Belladonna of Sadness (哀しみのベラドンナ, Kanashimi no Belladonna) (1973) –an animated Japanese art house film by director Eiichi Yamamoto– is a rare and beautiful, though polarizing piece of avant-garde cinema.
A sexploitative, psychedelic rock opera set in the Middle Ages, the synopsis for Belladonna of Sadness from various internet sites describes it thusly: “The beautiful peasant woman Jeanne is raped by a demonic overlord on her wedding night. Spurned by her husband, she has no outlet for her awakened libido, which develops to give her powers of witchcraft.” and “…in her powerlessness she is gradually driven to ancient superstitions and satanic practices, and then accused, tortured and executed for witchcraft. ”
With striking visuals not unlike a Beardsley illustration or Klimt painting, it is more a fluid tableaux of watercolor elegance than actual moving animation. Despite the bewitching, breathtaking art, one never loses sight that it is a tragic story of unrelenting cruelty and despair. At certain points, it is an almost excruciating watch.
According to esotikafilm.com :
“Belladonna is an adaptation of La Sorcière, the 1862 novelized history of satanism and witchcraft in the late middle ages. The book was written by feminist, freethinker, and Frenchman Jules Michelet, who, like many other post-revolution French intellectuals, was eager to condemn the barbaric European forces of the prior few centuries. In Michelet’s story, the practice of witchcraft is not simply the leftover trace of ancient pagan traditions, but an active rebellion against an oppressive church and system of government. …According to Michelet, the spirit of rebellion and experimentation found in 14th century witchcraft was a progenitor of the enlightenment values yet to come. Furthermore, this was a movement led by women, those who likely suffered the most at the hands of the church and the feudal system.”
“The film adaptation of La Sorcière is often very faithful to the book…It tells the story of an archetypal witch (unnamed in the book, named Jeanne in the movie) who suffers a series of misfortunes that lead her down the path from being a chaste, obedient peasant’s wife, to giving in to her awakened earthly desires, to finally blossoming into the bride of Satan himself. The process of selling one’s soul to the Devil can be interpreted literally or metaphorically, but keep in mind that at least according to Michelet, those who would enter into such a pact in the middle ages presumably believed they were literally sacrificing eternity for just a glimmer of relief from a cruel and bleak life… Her relationship with the Devil may be nothing but a psychological coping mechanism for the brutality she suffers.”
Is Belladonna of Sadness a misogynistic sleaze-fest, a surreal feminist empowerment message, or a stylistic gem of exquisite curiosity? Perhaps a baffling hybrid of all of these things? Repeated viewings do not make the question any easier to answer. Those fortunate enough to find a (subtitled) copy may judge for themselves; in the meantime, several film stills can be found below.