Published Feb 29, 2008With her debut feature Viva, a would-be cult classic sniffing around morally vacuous, Playboy-damaged L.A. (circa 1972), artist/provocateur Anna Biller is working from two templates: true 70s sexploitation cheese (and in particular, the Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and the more "serious mainstream treatments of the mores and times, à la Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
But, beyond all the care lavished on the groovy, super-saturated visuals more Cat in the Hat meets Target commercial than Deep Throat, if were honest shes bitten off more than she can handle, or control.
Shes clearly inspired by the likes of Candida Royalle, the ex-pornstar whos carved out a second career producing feminist-oriented erotica, and fair enough. But when, as in the promo material, she positions Viva as a riff on the "sexually challenging and disturbing films of Ms. Catherine Breillat, her reach can officially be deemed as to have exceeded her grasp, begetting fuzziness in both tone and philosophy. Biller is a one-woman shop she stars, writes, directs, edits, designs the costumes and sets, and creates the (somewhat superfluous) musical and animation numbers. So theres no bean-counting overseer to sharpen her focus.
The main action Billers newly single suburban housewife tours through the underbelly of the sexual liberation takes far too long to crank up and oddly enough, doesnt involve all that much actual sex. The character is tense, prudish and a little thick. She enjoys no happy couplings; the only penetrative sex she has is when raped or drugged. Her big act of liberation, of "taking back power, is to do all she can to resist the temptations shes theoretically revelling in. At the end of the day, Viva is startlingly traditional, heteronormative, almost anti-sex.
A bigger problem is that all her efforts at deconstructing/re-contextualising/updating both the sexism and general crappiness of the sexploitation canon add up to little more that a faithful recreation thereof. And a badly acted, dorkily written movie is a badly acted, dorkily written movie however correct the politics underpinning it are. Yes, theres a short films worth of mocking fun to be had at all the crassness but thats insufficient, especially since producer Biller has let editor Biller run wild to the tune of 120 minutes.
For sure, Viva has its pleasures funky Hammond jams, lysergic visuals, Billers own generous exhibitionism and its impossible not to admire her résumé-busting chutzpah. But this Viva is too shallow to be cautionary, too dull to be satirical and too chaste to be pornographic. Biller is a talent to watch, just not quite yet. (Vagrant)