If a revolution could ever be distilled into a single image, then let it be Delacroix’s commemoration of the French Revolution’s July 1830 victory, “Liberty Leading the People.” The now-iconic painting focuses on Marianne, a woman waving the familiar tricolor flag of the French Revolution. Her dress is torn, and her breasts are bare, as are her feet, but she, and liberty, shall not be deterred.
Four hundred years before Marianne waved that flag, a brilliant 19-year-old military tactician was put to death, burned alive at the stake after it was revealed that she was in personal communication with God. Her name was Joan of Arc, and though she was accused of heresy and burned as a witch, Joan would later be deemed a martyr and canonized.
Neither were kind times for women. Many were accused of witchcraft, sorcery, and being in league with the devil. How then did such an oppressive and patriarchal culture come to celebrate Marianne and Joan? Even using them as symbols for modern-day France?
Enter Belladonna of Sadness, available now on Blu-ray from Arbelos Films, a Japanese anime from 1973 that attempts to fill in the gaps between woman as victim and woman as liberator. Based on La Sorcière—a medieval history of witchcraft published in 1862 by Jules Michelet—Belladonna is a Freudian fever dream, replete with psychedelic imagery, pornography, and a score resembling Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.
Though Belladonna is animation by genre, it is painting by execution; with the vast majority of the film present in tableau that the camera slowly pans across. These watercolor images draw inspiration from tarot cards and feature a heavy dose of sexual fantasy. The effect is both morally unsettling and visually arresting.
Belladonna revolves around Jeanne, a French peasant raped by the devil on her wedding night. Unlike Rosemary’s Baby, the act is not to produce a child but to produce guilt. Guilt that haunts Jeanne in the form of a phallic-shaped trickster that grows larger the more Jeanne grows lustful—lust Jeanne cannot satiate because her husband is both impotent and drunk. He offers little of anything in Jeanne’s struggle between desire and guilt.
Jeanne doesn’t remain a victim for long. When the local Lord leads the townsmen off to war, Jeanne uses her sex to seduce the moneylender and take control of the village. When the war ends, the Lord returns to find Jeanne in control and tries to squash her underfoot. It doesn’t work. Jeanne has embraced her role as Persephone and become too powerful. Even putting her to death isn’t sufficient.
Belladonna of Sadness was the third film in an adult-themed anime trilogy, and like the previous two—A Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra—it was rated X and a commercial failure. Apparently, going to a movie theater to see naked drawings isn’t as profitable as it sounds, and the production company folded shortly after.
But Belladonna is about much more than sex and nudity on screen. Jeanne’s plight is about as erotic as Marianne’s bare breast, and Belladonna is more about the emotions it stirs than the organs it arouses. Proof that there is more to nudity than mere titillation.