It’s normal for a successful book to be made into a film, and in France in the 1960s and 1970s, books didn’t come much more successful than Anne Desclos’ erotic novel of dominance and submission, The Story of O. None of this of course means that O is automatically have a good film, and in the case of erotica, the chances are even lower. It does have a certain place in history however, even if it’s not that auspicious, and it has a unique performance from Corinne Cléry, who most will know from Moonraker (1979), though she is in fact also in Yor, the Hunter From the Future (1983).
Quite a few directors have been interested in The Story of O however, including predictably Lars von Trier. One of my favourite directors of all time, Henri-Georges Clouzot was also interested in shooting The Story of O, but I find myself glad that he didn’t, though Trier did make a short called Menthe—la bienheureuse, as an homage to it, and his 2005 film Manderlay was also inspired by the book.
As for The Story of O, never before have I seen a film which appears to be shot entirely in soft-focus. I’m not sure what the desired effect is, but we must always recall that in 1975, the only way to see movie porn of any sort was to go to the picture house, where you were at the mercy of whatever director was holding the camera. It’s important to realise that outside of top-shelf magazines, and the odd flash of a naked woman you might get in a mainstream horror movie, there was very little in the way of real porn, and although there are lots of naked people (women) in The Story of O, seeing them abused may not have been the turn on many would expect.
For all its evil The Story of O does feature a brave performance from Corinne Cléry, without whom there would be no film. I don’t know exactly what quality she brings to the film, but it’s all of its own as she seems far above the other performers, including Udo Kier who pretty much disappears intot he background here.
Having watched this film, I have to side with Andrea Dworkin that it is a celluloid offense. What it is peddling is that certain women believe that however unreasonable the demands made on her by her dominant man, this behaviour will ultimately force him to truly love her. It’s not therefore a film about unwanted abuse, as nothing which happens to 'O' in this film before she is asked for, and has given, her consent. Thus, if you watch ‘O’, you’ll find yourself on a see-saw, and at times agreeing with the journalist who described the film as ‘bringing the Gestapo into the boudoir.’ You can have it either way.
What makes the book hard to forget is the deadpan and unemotional style of writing, which make it quite unforgettable. You have to recall that it was written for private reasons, and not intended for publication at its outset. Even though the film of The Story of O follows the book in quite some detail, the soft focus and the music are going to drag it screaming towards the pornographic, where it doesn’t really want to be. You can imagine that everybody, Udo Kier included, had higher hopes for this production, but I think it’s only Corinne Cléry that makes anything of it, and Udo Kier’s character reflects this, with the awe in which he holds her.