When one hears the title Story of O, lots of loaded imagery and thoughts spring to mind. It could be decadent bourgeoisie types indulging in chain- and bondage-laced orgiastic debauchery involving ridiculously good looking and bizarrely willing women in owl masks. For others, it could be the deeper memory of the melancholy danger of when one forfeits their own individuality for an unhealthy, abusive relationship. These are the weird dualities with something like Dominique Aury AKA Pauline Reage’s Story of O. Is it an erotic tale of the ultimate trust via submission or a depressing read about highly damaged, dysfunctional people?
Of course, all that is ultimately up to the reader. Story of O is still a famed work to the extent of being referenced by younger artists like Amanda Palmer and, for better or worse, it laid out the groundwork for bestsellers like 50 Shades of Grey. What is lesser known, however, is its sequel, Retour à Roussy (which translates to "Return to Roissy"). To my knowledge, it was never published in English, but its legacy, albeit presumably in a very loose manner, lived on in the 1981 film Fruits of Passion: Story of O Continued.
Helmed by famed cult Japanese director Shuji Terayama (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1971, Grass Labyrinth, 1979), Fruits of Passion will massively disappoint anyone expecting the Vaseline-lensed, Euro-sexy-gloss of Just Jaeckin’s Story of O released six years prior. Despite the way it was advertised, Fruits of Passion is anything but erotic. It is tremendously unsexy but, what it lacks in prurient delight, Fruits of Passion more than makes up for it by painting an incredibly beautiful and depressing tableau.
Fruits of Passion begins with O (Isabelle Illiers) on an old Chinese junk ship with her lover, Sir Stephen (Klaus Kinski). He is taking her to a florid Hong Kong brothel, run by the lovely, transgendered Madame (famed Japanese gender-bender Pita, billed here as Peter). Per Sir Stephen’s request, O is going to work at the brothel in order to prove her resolute love to him. Looking like a sad-eyed French doll being led to the slaughterhouse of human sexuality, O agrees and Madame is thrilled to have such a pretty, fair-skinned girl on hand.
Some of O’s co-workers include a mentally ill former film actress who has to be "directed" with her clients and a dominatrix who lashes out at her customers while reliving childhood memories of being harassed by her barking, drunken father. While less than ideal clientele come in for all the women, Sir Stephen engineers it so O gets some of the worst ones, including one older man who penetrates her on a metal rocking bird. Another instance includes O fellating one grim looking fellow with a hook for a hand. Meanwhile, when he isn’t setting up his lover with the more mutated of society, Sir Stephen is having a rather intense affair with the blonde, beautiful and flighty Nathalie (Arielle Dombasle). Nathalie is quite jealous of her lover’s submissive paramour even when Sir Stephen has sex with her in front of a chained up, and clearly unhappy, O.
In the background, revolution is in the air, with one of its teenaged participants, Ogaku (Kenichi Nakamura), developing a huge crush on O, whom he sees glimpses of through her window. He eventually gets his wish and spends an evening with O, providing her with the only act of tenderness and sweet-soul-based humanity in the whole film. It is this act, the only time in which O actually experiences a moment of laughter, happiness and physical pleasure, which sets Sir Stephen off, spiraling the film into a surrealistic and bleak conclusion.
Fruits of Passion is a fascinating work and was born to disappoint most who have sought it out. For anyone seeking the pseudo-sophisticated sensuality of the Jaeckin film, watching Fruits must have been the cinematic equivalent of having a grinning clown spraying ice-cold seltzer water directly on your groin. Is there a lot of sex within the film? Absolutely. But, the majority of it is used more as a device to reveal the assorted characters’ dysfunctions and inner scars. For a viewer like me, however, that is a huge plus. Simple prurient cha-cha is easy to come by and, while it certainly has its place, I like a little something extra – and you certainly get all that and more in Fruits of Passion.
Isabelle Illiers’s O is worlds away from Corinne Clery’s in the Jaeckin film, but given the 180 approach here, it works. She might not be the strongest actress but, between how Terayama uses her doll-like beauty and the way she emotes in the film, like a ghost chained to the living, Illiers is effective. If Illiers’s O is spectral, then Kinski’s Sir Stephen is a straight-up vampire. He is more ghastly and predatory here than he was in either Herzog’s sublime version of Nosferatu the Vampire (1979) or even in the non-Herzog sequel, Nosferatu in Venice (1988). With his long blonde-white hair, pale face contrasted with a somewhat tan body and a presence oozing depravity and a deeper, more obscure layer of male insecurity, Kinski toes that jolie laide line of being wonderfully compelling to look at yet similarly repugnant.
Kinski mentions the filming of Fruits of Passion in his infamous autobiography, Kinski Uncut, (the slightly less litigious version of his original English-language bio, All I Need Is Love). From his descriptions, one would envision a film far more pornographic than it actually is. There are some scenes of unsimulated sex, but the only two where it is pretty clear includes O with the hook-hand man, which is extremely brief, and a sex scene between Sir Stephen and an unnamed Asian woman, which is longer and maddening in its fury. That’s not to say that some of the other scenes are not unsimulated, but that Terayama’s focus was less on insertion and money shots and more on character and ambiance.
The rest of the cast is solid, especially young Nakamura, whose character, according to an old interview with Terayama that’s featured on the inside Anchor Bay VHS release sleeve, serves as a link between the colorful world of the brothel and the dreary, monochromatic reality, where the streets are continually brimming with potential violence. While there is a marked visual contrast between these two worlds, the scent of human desperation and unfulfillment wafts throughout almost all of the proceedings.
Terayama sadly passed away a scant two years after Fruits of Passion was released, at only 47 years old. Despite dying before even reaching proper middle age, the man managed to publish almost 200 literary works and formed at least two experimental theatre groups, all in addition to filmmaking. Interestingly enough, Fruits of Passion seems to be the footnote in almost every bio I have seen, which is really a shame. Visually, the film is like an orchid surrounded by human squalor. Story wise, it’s incredibly poetic and examines some of the underpinnings of how the perception of love can be a damaged thing. I’m not sure how many answers it has, but I do know that it feeds you some terrific questions, if you’re open to it.