The Hypnotic and Surreal BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973) — Blu-ray Review

Cinelicious Pics released Belladonna Of Sadness on Blu-ray on July 12.

Belladonna Of Sadness is the fourth Blu-ray release from Cinelicious Pics, an impressive new distributor that’s already made an impact with their curation of artful and inventive foreign and domestic films.

Wistfully resplendent, thematically sorrowful, and full of strange and surrealistic imagery, Belladona is a medieval Faustian tragedy played out in a fashion that traverses many moods and styles: at times hypnotic, psychedelic, erotic, crude, gorgeous, and even humorous. The closest stylistic approximation I can think of is the animated parts of Pink Floyd: The Wall, but even that is quite a different sort of thing.

I was a bit worried that that film might simply be an avant-garde abstraction without a clear narrative, but that is not the case at all. There’s a very powerful and sad story here. Remember in Braveheart when a new bride is forced to submit herself to some royal schmuck? That’s basically how this one starts. A young couple’s happiness is shattered when the King and his entourage decide to rape the innocent girl, ostensibly as restitution for their unpaid taxes. This is depicted as an horrifyingly violent visual metaphor which is one of the film’s most disturbing moments — clearly one of a rending violation rather than any kind of eroticism.

Driven to madness and despair, the girl Jeanne is visited by the Devil, a phallic demon who tempts her with promises of power and stokes her flames of revenge. While resistant to give up her soul, she does begin to compromise, and starts down a dark and strange path. True to his word, the Devil gives her power, but at a price. As she slowly gives way to his wiles, she becomes further corrupted — a witch living in exile, whipping the townsfolk into a bacchanalian frenzy before finally approaching some sense of closure.

As I mentioned, the film’s visuals are varied and engaging. Most of the trailers and marketing for the focus on the incredible watercolors and paintings, which are undeniably beautiful. But there’s a lot more to the film’s style, and some of it isn’t pretty. Much of the film also plays out in much cruder, less detailed fashion. And since the film’s mostly composed of paintings, there’s very little actual animation. Movement is very limited and abbreviated, and often simply handled by the camera and editing as opposed to actual “tweening”. The film also breaks style on more than one occasion: One particular montage features a parade of extremely crude obscene drawings that look like they leaped out from the notebook of that weird pervert guy in high school who sat in the back of your class. You know the guy. Another montage bizarrely transports to a Yellow-Submarinesque explosion of modern 60s psychedelia with no explanation for the jarring anachronism, except that these abstractions are visual metaphors for the perversions and emotions that aren’t shown on the screen.

Still, despite such bizarre segues, the film’s overall aesthetic is quite marvelous, even if I didn’t care for the weird stuff. This is definitely an “art film”, but one with a pretty decent narrative and a lot of style to spare. It’s not appropriate for the kiddos due to pervasive strong sexual themes like rape and depictions of artful nudity, but for adults this is one that will challenge and provoke. Beneath the carnal veneer is a pulsating energy of vengeful femininity. After pondering it awhile, I have come to wonder if it is perhaps an allegory for prostitution, or even more simply the crux of daring to be a woman in a patriarchal society. There are certainly parallels — women are often pressured to “sell” themselves but shamed for it, demonized, and otherwise taken advantage of, while trying to retain their souls, dignity, and humanity.

Further Thoughts — Spoilers Within

There’s a particularly moving image in the film’s finale as a crowd of onlookers watch as Jeanne is publicly crucified. As she breathes her last, all the women’s faces in the crowd slowly change into Jeanne’s face — an incredible manifestation of feminine solidarity. There is a universality to her struggles, and there’s even a ray of hope here, in the darkest moment, that she lives on somehow.

Intriguingly, Belladonna was the third entry in a bizarre “Animerama” thematic trilogy of adult anime films, developed by no less than legendary manga and anime godfather Osamu Tezuka, best known as the creator of Astro Boy. But whereas he first two films were presented in Tezuka’s cartoonish signature style, Belladonna was made without his direct involvement and abandoned the “house style” in favor of its own incredible aesthetic.

The Package

Belladonna Of Sadness comes in a beautiful region-free edition from Cinelicious Pics. The package is suitably pretty; packed in a transparent frost-colored Elite case with a 16-page booklet, and gorgeously illustrated with images from the film. The booklet contains a meaty essay on the film and its place in animation history, very expertly analyzed by author and Cinelicious exec Dennis Bartok. Also of note, it carries a Cinelicious spine number (4).

The 4K restoration has yielded a stunning result. While I have no frame of reference (except perhaps the included original Japanese trailer), I can certainly say that the film looks pristine. It may also be worth noting that the film’s OAR is 4:3 full-frame. Musically, the soundtrack incorporates some different styles (some of them pretty goofy) to accommodate the wild tonal shifts, but like many 60’s and 70s Japanese films, the music soars with soulful ballads and hits the important emotional beats just right.

Special Features and Extras

Interview with Director Eiichi Yamamoto (23:20)
 Yamato shares his personal story, his love for manga, thoughts on the “Animera” films and working with Tezuka, and is joined by Art Director Kuni Fukai in looking over some of the original art assets.

Interview with Art Director Kuni Fukai (16:51)
 A conversation with the man behind the film’s incredible visuals. Interestingly, he mentions (probably because he was asked by the interviewer) that he and a couple others went to see Pink Floyd in concert, but denies any influence in his design work. Which makes sense, since Belladonna predated The Wall by a decade.

Interview with Composer Masahiko Sato (27:19)
 Sato tells his story, talks about his thought process on the film and even plays the theme on a piano.

Original Japanese Trailer (2:58)

New Red Band Trailer (2:35)

New Green Band Trailer (1:30)

Belladonna is a challenging film and not to be lightly recommended. It’s a somewhat difficult watch due to its heavy and at times repulsive themes, but this rediscovery is a vital one. If you find yourself intrigued by the trailer, then by all means seek it out.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 Belladona Of Sadness — [Blu-ray] | [Amazon Video]

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