Color, 1984, 104 mins. 32 secs. / 88 mins. 30 secs.
Directed by Just Jaeckin
Starring Tawny Kitaen, Brent Huff, Zabou, Bernadette Lafont, Jean Rougerie
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Nucleus (DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1, Accord Parental (France R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
After the international success of his glossy, kinky softcore classics like Story of O, Emmanuelle and Lady Chatterly's Lover, director Just Jaeckin did a surprising about-face for his final film to date, Gwendoline. Loosely adapted from the John Willie comic strip, The Adventures of Sweet Gwendolyn, this weird but endearing conflation of period adventure film, S&M fantasy and goofball comedy manages to cram about ten different genres into its first act alone, then continues to switch gears for a wild ride that threw many viewers in the '80s expecting another Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off.
Released by a band of Chinese thieves from a wooden crate in which she boxed herself to travel to the Far East, plucky Gwendoline (a pre-Witchboard Kitaen) resumes a search for her scientist father, who disappeared in the mysterious land of the Yik Yak while searching for a rare black butterfly. In the bustling, crime-ridden streets she makes the acquaintance of rugged American adventurer Willard (Huff) and reunites with dizzy French waif Beth (Zabou), in between bouts of gory knife fights and martial arts mayhem. The trio embarks on a series of dangerous and largely senseless adventures on the high seas, through rainy jungles (which necessitate toplessness from the two female leads), and the scorching desert, until they're finally kidnapped by a bunch of strange natives... at which point the movie violently shifts gears and turns into exactly the sort of splashy, stylized S&M fantasy you'd expect from Jaeckin. Yik Yak is dominated by a cold-hearted queen (Lafont) who oversees her Amazonian warrior citizens, complete with odd half-shaved hairdos and revealing bondage gear. As for the scarce males who wander through Yik Yak, well... let's just say they only get to make love once. Before you can say "safe word," Gwendoline is dressed up in black leather warrior gear, Willard's being trussed up and down from the ceiling, and Beth is locked in perverse murder contraptions that never seem to quite work. And let's not forget the wild chariot race, which is drawn by leashed humans instead of horses...
Heavily edited by the Samuel Goldwyn Company in America to less than 90 minutes (under the ridiculous title of The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak, though actual prints just say The Perils of Gwendoline), this film became something of a cable and home video cult favorite over the years despite its lovely scope compositions brutally chopped to ribbons by pan-and-scanning. No doubt much of its popularity can be attributed to the avalanche of nudity, with auburn-haired Kitaen joining in on the fun before she went mainstream with Whitesnake music videos and Bachelor Party (not to mention a stint on The Surreal Life, where she ironically berated women who appeared in Playboy!). Her thespian skills aren't too developed here, but she looks great both as a wide-eyed innocent and later as a sexually-aware tigress; her two love scenes with Willard (which actually feature very little skin) are among the sexiest in the Jaeckin library and actually motivate both the characters and the plot. Later seen in Nine Deaths of the Ninja and numerous network TV appearances, Huff does the square-jawed hero routine well enough despite his occasionally flat line readings, while Zabou (later a respected French actress) has very little to do besides looking confused and scared. On the technical side, the film looks great with a nice variety of locales, and regular Jaeckin composer Pierre Bachelet pulls out all the stops with a haunting, sexy score that's still only available on vinyl for some reason.
A potpourri of French and American actors, Gwendoline was shot with Kitaen and Huff speaking their lines in English, while the rest of the cast (except for Zabou, who's curiously dubbed way out-of-synch in all versions) speaking French. The complete French cut of the film was fairly easy to locate via various European and Japanese video releases (sans subtitles), including a bare bones French DVD release. Fortunately the much-needed special editions on DVD (from Nucleus in the UK in 2005 and Severin in the US in 2006) featured the uncut version with both the English and French tracks presented in both Dolby stereo and 5.1 mixes, with optional English subtitles (complete for the French version, or partial for the Chinese-language bits at the beginning in the English cut). For some reason the Bachelet score is much more powerful and effective on the English track, particularly the standard stereo version, so that one gets the highest recommendation here; check 'em both out for comparison, though. Image quality is excellent, with the rich colors and marvelous production design details (from the 1920s period details of the first half to the wild, Barbarella-style imagery of the Yik Yak section) coming through very clearly.
The biggest of the extras on the UK version is a 17-minute Jaeckin interview, "The Perils of Just," and a differently-edited, longer version on the US disc entitled "The Last Temptation of Just" (24m22s) in which he discusses the film's cast in affectionate detail (referring to Kitaen as "like a sister or daughter") and covers his own filmmaking philosophy as applied to this project. Jaeckin also contributes an engaging commentary track in which he goes into more detail about coordinating the film's shooting and his thoughts about its comic origins, among other topics; it's certainly more valuable than his disappointing, 20-minute chat on Ventura's Story of O DVD. Also included on the UK disc is the American title sequence, a delirious French theatrical trailer (featuring a very cool alternate mix of the score), a UK promo, a stills gallery, a Lui magazine photo shoot for the film containing lots of provocative Kitaen shots, a breakdown of BBFC cuts demanded for the film's theatrical and video releases, and trailers for other Nucleus films (Between the Legs, The Ugliest Woman in the World and Fausto 5.0). Sporting a particularly atmospheric set of menu screens, the US release (available in the uncut international version or the shorter US cut, which may play better for fans used to its cable incarnation) drops the UK promo and BBFC essay but adds on the action-oriented American trailer (which barely hints at any S&M content), plus an uneven but pretty raunchy audio interview with Willie by the famous Dr. Kinsey (43m20s).
In 2019, Severin decided to return to the land of the Yik Yak with a limited Blu-ray special edition (featuring deluxe packaging and six lobby card reproductions) and a standard Blu-ray edition that improve in all the ways you'd expect. The new HD transfer features deeper blacks, more detail, additional image info on the sides, and a generally more impressive presentation all around. The English and French tracks are presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 options (with translated or SDH English subs where applicable), both sounding nice and true to the sources within the usual limitations involving the dubbing and different levels of presence for the score. The 2.0 options are best if you want to experience this with an '80s audio feel, but the 5.1 has some nice spatial effects especially in the last half hour. Carried over here are the Jaeckin commentary, "The Last Temptation of Just," the Willie-Kinsey interview, the Lui spread, and the American and French trailers (both of which look pretty rough by today's standards), not to mention the shorter U.S. version in HD as well. Severin's David Gregory moderates a very entertaining and funny new audio commentary with Kitaen and Huff, which is pretty much a dream come true for any fans of the film as the two stars finally sit down together to reminisce about the audition process, the movies they likened it to (including The African Queen, which actually makes sense), shooting in the Philippines, Jaeckin's attempts to control their giggling, the challenges of acting opposite a villain who can't speak English, an injury during the chariot scene, their director's constant canine companion, the story behind Huff's baffling wardrobe malfunction, and more. A new Jaeckin interview, "The Butterfly Effect" (13m44s), finds him looking at the film several years further down the road and extolling the virtues of his cast who embodied the look and feel he wanted for the characters (despite some speed bumps involving the producers) as well as the fun of making an "adventure yarn" different from his earlier projects and the experience he picked up doing commercials. In "Bondage Paradise" (33m56s), costume / concept designers and comic book artists François Schuiten and Claude Renard chat separately about studying under Claude Renard, the first rocky approach by Jaeckin for the project, the new graphic approach taken by the comics, and the "amusing" idea of combining aesthetics for this film with eroticism and cliffhanger adventure. In "The Perils of Production" (18m8s), executive producer Jean-Claude Fleury talks about getting the rights to the comic along with other properties in the wake of Heavy Metal, the original director he approached when the budget was much smaller, Jaeckin's affinity for casting women better than men, and the general heyday of mainstream erotic cinema that waned around the time this came out. Finally, "Gwendoline's Travels" (14m9s) with production designer Françoise Deleu covers her career leading up to this film (including Mort d'un pourri), the nature of being a woman in the business at the time, and the logistics of creating the look of the film's sets using the multiple locations in France and the Philippines including the means used to come up with that jungle locale. Also included is a reel of Blu-ray promo videos (6m26s) with Kitaen and Huff offering a more general overview of the film's production. The Blu-ray is also available as part of a Yik Yak bundle and, for you dedicated die-hards, a signed Yik Yak bundle, both including a shirt and enamel pins. All in all, it's great escapist fun for the open-minded that's aged surprisingly well.
Updated review on November 23, 2019