Edgy, but Liberating: a Millenial's Thoughts on Belladonna of Sadness

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TRIGGER WARNING: mentions of sexual assault, and this movie is definitely not for children.

 

 

International Women’s Day was this month, and I decided to celebrate it and feminism by watching a very obscure but definitely unforgettable film with feminist undertones: Belladonna of Sadness (or The Tragedy of Belladonna). And oh boy, the first time you watch this movie will be an experience you’ll never forget. I know the term “edgy” can be used as a mocking term in modern society, especially among millennials, but oh golly, this film is the true definition of “edgy.”

Produced in 1973 by Osamu Tezuka’s film company (also the creator of Astro Boy!), Belladonna of Sadness is a very 70s avant-garde adult animated movie loosely based on the tale of Joan of Arc, and inspired by Jules Michelet’s book Satanism and Witchcraft. (If you look up the book, then this movie will be slightly easier to understand.) This movie, described as a metaphor for female liberalization, was made at the right time. The sexual and feminist revolutions were ongoing, and during the same year Belladonna of Sadness was released, the Roe v. Wade case was being heard in the Supreme Court of the United States.

This particular film did not do well at the box office when first released and actually bankrupted its film company. Belladonna of Sadness remained forgotten by the general public and stayed obscure until it finally got a North American release on DVD and Blu-ray in 2016.

When I watched this film for the first time, I was struck by its creativity and honesty, but I could see why this film may not be everyone’s cup of tea. While it did have feminist undertones and portray the struggle of women everywhere and rebellion against patriarchal and religious systems, it’s heavy-handed and not subtle at all. How the movie is animated is also very interesting, because it’s definitely ironic that an animated feature film has very limited animation. Instead, it uses the Ken Burns-style by moving the camera around still drawings and limits animation to several scenes throughout the movie.

 

 

The story begins in France in the Middle Ages, with the protagonist, Jeanne, a beautiful peasant excited to finally marry her husband, Jean. Unfortunately, the first five minutes of the film is probably the happiest minutes in the entire film. The major antagonists, the baron and his wife, are a little too jealous of the happy couple. This conflict is interesting, because unlike many animated movies (read: Disney), this film opens right after the “happily-ever-afters.” The baron’s wife is clearly jealous of Jeanne’s beauty and becomes insecure about her husband’s attraction towards Jeanne, so she is motivated to hurt Jeanne in any way possible. So the plot begins with a woman determined to tear down and hurt another woman in as many ways as possible.

When on their wedding night, the couple brings money to the baron (in the Middle Ages, all the peasants and village people had to pay their higher-ranking uppermen) to pay for the wedding, the baron proclaims that it isn’t enough, and the couple has to pay more. When Jeanne and Jean beg the baron to have a change of heart and say that they cannot afford the increased prices at all, the baron decides that they have to pay in another way. Jean gets thrown out, while Jeanne has to stay and endure whatever the baron and his court have in store for her.

Many movies and television shows that feature a scene involving rape and/or sexual assault often get criticized for glamorizing it so the woman seems like she’s enjoying it (Game of Thrones), downplaying it for laughs or for us to not notice right away (Revenge of the Nerds or Sixteen Candles), or sexualizing rape (the remake of the 1970s film I Spit on Your Grave). Sexual assault is a very difficult and sticky issue to portray in any type of media. That means what happens to Jeanne right after isn’t too good.

What makes Belladonna of Sadness distinct from almost any other film and media is that it shows rape as a very traumatizing and hurtful experience, and portrays it as an experience that the audience can immediately react to, as demonstrated in a very jarring, brutal, trippy, and unsubtle scene. Jeanne gets her body literally torn apart and tortured to hammer home the point that rape in real life isn’t a plot device and just something to get over, but rather a torturous, brutal and traumatizing event.

 

 

Afterwards, the relationship between Jeanne and her husband worsens, with Jean actually attempting to choke Jeanne right after she gets back from the castle and immediately heading off after, leaving Jeanne behind in a puddle of misery and despair.

At the lowest point in her short-lived life so far, a mystical being represented as a small but powerful spirit pops up and introduces himself to Jeanne as the Devil (yes, really).

As the Devil cheers up Jeanne, he pushes the notion that he wants Jeanne to give her soul and body over to him for whatever she wants in return. He encourages Jeanne to get revenge on the baron through some admittedly cocerive and sexually aggressive methods, but Jeanne manages to resist giving in and selling her soul fully for this moment.

Soon afterwards, famine strikes the village and the baron heads out to war. Jean gets worse and worse, by turning to alcohol and other excessive behaviour every day and actually losing one of his hands as a punishment when he fails to do his job as tax collector. But Jeanne, now appointed as a tax collector, gets more powerful with her influence, and soon the entire village comes under her power. As the power of the main male characters weakens, Jeanne’s influence becomes stronger and stronger. For a brief time, things seem like they’re looking up!

 

 

Unfortunately, the baron returns and the vicious baron’s wife gets jealous again of Jeanne’s power and respect. Jeanne then gets accused of being a witch (remember, thinking witches exist was a real thing back then). Jeanne is then run out of the town through a very trippy and traumatizing montage. Jeanne tries to get to safety in Jean and her’s house, but Jean refuses to open the door for her, leaving her out in the cold.

Alone, rejected and humiliated, Jeanne drags herself to the middle of a nearby forest, prepared to die in a cold and unloving place. When the Devil again steps in this time, he’s less reasoning and more forceful with the process of persuading Jeanne to give up her soul and body and make a pact with him, and actually sexually assaults her throughout the process in a very trippy and nightmarish montage. When Jeanne sells herself, it is a traumatizing and yet oddly intriguing process. I cannot really exactly describe what happens through this pivotal plot point, because it has to be seen to be believed.

Afterwards, Jeanne is transformed into a true witch and gains powers. This is very interesting to me because, when she decided to be a witch, she felt ugly inside and showed desire to change her looks to be an old and ugly witch, but the Devil insists that she was born with beauty and that beauty is her ultimate power. For me, it suggests that Jeanne was cursed with beauty and good looks, bringing her misery everywhere in her life, and now she has the chance to use her looks and her sexuality as tools to gain the upper hand.

Eventually, the Black Death comes over the village, and there is suffering. Fortunately, a newly improved Jeanne is back with a vengeance. Soon, people are coming back to her to learn about her healing powers and are rejoicing. It struck me that afterwards, Jeanne rejects wearing clothes at all and gives off a more liberated and sexually confident atmosphere, suggesting the theme that it’s okay for women to be more sexually confident and use their sexuality to gain power and influence.

 

 

Meanwhile, after several incidents involving Jeanne’s magic, the Baron is not happy and wants the powerful Jeanne to be stopped. But that’s easier said than done

Eventually, Jean is convinced to come back to talk to Jeanne properly after a definitely long and less-than-happy time, and the couple sort of reconciles through a memorable and detailed animated scene.

Unfortunately, the happiness is brief. Jean convinces Jeanne to come back to the village, where Jeanne realizes that she has been duped and is arrested by the baron to face execution for the crime of being a witch and using witchcraft. Soon, Jeanne is led to the centre of the village to be burned at the stake for the public to watch on. The tragedy sours even more when Jean suddenly has a change of heart and rushes to protect his wife, but gets killed in the process.

Meanwhile, our story with Jeanne sadly ends with Jeanne burning to death in a painful way, but it isn’t over with feminism. The film concludes with the rest of the onlooking female villagers morphing to all have Jeanne’s face, followed by a montage of artwork featuring women being involved with power and leading rebellions in the French Revolution years later, implying the story of Jeanne didn’t die at the stake and her legacy lived on to liberalize French women throughout time.

 

 

Now, when I finished watching this movie, I obviously had so much to discuss, but I will point out several things about this film:

  1. The artwork is beautiful and worth watching for. It was obvious just five minutes in that the people behind this film definitely spent a lot of time and effort on the imagery. However, it can be both beautiful and incredibly violent and psychedelic. The film seems to have an ulterior intention to shock by pairing or following almost each gorgeous image with a violent or grotesque one.

  2. It did throw me off a little that, for a film that strongly gives off feminist undertones and has a story about a woman gaining power and rebelling against oppressive systems, it sure features a lot of lingering shots on Jeanne’s naked body and wayf more sexual assault than I could personally tolerate. However, if you take a viewpoint that Jeanne actually gains power through sexual awakening and embracing her sexuality, and then manages to rebel against the sexually oppressive societal system by using and showing off her naked body, then it kind of makes sense.

  3. It’s interesting that the film portrays sex in both negative and positive lights. On one hand, sexual assault is a nightmare for Jeanne and it basically makes her life horrible. On the other hand, Jeanne learns to embrace sex and uses it for power and pleasure.

  4. It’s definitely not a movie for everyone. Honestly, I can see why this film can be polarizing. The entire film’s plot is predicated on a sexual assault of the main character, which would really alienate any audience. It’s a very excellent film, but it does feature a lot of sexual assault, violence, and erotic imagery, and is just straight up weird. I don’t think everyone would like this, especially if they’re not comfortable with the dark and depressing themes that Belladonna of Sadness has.

 

 

According to a review from Roger Ebert, the translation of “Belladonna” is “beautiful woman” in French.It’s also is a dangerous and hallucinogenic plant (Jeanne actually holds one in the film, thus the title), which makes sense because it suggests that the film is a mash-up of feminine beauty and insanity-inducing toxicity, which I can agree with. It’s definitely beautiful, but insane at the same time, and will probably leave you uncomfortable, confused and queasy for the next few minutes after you’re done watching.

But to me, I think the entire film was made to make us uncomfortable on purpose. That’s the point. Many women all over this world actually face oppression, sexual assault and/or sexism at least some point in their lives, if not every day. This film doesn’t pull any punches or add any fluff, and rather portrays the harsh realities of being a girl and how it can be a struggle to escape from oppressive systems and make your voice heard.

Would I watch this again? Probably, if only to remember how women can rise up and take power to be equal to men. Would I recommend this to my friends? It honestly depends. Today, when trigger warnings and the #MeToo movement are strong in society, I’m sure that not everyone would be happy with watching such a harsh film with a bleak ending. But yes, while edgy, this film does deserve to be watched, for its feminism undertones, and its artistic and storytelling merits.

Most of all, Belladonna of Sadness gives us the idea that we can rise past the bleak reality to gain inner powers to express ourselves.

The trailer is available for viewing here.

 

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