Color, 1976, 93 mins. 44 secs.
Directed by Christian Gion
Starring Roger Van Hool, Jacqueline Kerry, Tony Taffin, Ysabelle Lacamp, Arlette Balkis
Nucleus Films (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Le Chat Qui Fume (Blu-ray) (France R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Thanks to the success of Emmanuelle in 1974, French cinema suddenly exploded with erotically transgressive films that also managed to sneak in a critique or two of the country's longstanding colonialist behavior around the world. The time proved to be perfect for a film adaptation of Le jardin des supplices, a scandalous and very Sadean 1899 novel by Octave Mirbeau, author of the frequently adapted The Diary of a Chambermaid. The novel had also been adapted into a notorious 1920s Grand Guignol stage production by Pierre Chaine and Andre de Lorde, which still gets revived on a few rare occasions. Hammering the loose narrative components of the book into a more or less cohesive whole, the film proved to be a tough sell outside France due to its shocking content that ramps up from sinister eroticism to full-blown horror in its final act.
Deemed a threat to high society in 1926 for his participation in procuring cocaine for addicts, disgraced and prostitute-loving young physician Antoine Durrieu (Van Hool from The Woman Next Door) is sent packing to China where he'll be able to resume his practice as the replacement for Rouel, a missing physician in Canton who handled tropical diseases. En route on a passenger ship he crosses paths with the magnetic but peculiar Clara (Kerry), who's traveling with the mysterious Annie (Emmanuelle 2's Lacamp), who leaves photographs of real-life violent atrocities on her dresser and fantasizes about bloody torture when she spends an intimate evening with Durrieu. As it turns out, she's the daughter of the wealthy and debauched Mr. Greenhill (Taffin), who controls the customs now in Canton and shares his sprawling home with Clara, Annie, and his snooty mother (Balkis). Disturbed by the common local practice of just injecting patients with distilled water, Antoine decides make sweeping changes to the medical process there when he isn't sampling the local brothels (including with an outrageous blood-spewing floor sex show you have to see to believe). His investigation into the curious wounds found in his medical ward ("as if the victims had been exploded from inside") ends up getting him insinuated with the predatory Greenhill household, which comes complete with acres of sprawling jungle that seem to house a nasty secret. As his dysfunctional relationship with the pansexual Clara escalates, he comes to know the callous social circle the Greenhills run in and gets closer to the ominous things that go on in the secluded outer gardens at night.
Virtually unseen in English-language circles, this film was given a very nominal U.K. theatrical release supposedly in edited form but has flown mostly under the radar ever since. That's somewhat understandable since it's hardly something that would appeal to the standard sex film crowd; there is a lot of bare skin on display involving a few straight and lesbian sex scenes, but the very dark tone that ultimately turns pitch black in the final stretch probably didn't endear it too much to the Skinemax crowd. (The fact that flashes of bloody tortured flesh get intercut into the very first love scene should be a pretty warning sign!) It's extremely well mounted though with gorgeous cinematography, especially once the characters start wandering further away from the house into the colorful but eerie foliage running wild nearby. The actors don't really have to emote all that much aside from conveying either rakish bemusement or decadent and sadistic ennui, but everyone makes a strong visual impression with one-shot star Kerry making for a good femme fatale with a death fetish.
Apart from what was reputedly a scarce Dutch VHS release back in the '80s, this film seems to have a virtually nonexistent home video history until it turned up on Blu-ray in early 2021 from Le Chat Qui Fume, albeit only in French with no English options. The sole extra on that disc was an interview with director Christian Gion (27m55s), but more on that in a moment. Soon after, Nucleus Films released the film complete and uncut in the U.K. as a region-free Blu-ray, subtitled in English for the very first time (with optional English SDH subs as well if you don't want to miss a single "[crying]" or "[moaning]." Though both Blu-rays appear to originate from the same scan, the Nucleus easily surpasses the French one thanks to far deeper and rich blacks that make it much more robust in appearance. That's especially vital in the finale, which takes place at night and plays far better with inky blackness instead of a flat gray all over the screen. The DTS-HD MA French 2.0 track is also very satisfying with no significant issues. The same Gion interview is carried over here (running 29m5s for some reason), this time with English subtitles as he explains how he undertook the project as an artistic exercise very much the opposite of his own nature, what means were undertaken to reconstruct a Chinese port around Bercy, his good rapport with screenwriter Pascal Lainé, and his memories of the cast (with both female leads making their debuts here from very different backgrounds, including the reason Kerry abandoned acting after this one). He also goes into some of his other films, mainly comedies, which are essentially out of reach for English-speaking viewers but would be interesting to see someday, while also putting to rest a rumor about his involvement in an X-rated project. The film itself also comes with a new audio commentary by author David Flint, who places this in the context of other boundary-pushing adaptations of French literature around the same time like Emmanuelle, Story of O, and The Image, while also diving into the source novel, the state of French cinema at the time, the iffy distribution history, and much more. Also included are a promo trailer, a 3m33s image gallery of promotional material reflecting its theatrical runs in the U.K., France, Spain, Germany, and Italy, plus other odds and ends. The package comes with a reversible sleeve and, in the first pressing of 1,000 units, a limited edition art card of the U.K. quad poster.
Nucleus Films (Blu-ray)
Le Chat Qui Fume (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on May 24, 2021