Color, 1977, 95 mins. 34 secs.
Directed by David Hamilton
Starring Patti D'Arbanville, Mona Kristensen, Gilles Kohler, Bernard Giraudeau, Mathieu Carrière
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Access-A (Blu-ray) (Japan RA HD), Busch Media Group (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), LDJ Editions (Blu-ray & DVD) (France R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9). Pathfinder (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)

Following the explosive Bilitisworldwide success of Emmanuelle by BilitisFrench photographer turned director Just Jaeckin, European directors were scrambling to repeat its success with lots of soft focus erotic sagas about women discovering their sexuality all around the globe. The Jaeckin formula was most closely replicated by another photographer and first-time director, David Hamilton, a British fashion photographer who had successfully relocated to Paris. He came up with the savvy idea of making his first film, Bilitis, in the style of his gauzy and sometimes scandalous photographs seen various magazines and coffee table books, with a tie-in book of his photos from the production released to promote it. On top of that he brought aboard Oscar-winning composer Francis Lai (Love Story, A Man and a Woman, Emmanuelle 2), who delivered one of his most beautiful and frequently covered scores. In fact, the soundtrack was far easier to find than the actual film for many years. Hamilton repeated the film and tie-in photography book formula for his subsequent films, though he eventually stopped directing in the mid-'80s and focused exclusively on photography until his ignominious end. Seen today this film is particularly significant as the intersection of multiple significant contributors in addition to the ones Bilitismentioned above, most notably screenwriter Bilitisand taboo-shredding director and novelist Catherine Breillat (Romance, Fat Girl) and Warhol Factory regular Patti D'Arbanville, who had just appeared in Rancho Deluxe and would go on to mainstream(ish) films like Modern Problems, Big Wednesday, and The Boys Next Door.

Inspired by an 1894 French poetry collection by Pierre Louÿs passed off as rediscovered Sapphic works from ancient Greece, the story follows young Bilitis (a character roughly a decade younger than D'Arbanville actually was at the time) who attends an all girls' school in the French countryside. Everyone passes the time bicyclicng, skinny dipping, and putting on Greek-inspired outdoor pageants, and Bilitis is anxious about having to grow up and discover the various aspects of love. The opportunity to find out more seems to present itself when she spends the summer at the home of married Pierre (Kohler) and Melissa (Kristensen, Hamilton's wife at the time), who have a complex and, by implication, abusive relationship. Bilitis finds herself becoming infatuated with Melissa while also wanting to find her a better bedmate, which is complicated further when Bilitis herself is pursued by Lucas (Giraudeau), an up and coming photographer.

Extremely light on plot, Bilitis is essentially a character study of the still immature title character coping with various different roads she can take on the path to adulthood -- with a melancholy realization at the end hinted at by the fact that this opens with her sadly looking back at the summer via a series of very BilitisHamilton Bilitisphotographic memories. Despite a fair amount of intermittent female nudity, the sexual content here is far from explicit which obviously made this ideal for late night cable TV play; the film definitely tries to keep things classy with its dreamy photography, tasteful dabbling in same-sex caressing, and a late film appearance by art film mascot Mathieu Carrière, who gets to stand around gazing intensely a lot. This approach certainly wasn't exclusive to Hamilton, with other directors like Walerian Borowczyk mining similar territory (especially in Immoral Tales) to far more transgressive effect-- not surprising since they shared this film's cinematographer, Bernard Daillencourt. This approach even filtered through (literally) to Hollywood for a while as well, most notably in the films of Adrian Lyne with titles ranging from Foxes to Lolita, though now it's obviously fallen long out of vogue.

Despite its successful indie theatrical release in the U.S. from Topar Films and its occasional cable TV play, Bilitis essentially dropped off the radar without even earning a legitimate VHS U.S. release. Ironically, Hamilton's next two films which received less theatrical play, Laura and Tendres Cousines, got very wide tape editions, as did his lesser known A Summer in St. Tropez and Premiers Desirs. Eventually a very low profile 2007 DVD turned up from Pathfinder, along with a bad bootleg from the dodgy New Star Video. The film fared far better in Europe (particularly France) where it enjoyed a few legit DVD editions and a 2014 Blu-ray release in both France and Germany, Bilitisalbeit without any English-friendly options. (A bootleg BD-R from Spain ripped the same file and added an English track, but it's best avoided.) Scanned from a 4K restoration of the original negative, it looked great at the time and still holds up well on Bilitisthe 2022 U.S. debut Blu-ray from Fun City Editions. Hamilton's style isn't exactly the friendliest to video compression, but the Blu-ray handles it well with the delicate textures coming through quite nicely throughout. Thankfully you get both the French and English audio options here with optional English subtitles; both sound good with Lai's magnificent score served well either way. As for which track is preferable, that's a bit of a toss up as it was mostly shot without live sound and the majority of the actors speaking English. (D'Arbanville visibly alternates between French and English depending on the scene.) Carrière gets to keep his own voice and natural dialogue delivery, but otherwise it's dubbed either way. Overall the French one sounds classier, while the English is technically more "authentic" even if it plays clunkier at times. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson provide a new audio commentary in which they cover the accusations against Hamilton at the end of his life, the impact of his style, Breillat's contributions, other erotic films of the era, and an argument to assign authorship of the film to D'Arbanville. Ported over from the French disc is a video interview with camera operator Noël Very (19m7s), "Le flou Hamiltonnien" (or "The Hamilton Blur"), in which he talks about getting the gig on this film thanks to his work with Borowczyk, the use of a "Harrison diffuser" to create the film's signature visual effect, and the aesthetic approach with light used to bring that photographic style to life. Also included is a booklet featuring a new essay by Samm Deighan who offers several interesting observations about the film and its numerous connections to Breillat's unsettling A Real Young Girl, which was made a year earlier but took much longer to reach the public.

Fun City Editions (U.S. Blu-ray)

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LDJ (French Blu-ray)

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Reviewed on March 8, 2022