Pola Rapaport's "Writer of O" benefits from an interesting subject -- Dominique Aury aka Pauline Reage, pseudonymous author of erotic literary classic "The Story of O" -- even if the treatment isn't particularly worthy. Shot on video, docu's unlikely to find theatrical takers.

A so-so attempt to wring a personal documentary from a 10-year-old news story, Pola Rapaport’s “Writer of O” benefits from an interesting subject — Dominique Aury aka Pauline Reage, pseudonymous author of erotic literary classic “The Story of O” — even if the treatment isn’t particularly worthy. Hodgepodge of archival, re-enactment and staged fictive elements will be of limited interest to broadcasters due to latter sequences’ full-frontal nudity. Shot on video, docu’s unlikely to find theatrical takers.

When journalist John de St. Jorre put two and two together while working on a book about esteemed Gallic publishing house Gallimard, retired editor 90-year-old Aury finally decided to go public about penning “O” — a success de scandale in 1954 and for decades afterward. In elegant, almost clinically detached prose, it told of a young heroine’s initiation into a ritualistic program of absolute sexual submission at a mysterious country chateau.

Viewing this saga as strictly “male fantasy,” many assumed the author must be a man. Or if indeed it had been written by a woman, then surely it was based on thinly-veiled personal experience.

None suspected self-effacing Aury, an articulate champion of avant-garde literature (as seen here in numerous French TV chat shows long before her authorial “coming-out”). As it turned out, she’d written the very much non-autobiographical text to please longtime lover Jean Paulhan, another Gallic literary lion. As for inspiration, Aury cites her teenaged discovery of her father’s “secret library” (containing racy classics like “Les Liaisons Dangereux”).

She’s delightfully direct about these and other matters in interview footage that mostly pre-dates Rapaport’s brief meeting with the subject. Gallimard coworkers, literary historians and others all contribute admiring comments about both “O’s” liberating impact and Aury’s general stature as an intellectual figurehead.

Rapaport (“Blind Light,” “Family Secret”) claims reading “O” moved her deeply at formative points. But she doesn’t explain why, nor does she truly address the novel’s controversial B&D/S&M content — long a sore point for some feminist observers. (For defenders, tale leaps beyond mere “debasement” to suggest protag’s ultimate transcendence, even seizure of personal control, through apparent surrender.)

Segs re-enacting moments in Aury’s middle-aged life are awkward. Those dramatizing passages from “O” (with Catherine Mouchet as the frequently nude, bound titular figure) are simply uninspired. Budget allowing, it would have been far better to utilize clips from Just Jaeckin’s glossy 1975 film version, an international hit.

Tech aspects are adequate.

Writer of O

France-U.S.

Production

An ARTE France, L'INA and Blinding Light production. Produced by Sylvie Cazin. Executive producer, Anne Schuchman. Directed, written by Pola Rapaport.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, digital Beta), Wolfgang Held; editor, Variety Moszynski; music, Helene Blazy; sound, Miriam Rene, John Murphy. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 15, 2004. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Catherine Mouchet, Penelope Puymirat, Cyril Corral, Alain Rimoux, Thierry de Carbonnieres, Dominique Aury, John de St. Jorre, Barney Rosset. (English and French dialogue.)
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