The best part of Delta of Venus is Costas Mandylor's bare ass — a pair of perfect globes that twitch and shudder with an authentic expression of desire. Apart from that, the movie, directed by Zalman King and “based on” the perfervid writings of Ana•s Nin, is a comically lush cross between soft-core porn and period romance, a last literary fuckfest before goose-stepping Nazis spoil the party. The film captures — artfully and fatally — Nin's ravishing self-love and utter lack of interest in anything other than her own erotic and literary fortunes. She is an outsize star in a Lilliputian world aswarm with war and thuggery and timid publishers, all of which figure as hindrances to the pursuit of the sensual pleasures that make up the raw material of her literature.
Delta is meant to throb with sexual intensity, but for the most part the self-conscious literariness of its characters is howlingly funny. The Nin character, a young, pouty-mouthed American writer named Elena (Audie England), frames the movie with voice-overs from her diary — somberly smutty passages rescued from self-satire by their author's unshakable faith in her own greatness.
The movie opens in Paris, in the first cold, gray days of 1940. Across Europe there is war and conquest, and an anticipatory dread hangs over the city like the chilly mist over the Seine. That the Germans are coming there is no doubt; the only questions are when and where.
But these are not the sort of questions that trouble Elena. After writing all night, she's out at dawn cruising the riverbank, where she spots Lawrence (Mandylor), an impossibly handsome writer. She watches from a bridge as he rows his skiff; in a grave voice-over she describes his oars dipping into the cold water and the long, slim boat pushing ahead.
Sounds like a case for Dr. Sigmund Freud. But he's not around to help. Instead the two writers meet at a glamorous literary party, where their flirtation consists in the exchange of smoldering looks and insinuating, faux-poetic lines. Perhaps they sense their kinship as scribbling solipsists. Or, more likely, they're just two young, attractive people who are hot for one another. Elena is saved from an engulfing nymphomania only by her literary pretensions, while Mandylor's physical package includes, besides his fine tush, a set of delectably full lips that gives him the look of a young Richard Gere.
In Elena's apartment, they whisper beautifully to one another; he nuzzles her neck with those big lips. She, understandably, moans. Then he pushes her up against the stove and fucks her as she carefully lowers his drawers to give the camera a better peek at his ass. The movie's NC-17 rating (which presumably will be a selling point) results from scenes like this, and from repeated “full frontal nudity” shots of Elena and other women.
If the filmmakers think all the female nudity is pretty bold stuff, they should ask themselves why they go so ludicrously out of their way to avoid showing the men's genitalia. A few times the camera does glimpse a set of balls dangling in the shadows of a bare ass, but the contortive art of posing naked men so that a thigh or a forearm obscures the precious joint is on full, sexist display.
It is not that such glimpses are necessary (though why not?). It's that the imbalance between the filming of the two sexes is so manifest and illogical. And offensive. By going to such lengths to keep penises from being filmed, Zalman King is calling lurid attention to an indefensible practice that reinforces the ancient notion of women as the sexual property of men, who retain, like peep-show patrons, the right to see without being seen. In a movie about sex-crazed writers, the unequal treatment seems especially preposterous.
Of course, the whole movie is preposterous. Elena is told by her agent, Marcel (Eric da Silva), to leave Paris for America, because war is imminent. Publishers aren't buying fiction or anything else, he tells her. She's far too convinced of her own genius to listen to such talk. Still, things aren't good: She breaks up with Lawrence when she comes upon him with a whore on a dark street; she has no money. But she's determined to write, and at last Marcel sets her up as the creator of dirty stories for an anonymous private buyer.
From here the movie spills into wild scenes of bondage and interracial sex and opium-den orgies as Elena's imagination empties itself onto page after page, for each of which she's paid 200 francs. She proudly tells a literary gathering about her “work” and how easily it's flowing out of her. The sex scenes are graphic — and intended to titillate — but their dreamy tone and the heart-thumping score do not make clear whether Elena is actually doing all these lubricious things with all these men or simply wishing she were.
She probably can't tell, either: She just writes it all down the way she thinks it happened to her main character, “Elena” — with blacks, with fascists, and with zonked-out dopeheads.
Finally the fascists come, spoiling the steamy life of writing Elena has arranged for herself. Marcel the literary agent ships out to the front lines. The mysterious buyer of Elena's porn lets it be known that the market is now closed. The game is up.
Delta of Venus might have made a splendid spoof of writerly pretentiousness. Certainly its two young leads excel at poker-faced leers and huskily whispered banalities. And they're both gorgeous enough to command the screen no matter how swampy the narrative in which they find themselves.
But Delta is leaden in its seriousness — and, considering the momentousness of the movie's time and place, it's distressingly unintelligent. The filmmakers might be trying to illuminate the desperate sexual freedom that often accompanies wars and other social upheavals, but they can't muster the storytelling velocity to escape the black hole of Ana•s Nin's self-obsession. The story of two horny writers with puffed-up self-regard could play itself out anytime and anywhere. (Even here and now!)
But by invoking the spectacle of France on the eve of war and occupation without making serious use of it, Delta implodes more wretchedly than it otherwise might have. It's Nin's last revenge.
Delta of Venus opens Fri, Nov. 17, at the Gateway in