Bel Ami (1975)

A very liberal swinging ’70s adaptation of tragic French hedonist Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel of the same name, Bel Ami fits beautifully into director Mac Ahlberg’s series of similar raunchy revisions of classic world literature, starting with his 1968 take on John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (and its bastard offspring Around the World With Fanny Hill) and continuing to include the likes of Emile Zola (Nana), the Marquis de Sade (Justine & Juliette) and Daniel Defoe (Moll Flanders turned into Molly).  Eschewing the story’s haunting fatalism, which will undoubtedly be better served by the upcoming “straight” version starring Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson (who should have a tough time trying to make oldtimers such as myself forget George Sanders’s definitive portrayal in Albert Lewin’s faithful 1947 rendition as The Private Affairs of Bel Ami), it’s a happy go lucky farce built around the talent both actorly and amatory of American abroad Harry Reems.  Seeking refuge from the seemingly neverending legal repercussions of his taking part in Gerard Damiano’s landmark Deep Throat, Reems was nearing the end of a shortlived Swedish cycle for Ahlberg and fellow ex-pat Joe Sarno, followed by a self-imposed seven year hiatus from hardcore until his carnal comeback with Gary Graver’s 1982 Society Affairs.  Quite contrary to radio silence however, this stretch contains some of the strangest films of his entire career like Japanese filmmaker Shinya Yamamoto’s madcap Harry and His Geisha Girls, Canadian director Claude Fournier’s crazy cop com Hot Dogs and one shot Arthur Jeffreys’s all too aptly titled vigilante horror Demented.

Cast as sole stud amidst a plethora of Euro femme pulchritude, Harry has a field day as priggish poet George Duroy from the lofty literary revue New Morality Magazine, inspecting an erotic exhibition – all the better to decry Western civilization’s descent into pornographic squalor, of course – hosted by his longtime antagonist and Playhouse scandal sheet editor Charles Forrestier, played by familiar French character actor and occasional – if not here – porn performer André Chazel who did the dirty in Werner Hedman’s sexy spy spoofs Agent 69 Jensen in the Sign(s) of the Scorpio and Sagittarius.  A literal run-in with the skin rag’s Kitten of the Year Anita (gorgeous German Christa Linder, born to play the title role in Alfonso Brescia’s hit or miss historical farce Helen, Yes…Helen of Troy) brings on an impromptu case of priapism which sends him into a tailspin of serial seduction whilst simultaneously propelling him to the upper echelon as a profoundly probing investigative journalist at the rival publication.

Nearly non-stop sex ensues, an impressively indefatigable Reems tirelessly trawling through some of the choicest cheesecake Eurotica has to offer with such infectious cheer, on both sides, that this never even risks becoming boring.  A prime example of this movie’s rambunctious brand of cheekiness is provided by the elaborate sequence of shamefully neglected conductor’s spouse and former nude model eager to pick up her ancient trade Stephanie Von Rausch, portrayed with abundant abandon by delectable Danish adult actress Lisbeth Olsen who starred in several of her porno-pioneering native country’s early carnal classics such as Stig Sven’s curiously compelling The Blue Balloon and Paul Gerber’s popular Keyhole.  As her husband feverishly swings his baton to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on a TV set in the corner of the room, the adulterous couple’s climaxes are timed to precision to coincide with the piece’s gunfire and fireworks crescendo !  Perhaps Denmark’s most notorious double act, husband and wife Bent and Anne Bie Warburg, both appear with only the Missus getting her jollies, albeit simulated and body doubled (an oldfashioned gal at heart, she apparently only put out for her man), as Harry’s Girl Friday Clothilde, coming to his rescue when he’s most hard up, proving that a friend in need is a friend indeed !

Sure, the Swedes may have been a liberated people but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any kind of pecking order among porno starlets, with the more familiar faces performing strictly softcore regardless of what insert footage might lead one to believe.  The elegant French actress Jacqueline Laurent who portrays lonely publisher’s wife Rebecca Walter was memorably cast as Lina Romay’s unfortunate mom in Jess Franco’s off the wall Lorna, the Exorcist but also appeared on the sidelines of another Swedish skin classic, playing the stern housekeeper in Torgny Wickman’s splendid Practice Makes Perfect.  As her carnally curious daughter Suzanne, the magnificent Marie Forsa’s something of an odd girl out.  Discovered by Sarno for his 1973 vampires ‘n’ velvet opus The Devil’s Plaything, then just barely aged eighteen (although she reportedly carried business cards at all times erroneously stating she was a full two years younger than that !), this ultimate blonde and blue-eyed Swedish siren made quite a splash for both her mentors.  While no visual proof has surfaced, both Reems and Eric Edwards (her leading man on Sarno’s beautiful Butterflies) have gone on record to confirm she definitely did have “real sex” with them while cameras were rolling but insisted on a clause in her contract that none of the “offending” footage could be used so as not to obstruct any envisaged mainstream career which sadly failed to materialize.

No such qualms for the “lesser” ladies rounding out the cast.  First and foremost, there’s black beauty Lucienne Camille as the princess of a fictional wartorn African country prompting the film’s timely make love not war coda.  Born in dreary county Kent as no less exotic sounding Sylvia Bayo to parents hailing from the sunny Seychelles, she had been semi-regular eye candy on Frankie Howerd’s insanely succesful sitcom Up Pompeii when her willingness to disrobe brought her to the attention of the British Isles’s few and far between fornication filmmakers such as Stanley Long and slumming Spaniard José Ramon Larraz for whom she appeared in the prostitution through the ages thriftstore epic On the Game and the racy psycho chiller Deviation respectively.  Both barely rose above the notoriously uptight country’s level of acceptance which cannot be said of her participation in a number of oft-incarcerated pornographer John Lindsay’s considerably more explicit loops, the shooting of which was exceedingly well-covered in Long’s mostly serious if tremendously entertaining Brit porn doc Naughty!  Too bad her rough ‘n’ tumble romp with Reems seems over within seconds, especially since there’s so little footage of the elusive starlet (who passed away from leukemia in 2006, aged 65) to go round.  Pretty Pia Rydberg (playing the philandering editor’s free-spirited spouse) popped up in most of Mac’s ‘core capers and statuesque Gloria Leonard lookalike Lotte Cardy’s a solo shot.

Retaining at least the skeleton of the original narrative structure as well as nearly all character names, Ahlberg has fashioned one of his most enjoyable erotic efforts, frequently funny and surprisingly fast-paced for such a hefty running time.  It’s a measure of the cultural as well as sexual freedom within Scandinavian society at the time that their movie industry’s respected professionals might proudly produce pornography without risking any sort of backlash whatsoever.  A noted cameraman for Swedish TV and heritage cinema (shooting Vilgot Sjöman’s legendary small screen documentary Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, cementing my conviction that absolutely anyone employed in that country’s film business sooner or later comes into contact with their most famous artistic export, sort of a Scandinavian version of six degrees of Kevin Bacon !), Ahlberg put his “dirty decade” – which kicked off with 1965’s racy blockbuster I, a Woman (a massive stateside success thanks to Radley Metzger’s Audubon Films) – behind him by crossing the pond to return to his erstwhile occupation as a sophisticated and sought after DoP on ventures as varied as Tom DeSimone’s seminal slasher Hell Night, Stuart Gordon’s early burst of creepy creativity with Re-AnimatorFrom Beyond and Dolls and the longrunning Fred Savage TV show The Wonder Years !

Bearing in mind his expertise in the field, one would logically expect Mac to lense his own lustfests but save for one or two occasions this was usually not the case, leaving another acclaimed artist (as with most of his XXX work, this was Tony Forsberg who went on to shoot 1992’s Sunday’s Children by Daniel Bergman, based on a screenplay by…his dad Ingmar, proving my point) to bridge the gap.  Sole downside may be Olivier Toussaint’s overused theme tune, popping up in an endless number of orchestral variations yet still wearing out its welcome in record time, apparently pilfered from one of the syrupy scores he penned with his composing compadre Paul de Senneville.  Apart from livening up Franco’s uncharacteristically goodnatured Celestine, Maid at Your Service, this duo frequently collaborated with jetsetting Jean-Marie Pallardy on his invariably ambitious if not always entirely effective erotic epics like Sweet Sierra and A Very Special Woman as well as what might be selfrighteous anarchist Jean-Pierre Mocky’s most mainstream movie, the unsettling cop thriller No Pockets in a Shroud, spawning an international chart hit for them with the insanely catchy Dolannes Melody with Romania’s own Gheorghe Zamfir ever so briefly achieving the seemingly impossible by making the pan flute seem cool !

Directed by Mac Ahlberg. Written by Ahlberg (as Edward Mannering), based on the novel Bel Ami, or, The History of a Scoundrel by Guy de Maupassant. Produced by Inge Ivarson for Filminvest AB. Photographed by Tony Forsberg. Music by Olivier Toussaint. Starring Harry Reems (George Duroy), Marie Forsa (Suzanne Walter), Christa Linder (Anita), Anne Bie Warburg (Clothilde), Jacqueline Laurent (Rebecca Walter), Lucienne Camille (Princess Lucienne), Pia Rydberg (Madeleine Forrestier), Lisbeth Olsen (Stephanie Von Rausch), Lotte Cardy (Party Crasher), André Chazel (Charles Forrestier), Bent Warburg (Gordon, the Photographer), Preben Mahrt (Samuel Walter), Ewert Granholm (Herman Von Rausch), Göthe Grefbo (Mr. Potts), Christina Hellman (Karin), Eva Axén (Nude Dancer) & Christine Gyhagen (Barfly). Running time : 104 minutes.

By Dries Vermeulen

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