Spirits Of The Dead

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Spirits Of The Dead

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Spirits Of The Dead

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When Roger Vadim died in February, obituaries generally depicted him as a womanizer first and a filmmaker second. And with good reason: Vadim may have been lumped in with the French New Wave, but as a director, he wasn't so much gifted or visionary as he was sociologically compelling. Don Juan (Or If Don Juan Were A Woman), Vadim's mid-career reunion with ex-wife and former muse Brigitte Bardot, falls into the interesting-rather-than-good category, as does the director's segment in Spirits Of The Dead, a 1968 suspense anthology based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Filmed in 1973, when the sexual and political climate was hospitable to Vadim's joyless brand of sexploitation, Don Juan casts Bardot as a female version of the legendary lover who lives in what appears to be a groovy, floating-bachelorette-pad version of a Bond villain's lair. There, she flamboyantly destroys a series of broadly drawn men of wealth and privilege. Sadly, like its anti-heroine, Vadim's film derives no pleasure, sexually or otherwise, from its protagonists' indiscretions. Instead, it limps from fruitless vignette to fruitless vignette, as Bardot engages in one clumsily implied wanton act after another and Vadim invariably cuts away to a skyline whenever things start to get explicit. Don Juan touches on any number of semi-taboos of its time, from curiously chaste orgies to lipstick lesbianism to cleric-fucking, but, like its lead actress, it goes through the motions with little passion and even less insight. Bardot left film acting after Don Juan—perhaps she was driven into retirement by the film's endlessly repeated, hilariously histrionic theme song—and from her disinterested performance here, it seems like an appropriate move. Bardot doesn't fare much better in Spirits Of The Dead—much of her time onscreen is spent either tied naked to a table or being whipped—but Spirits as a whole is far more entertaining than Don Juan. Vadim directs the first segment, casting then-wife Jane Fonda as the wanton head of a powerful family who presides over some of the most fully clothed orgies in the history of film. Fonda's evil vixen finally encounters something she can't possess fully when she falls for her cousin (played, creepily enough, by Peter Fonda), who rejects her, provoking her to burn down his stable in retaliation. Handsomely filmed but dramatically inert, Vadim's segment is far and away Spirits' weakest, easily bested by Louis Malle's take on Poe's "William Wilson," featuring Alain Delon as a decadent Austrian officer who's troubled by the existence of a mysterious doppelganger. Malle's segment maintains a creepy, hypnotic tone, nicely matched by Delon's intense lead performance as a man who can escape everything but his own conscience. Federico Fellini directs Dead's final segment, which is thankfully as demented and over-the-top as you'd expect from a collision between Fellini and the swinging '60s. The piece stars Terence Stamp as an out-of-control movie star stuck in the surreal purgatory of his own fame, and if Fellini's segment is self-indulgent, it's at least self-indulgent in an entertaining, typically Fellini-esque fashion. Filmed at a time when international co-productions and anthologies featuring superstar directors were all the rage, Spirits Of The Dead is a typically mixed bag, but unlike Vadim's listless Don Juan, it offers pleasures above and beyond its status as a relic of a groovier and exponentially more swinging era.

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