‘of the time’. Biller seems, to me, a little more subversive in that, while she is, after all, very definitely making an exploitation movie - this one has tons of nudity including Biller herself as lead character Barbie/Viva - she seems, at least to me, to be very much expressing it in the same way that an episode of The Brady Bunch or Bewitched might try and portray it. Which is... you know... kinda interesting and certainly makes for the cinematic equivalent of a page turner, in this case.
The opening follows Biller’s character Barbie from the bath where she’s reading a magazine and drinking before she vacates said vessel to get made up and dressed. Roaring off in her red, open top car which, since this is an Anna Biller movie, matches the same shade as the outfit she is wearing. And, that’s another stylistic tag which I’m going to lumber Biller with here... the exceptionally groovy colour palette she uses matches what she did nine years later in The Love Witch in that everybody’s outfits seem designed to either perfectly match to, or contrast against, the decor of the set they are seen in. For example, in one scene where Barbie and her husband are visiting her best friends, Sheila and her husband - two perfect nuclear families with cracks hidden beneath their ‘beautiful people’ surface - one guy is wearing a green top and the other guy is wearing a white shirt but with trousers which match the exact shade of green of the first guy’s top. It’s pretty nice stuff and, although one might say she’s taking a page out of the era in which she’s set this film... Los Angeles 1972... that certainly doesn’t hold for The Love Witch and I think it says more about the director’s impeccable taste when it comes to pulling all the details and colours of the mise en scène together in the most exquisite way. I’m telling you right now people... I’d love to see this woman make an Italian giallo.
She also, like in her later film, uses the decor to express the motivations of her characters... often through the use of paintings which make overt their attitudes towards certain issues. It’s not an uncommon modus operandi but it’s a nice touch and I’ll add that quirk to my ever growing list of Anna Biller signature marks, if I may (at least until she grows in a different direction, as most directors do).
The scene following on from the opening where Sheila and her husband talk about Playboy and drink an alcoholic breakfast ends up with Sheila about to strip down so her good, wholesome husband can take ‘artistic’ shots of her... seems more like a porn movie but it’s incredibly heightened, with lots of fake laughter by all the actors who perform their roles wonderfully (including Biller herself), before Barbie turns up and then both girls strip off for the ‘arty photos’. Biller seems both inspired by Playboy in this movie while similarly poking fun at the people who read it (Shelia proclaims, at one point, that old chestnut “I only read it for the articles...”). It’s a brilliant little parody of the kind of ‘soft porn logic’ combined with deliberately ‘bad acting’ which really nails and telegraphs the mood Biller is going for in a very quick way. She even goes so far as to deliberately mis-match shots to create little continuity errors between them to further authenticate the delivery of her agenda. At least... I assume it was deliberate?
Of course, one of the things which this is doing, in a film inhabited by generally stupid characters, male and female, is to show the sexism and attitudes of either sex in a repressive social set up. You have the guys getting together to talk about their latest technological equipment like their new stereo or TV (actually... that doesn’t sound too different to where we are now, to be honest) and the ladies getting together for conversations which, quite frankly, don’t just fail the Bechdel test but defy it in the most spectacular fashion. One husband, for example, sits patiently for his wife to give him his pipe and light it for him. Now, I grew up in the 1970s so it’s probably harder for me to identify where these common occurrences of everyday sexism (at least as it is perceived these days) begin and end but Biller makes it crystal clear for the audience in one lovely moment when a pampered guy looks straight into the camera and says...
“There's never been a better time to be a man. The willing women. The dandy clothes. The frills. The big rings and jewellery. The open shirts. The sense of entitlement. Take it from me: savour this time. For it will soon be gone, never to return.”
As the film progressed I found that, rather than get bored by what might, at first, seem like a one joke movie, I was witness to a minor masterpiece with something new and rewarding in most scenes. There’s some great stuff in here... the stereotypical gay male hairdresser who is working on Barbie’s hair and the neighbour who comes in to ‘borrow a cup of sugar’ (both Barbie and the hairdresser get turned on by the watching neighbour’s sugar eating shenanigans), the silly songs (which are a heck of a lot more on the nose in this than they were in The Love Witch, it seems to me), the old “Give it to me! Love it! Oh yes!” rapid shoot photographer scene (I used to be a child model in the early 1970s and I can tell you now, stereotype or not, that’s exactly how some of them behaved) and the fact that when her husband is taken ill and being treated in hospital with stress because she comes home late one night rather than have the dinner waiting, she feels it’s appropriate to go to the hospital in a sexy nurse outfit to show how much she intends to care for her husband. There’s some crazy stuff in this film.
Now I was a little puzzled, as I was with The Love Witch when I saw this because, while the director is doing her best to evoke America in the early 1970s, the soundtrack sounds more like it’s been needle-dropped in from Italian composers and, as it turns out once again, that’s exactly what is happening here. However, I figured it out after a while because there were a few scenes which sounded like they were being tracked in from Piero Piccioni’s score to US sexploitation director Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 and, by about the third time it turned up on the soundtrack in one guise or another, I was pretty sure. This is further enhanced during a big orgy scene where Viva, as the reimagined call-girl variation of Barbie is known, is being drug-raped. Biller actually uses the same differential focussing and refocussing trick, timed to the main character’s breathing, that Metzger used in Camille 2000 and which you can find fully described by me in my review of that film here. And this, coupled with the score in this scene, very specifically identifies at least one of the director’s main inspirations for this movie... albeit with a much different motivation towards the subject matter.
About that sequence... although the mise en scène in this shot isn’t nearly as accomplished as Metzger’s original version, Biller takes it all to the next absurdist level. In this one, instead of focussing on flowers, Biller focusses on apples and then, after the shot I just described, the colours posterise and the apples become animated, floating fruits licking and then continuing with one eating the others. That cartoon apple then stretches or warps out to become a load of swirling, psychedelic flowers before the blood or juice of the apple starts to shower down over the live action screen of Viva being molested. It’s almost like the artist is criticising the original scene by going so over the top with it that you can’t help but see how ridiculous it is... at least in this context. I was blown away by the shot in Camille 2000 and still am. However, it’s a great visual moment from Biller in a film which is filled to the brim with amazing stuff like this.
And that’s about as far as I’m going with this review, I think, other than to say that Viva was a total blast to watch and, with lines like (on being informed a man’s wife has got a job interview) “Will you be back in time to cook dinner?” and a parody of Just Two Little Girls From Little Rock from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film has enough surprises and little tricks up its sleeve to keep you entertained for its considerable two hours (a fair amount longer than most of the sexploitation films the director is parodying to make her points here). A solid recommendation on this one with the reminder that you need to keep an open mind about the style of acting in this and not dismiss it until you realise how skillful the artists are being here. Now I just have to wait around while the lady in question makes another movie. Can we have a giallo next, please?