The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we're examining underseen witch flick Belladonna of Sadness.
Warning: Belladonna of Sadness features some scenes of graphic violence that will be under discussion in this review.
For decades, Belladonna of Sadness enjoyed the notoriety that comes from being difficult to find. Art rock bands like Sonic Youth would project parts of the film during their concerts. People would seek out grainy bootleg VHS tapes through mail order. There was some word of mouth about it, but it was generally considered a forgotten film for decades after its original 1973 release in Japan, fading rapidly into obscurity and staying there for many years.
Belladonna was the third and final installment of the Animerama trilogy, which was conceived of by Osamu Tezuka through Mushi Production but finished after he'd left the studio. The second film in this series, Cleopatra, had been Japan's first X-rated animated movie. The first two films in the series, Cleopatra included, were more in the genre of lighthearted erotica, while Belladonna truly broke the mold even within its own series by being the devastating work we know it as today. Unlike the first two Animerama films, Belladonna was written and directed by Eiichi Yamamoto, who also worked as a director on Mushi's Astro Boy TV series in the '60s. Animators on Belladonna utilized hand-painted watercolors to make it stand out among the Mushi Pro standards.
After taking some six years to make, the film was a commercial failure, and Belladonna helped to bankrupt Mushi Pro. Although the studio did ultimately survive, the film was more or less forgotten about. Recently, it was given a 4K digital restoration, which was released in 2016 and enjoyed a run throughout many art house theaters around the world. I was fortunate enough to be at a showing with an in-depth comparison onscreen between the existing version and the digital restoration, and the difference is stunning. The watercolors on this film are so bright and beautiful; it feels like the movie finally got at least some of the credit it was due for being a visually stunning work of art. After the movie ended, I overheard one woman tell her friend, “I want to tell everyone to see it, but I don't want to tell anyone to see it.” To this day, that is the best one-sentence review you could give this movie. It's brutal, agonizing, and often hard to watch, but it's also one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen. It includes violence against women, but it's also kind of feminist. In short, there is an awful lot to unpack.
The story begins with the marriage of Jean and Jeanne, an attractive couple with their own little home in medieval France, who we are to believe would lead perfectly mundane and relatively happy lives with one another if not for the circumstances that befall them here. Jean attempts to appease the local baron with cash offerings, which the baron declines, kicking Jean out of his castle, and he and his court gang rape Jeanne, throwing her out in the morning. She returns home, beaten and bloody, and Jean's brilliant solution is that they should simply forget the past and go forward as if nothing had happened.
Shortly thereafter, Jeanne, suffering silently from the horror of what she just went through, begins to see a small, phallic spirit that appears only to her, gently encouraging her to take vengeance on the baron and his court. She experiences a sexual awakening through her interactions with the spirit, and he grows in size, larger each time he appears to her.
The town in which Jean and Jeanne live encounters hard times and is stricken by famine, but after what happens to Jeanne the baron makes Jean the tax collector, so their personal fortune rises. Regardless, the baron is attempting to fund a war and cuts off Jean's hand when he doesn't raise enough money. As Jean becomes completely despondent, Jeanne is forced to take control of the situation. She takes out a loan and becomes a usurer, excelling in her trade. Wearing a truly amazing striped dress, she evolves into the most powerful person in town while Jean just kind of hangs out at home feeling sorry for himself.
When the baron returns from his war, he is surprised to discover that Jeanne has taken over. His wife, who is jealous of Jeanne and how well-loved she has become, tells her husband that she must be taken out of power. Jeanne is driven out of town and when she tries to return home, Jean refuses to open the door for her. Once in the woods, Jeanne sets herself up in a cave to make a pact with the spirit: service in exchange for power. The spirit tells her in no uncertain terms that he is the Devil, but Jeanne is far past the point of caring. When the plague hits the village, Jeanne returns to it, curing those that are suffering. This act turns the village even more in her favor. There are bizarre, sometimes comedic, psychedelic orgy scenes with the villagers for a while, until one day Jean shows up at the cave.
Jean has been sent by the baron to invite Jeanne to a meeting. He looks terrible and goes well out of his way to verbally shame her for owning her sexuality and saving dozens of people's lives in the process. Jeanne obviously still loves Jean despite herself, and she accepts the invite to meet with the baron, allowing herself to be taken in chains.
The baron offers a trade for Jeanne. In exchange for her cure for the plague, he offers to make her the second highest noble after himself. Jeanne declines, saying it isn't good enough. He asks what more she could possibly want. She smiles and responds, “The world.” He orders her to be burned at the stake, and she is, but as she dies, the villagers all seem to transform into her, echoing an earlier sentiment from a priest that if a witch's pride is still intact when she faces the flame, she'll continue to hold great influence over those that knew her even in death.
Based loosely on Jules Michelet's book, Satanism and Witchcraft, Belladonna takes to heart the message that witches are sympathetic figures and that their stories are deeper and hold more meaning than just being a series of horror tales about wicked old women living alone in the woods and picking off children to eat. By humanizing Jeanne and her struggles, the filmmakers completely side with the witches of history, and they attempt to give them some catharsis after all the torture inflicted on them over the centuries.
The violence in this film is difficult. I'm against rape scenes in film, television, comics, and books, not just because they're triggering to survivors, but because they tend to show the act itself as a stand-alone event, seldom delving into the enduring trauma that follows. I find it difficult to defend the inclusion of rape scenes in film. Not only are they ubiquitous, not only do they make me want to walk out of theaters more than any other device, but I also don't understand what exactly it is they're supposed to tell the viewer that couldn't be communicated in another way.
Belladonna, to its credit, depicts the acts of violence committed towards Jeanne as being the horrible, traumatic events that they truly are. The entire film follows Jeanne's angst after the fact, as her husband no longer understands how to relate to her. Her inability to process, and the callous lack of response from Jean, are major themes of the film, which unquestionably sides with Jeanne from beginning to end. I won't say there was no way around the inclusion of these scenes, but I will say that Belladonna stands out for accurately conveying the despair that follows such an attack with the exact degree of humanity and sympathy required to keep me in my seat through the worst parts.
One fascinating thing about Belladonna's violence is that it's depicted in a variety of methods, first in a scene of the brutal attack on Jeanne by the baron, but then again later in the form of a more subtle attempted rape when a page drugs the baron's wife. These two scenes, compared to one another, seem like night and day; one is shockingly violent, the other sedate. It's hard to say what the creators intended with this, but for me it served as an apt observation that there are many forms of violence we have to fear and that this violence threatens people of all walks of life, regardless of their stature in society.
One of the most satisfying aspects of Belladonna of Sadness is that Jeanne is given the option to align herself with the baron, but refuses, although it means her life. I've read reviews that mock the version of the Devil that appears in this film, saying that he isn't scary enough, but the overriding point is that he isn't supposed to be. Jeanne is by far the scariest person in the film, and the men around her are essentially plot devices through which to tell her story, not the other way around. The Devil serves his purpose in tempting her, but he's only giving her clues to what she truly wants. Jeanne is infinitely more disgusted by the baron than by the Devil, and her refusal to accept his paltry offer is inspiring. Jeanne is sent to burn at the stake, but she chooses and accepts that fate rather than making deals with a true devil.
In the end, Belladonna of Sadness is a tragedy with a feminist slant. It links Jeanne's struggle to the struggle of all women, comparing her to Joan of Arc who was likewise burned at the stake. The creators clearly side with witches and practitioners of witchcraft, and even appear to exhibit a great deal of sympathy for the Devil himself. While the movie is mostly known for its violent imagery, there is more to be said for the nuance of the scenes that occur in between, which attempt to give Jeanne's story the tenderness it deserves. In some ways, as Belladonna wraps up and the credits roll, there is an assurance that survivors of sexual assault are tied together in a strange, unspoken way, and that the underlying strength of that common bond is greater and more terrifying than any other power on this earth.