Seduction: The Cruel Woman

(Verführung: Die grausame Frau, Elfi Mikesch & Monika Treut, West Germany, 1985)


It is said (and I have heard) that someone, somewhere, likes this film. It is further said – or rather whispered – that the film is liked because it deals with a subject never before really dealt with in cinema, and in a form that is scorchingly transgressive and avant-gardist. (The subject is lesbian sado-masochism, and the form is a posey, fruity-coloured mish mash of Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Ulike Ottinger and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.)


It is intimated, finally, that this movie is the exemplary text of a brave, paradoxical, thrillingly sexy mid 1980s post-feminism beyond the timid, daggy puritanism of mere previous-wave ‘70s feminism. (S&M – the last calculable horizon of politico-sexual transgression … that kind of trip).


It’s best for this kind of hype that the identity of those who like and value Seduction: The Cruel Woman – indeed, the identity of any lurking post-feminist – remain a secret. And it would be just as well if the film that is the tantalising index of such sweet transgression also remain secret, unseen. For once the film materialises, and once the positive press on it is printed and signed, the whole game displaces itself.


Suddenly, those whom you might have imagined to be the film’s supporters are to be found in the foyer, loudly declaring that it is boring, passé, academic and decidedly not where it’s at. (But have you heard about that new French film by … ?).


Suddenly, all the articles on it read like a particularly strained, even nonsensical form of special pleading. (Have you read, for instance, that guy in Framework magazine who poses it as a provocative/productive film on the “difficult” aspects of sexuality against the regressive/unproductive instance of Jean-Luc Godard’s part of Hail Mary [1985], because it exposes “the fact that the relatively unchanging nature of [sado-masochistic] fantasies might indicate that they [are] not immediately reducible to the social context” … ???).


And just as suddenly, Seduction: The Cruel Woman appears without its Emperor’s New Clothes as exactly what is: a very minor Euro soft-porn genre piece with a Gothic house, a kink in every room, a destabilising of master-slave relations, an underground sewer, and a few near-frissons of natural/innocent harbour location with the synthesis/artifice of bondage style. (Raúl Ruiz, where are you?) Forget the Jean Baudrillard quotation in the prologue and the Gilles Deleuze passage in the press kit; the real giveaway is the presence of Udo Kier.


Seduction: The Cruel Woman is mostly like (but not as good as) another soft-core Kier classic that this particular hype circuit has never heard of: namely (as it’s known on video) Walerian Borowczyk’s Dr Jekyll and His Women (1981 – which is really The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne). The difference is in how Borowczyk’s film knows, and announces, that it is an especially delirious art-horror piece pinned onto available genre trappings and production possibilities – with no pretensions to being post-anything.


So, the moral of this story is: when the next Seduction: The Cruel Woman has completed its circle of public anticipation-arrival-disavowal, there’s sure to be another salutary unknown Borowczyk waiting in the video shop. And that’s probably the only secret here worth knowing.

© Adrian Martin December 1986

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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