Directed by David Hamilton
Starring Patti D’Arbanville, Mona Kristensen, Bernard Gerardeau, Catherine Leprince
“What on earth’s happening here?” asks a character near the conclusion of Bilitis (1977), the initial foray into filmmaking by the controversial photographer David Hamilton. By then the viewer might be wondering the same thing. Often pretty to look at, Bilitis is mostly surface, with the soft-focus Hamilton employs throughout aptly paralleling a fuzzy story that ultimately struggles to engage.
Born in the U.K. in the 1930s, Hamilton moved to France after WWII where he became well-known for his photos of women in various states of undress, his subjects often young enough to encourage allegations of impropriety.
Bilitis stars Patti D'Arbanville as the pretty but pouty teenaged title character, pulling off the trick despite being in her mid-twenties at the time. This marked D’Arbanville first major role after having appeared in a few Andy Warhol titles in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
The character's strange name alludes to a late 19th-century collection of erotic poetry by Pierre Louÿs which tell the story of a young woman of Ancient Greece. In fact, the poems were presented as though written by the young girl of the title. The name was also employed by the Daughters of Bilitis, an early lesbian civil rights group in the U.S. active in the ‘50s and ‘60s that had folded by time Hamilton's film appeared.
Louÿs’ poetry does get quoted in the film, although on the whole the movie’s thin, unsteady plot is more “inspired by” than an adaptation of the lyrics, borrowing themes of sexual exploration and lesbianism and employing a similarly melancholic vibe.
The film opens on a shot Bilitis sitting on a bed, looking sad. Francis Lai’s maudlin synth-heavy soundtrack accompanies a sequence of shots of various characters involved in the soon-to-be-told story.
We then see Bilitis practicing lines for an upcoming, year-end show at the girl’s school she attends. She’s dressed like some sort of sprite/wood nymph, and when the other girls take off on their bikes for a trip to the lake she hasn’t time to change.
The group reaches the lake, quickly stripping for some nude sunbathing. The adult woman in charge implores them all “to behave like perfect ladies,” although some smooching between a couple indicating her orders aren’t being heeded.
Meanwhile Bilitis keeps her outfit on and continues to act all mopey, her mood dampened by having had an argument with her girlfriend, Helene (Catherine Leprince).
Meanwhile, the others have splashy fun.
Back at school, the class has an end-of-year photo taken, with the photographer, Lucas, being deemed cute by some of the girls. Meanwhile Bilitis and Helene play with their pet turtle, which Bilitis inexplicably lets go free.
Symbolic? Perhaps. The turtle’s slow pace is, anyway.
That afternoon Bilitis and Lucas have a flirty encounter, then later she and Helene talk about the handsome photog. They also discuss how Bilitis will be going to stay with a woman named Melissa Hampton (Mona Kristensen), the daughter of one of her father’s friends, for the first couple of weeks of the summer until her father returns from a business trip.
Later it’s bedtime where Bilitis and Helene discuss Lucas and the relative merits of boys and girls.
The next day Melissa and her husband, Pierre (Gilles Kohler), arrive at the school to pick their young charge, first watching the play for which Bilitis had been practicing. Bilitis screws up her lines, Helene comforts her after, then the couple take Bilitis to their home for dinner.
They have an awkward meal in which Pierre weirdly criticizes Bilitis -- she should like horses, she needs to gain weight, etc. -- thus establishing Pierre’s jerkdom. Bilitis then retires for the night, but first takes a walk outside where she spies on Melissa undressing for bed.
Bilitis imitates what she sees and disrobes herself...
...but the scene is interrupted when Pierre returns to force Melissa into some unwanted lovemaking.
A naked Bilitis then climbs a tree while we hear her in a voice-over relating her thoughts: "I felt the beautiful tree vibrate with the wind's passage and so I tightened my legs around it and pressed my open mouth against the long downy neck of the branch.”
Sounds kind of wacky, but it’s one of the Louÿs poems, “The Tree,” here being acted out.
The next morning Pierre leaves for the day, meaning Melissa and Bilitis are free to go to the beach. Looks kind of a like a perfume ad.
The scene inches along, and at times seems as though Melissa is trying to seduce Bilitis. However, before anything happens we’re back at the house for dinner, with Pierre again being critical of Bilitis as he refers to her being “the awkward age.”
“A lovely age,” corrects Melissa.
Bilitis later overhears another unpleasant-sounding late night encounter between Pierre and Melissa, then spends the next day frustrating Lucas in another hazy beach sequence.
It sorts seems like Melissa is trying to mentor Bilitis as she’s being courted by Lucas. But soon Pierre takes off for a three-day trip to Monte Carlo (he’s an equestrian, going to a show), Melissa gives Bilitis a bicycle, and when Bilitis kisses Melissa madly in thanks there’s a hint the two might find some way of occupying themselves when Pierre is away.
More soft-focus cavorting between Lucas and Bilitis follows, with Lucas wanting to do more than kiss but Bilitis continuing to resist.
Bilitis then runs into Pierre leaving for his trip with another woman, and jerky Pierre brazenly flaunts her in front of Bilitis before they part.
Back to the battle with Lucas, who is now literally looking for a roll in the hay with Bilitis.
When Bilitis resists again, Lucas argues in favor of sex, saying it is natural, then threatening if she won’t give in the boy "goes out with other girls."
That’s all Bilitis needs to hear -- she doesn’t want Lucas or any man, all of whom seem equally odious. She runs home to Melissa, tells her “I hate men,” and soon comforting turns to hugging and kissing and a few minutes of somnambulant lovemaking.
No doubt intended as the erotic centerpiece of the film, the scene is ultimately as mild and precious as Lai’s soundtrack, in this case featuring wordless female vocals over uninspired synth backing. (Incidentally, Lai’s soundtrack to Emmanuelle 2 is comparatively much more absorbing -- as is that film.)
From there we move into the final third of the film, during which comes more love poetry from Bilitis/Louÿs ("her love is a torture to me"), a pronouncement by Melissa that their lovemaking was a one-time thing, then a plot by Bilitis to find a better man for Melissa than Pierre.
Things climax -- in the not-very-climactic way of all climaxes in this film -- with a dinner party featuring champagne, light sax-riddled disco music and dancing, and barely comprehensible exchanges between the film’s principals, including a new existentialist-type dude named Nikias.
None of it makes much sense. As a guest at the party says, "Melissa's adorable. The champagne's excellent... but what are we doing here?"
The only real suspense comes from the sense that the story is being told in such a sloppy way. With no trust regarding the film maker having a clear idea about what he's doing or being all that mindful of having an audience, it feels like just about anything could happen. Not that we care too much one way or the other what does.
Ultimately Bilitis feels like more like a sequence of pretty pictures than a movie, albeit with an especially attractive cast and several thoughtfully-framed shots.
In fact, Hamilton did publish a picture book compiling photos from the filming, which is probably the form where all of this works better, anyway. Later on Hamilton would give up on dialogue altogether with 1983’s Un été à Saint-Tropez, opting instead just to shoot pretty girls having pillow fights, going for picnics, and so on.
Perhaps worth a look for those curious to see a lot of D’Arbanville or fans of off-the-beaten-path seventies softcore, on the excitement meter Bilitis ultimately rates somewhere between leafing through a fashion magazine and a museum visit.
- Triple S