Those of you familiar with the image of Tawny Kitaen in a costume that's part thong part Mad Max armour and also familiar with Director Just Jaeckin's previous work, namely Emmanuelle (1974) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981), might well expect Gwendoline to be some kind of cheap, exploitative erotic fantasy movie. The truth is that Gwendoline is a film full of pleasant surprises.
The first surprise is that the film isn't cheap, or at least doesn't look it. An opening tracking shot through the streets of an unidentified Asian port reveals some exquisite set-design and ambitious blocking. The set that has been created is dense, layered and theatrical making it an evocative backdrop rather than a pantomime one. The film drips production throughout with vast sets and amazing locations from golden deserts and steamy rain forests to rusted junks and a bizarre underground sex-palace... no, wait... we'll get to that later.
My second surprise was that this is not a sleazy Barberella knock-off, but rather a two-fisted adventure story not unlike an Indiana Jones movie. Our heroine, Gwendoline, and her friend Beth have left their convent to search for her father who has gone missing while pursuing a rare butterfly. After getting into some trouble with local mobsters the pair are rescued by Willard, an unshaven smuggler with no time for women. Eventually convincing him to help they go in search of her Father on an adventure that takes them to the uncharted land of the Yik Yak.
Surprised by the level of production value I immediately looked for other faults. Director Jaekin, famous primarily for being a fashion photographer, had hired a principle cast of fashion models. Willard, Gwendoline and Beth are all played by young attractive models turned actors and again my expectations were low. Yet, each holds their own in their role and are charismatic and likeable. None of them act exactly, but for this kind of adventure they do enough to convince and even go as far as to exude considerable charm.
The action works well too, from an early Bruce Lee gag with Willard fighting off a nun-chuck wielding bodyguard to Gwendoline battling blade-covered half naked warriors in a sex palace... no, I said we'd get to that later.
Jaeckin would have to work hard to photograph the amazing locations badly, but his skill with a lens is evident in every shot. He also knows how to make people look good and actually knows how to generate some genuine sexual tension. The film was based on a french comic book and featured the kind of girl-in-eroticised-peril escapades that also featured in strips such as The Perils of Pauline. The idea of sexualised peril and innocent convent girls slowly becoming aware of a whole world of sexuality (basically sleazy characters and their half naked concubines, or the dribbley learings of grubby men) lead me to think this was going to be a prolonged male fantasy about what a female sexual awakening might entail. In other words, one woman's journey to become a sex object.
My worries increased when at the first sight of an attractive man Gwendoline goes all weak-kneed and soppy. Yet, despite her first attraction to Willard and her initial fascination with this grotty world she is exposed to she ultimately rejects it all and toughens up. She quickly learns how this world works and out-cons Willard, barters with criminals and takes control of her expedition into perilous lands. It's not long before the sardonic Willard is following her around, trying to maintain his tough and emotionally stunted exterior while watching helplessly as his hard exterior is slowly melted by Gwendoline's charm. This de-masculinisation culminates when he is forced to dress in the Mad Max thong number and pretend to be a woman. Bastard kind of pulls it off too. Yes there is sex, yes there is nudity (mostly female) but it is all fairly tame and ends being sauce, not sleaze. A film that should be cheap, badly acted and sexually problematic actually turns out to expensive, likeable and, well, just a bit naughty.
And just when you think you've got the film all worked out we arrive at the sex palace and the film goes mental.
They find the butterfly alright, but it is in an underground base run by weirdly alien-voiced half-naked half-armoured amazons. They operate crude machinery (some involving the aforementioned amazons as moving parts) that mine an underground diamond volcano for an evil queen. There are factories, training grounds, torture chambers and science labs all built into the white walls of this weird place and operated by barely-dressed, and occasionally bald, women. It's like being Lois Lane and discovering a door in the fortress of solitude that Clark really hoped had stayed hidden, or if Jean-Paul Gaultier had remade Metropolis.
Willard's disguise doesn't last long and he is captured and prepared to be, how should I say this, harvested for the all-female population. This is where Gwendoline really gets her shit together, suiting up and fighting off amazonian warriors to save him from certain sexy doom.
This is where things threaten to get problematic. The level of violence throughout the film has been a little on the nasty side, with hooks in necks, machetes through the chest and ears ripped off. But in the final act all of the violence is against scantily-clad women. Yet these women hold their own. The fights are brutal and convincing and the stunt women, bearing in mind there are not wearing much to protect themselves, pull off some pretty dangerous stuff. Yet there are only so many times you can see a partially dressed woman fall onto spikes in a bloody heap before it sours the atmosphere a little.
The BBFC certainly thought so as the film suffered a number of cuts on its initial video release, most of which were from the third act. The music doesn't quite work either as a comedy synth score has been favoured over a bold orchestral one.
Yet the film mostly stays light, funny, silly and bonkers. It is a film that I'll always have a soft spot for as it consistently exceeded my low expectations and took me to places I didn't even know existed, let alone expected.