Bijou (1972)

I’ve been trying out a new strategy when purchasing Blu-rays & DVDs lately, and it’s resulted in my modest collection quickly filling up with smut.  Instead of prioritizing tried-and-true personal favorites I know I’ll revisit in the future, I’ve pivoted to blind-buying movies I assume will never be accessible on streaming.  The plan was to finally see some independent, arthouse obscurities that fall through mainstream distribution gaps and, thus, eternally gather dust of my watchlist, but in practice it’s only prompted me to purchase more & more vintage pornography.  I can pretty safely assume that titles like Bat Pussy, SexWorld, and Fleshpot on 42nd Street will never populate on Hulu or Netflix, so I figure the best (legal) chance I have to see them is to own them.  That’s not to say there’s no overlap between high-brow experimental art and vintage porno.  In my casual, sporadic splurges on discounted discs, I’ve found plenty of artsy-fartsy filth to help refine my porno palate, including heavy-hitter titles like Equation to an Unknown, Pink Narcissus, Luminous Procuress, and, most recently, Wakefield Poole’s seminal classic Bijou.  There is a three-way intersection between D.I.Y. independent filmmaking, pretentious arthouse mindfuckery, and prurient perversion in these films that you can’t find anywhere else in cinema, which somehow makes owning them feel like an academic pursuit rather than a masturbatory one.

In that arthouse porno context, Bijou is considered by many connoisseurs to be the best of the best.  There’s a girthy stretch at its warped, misshapen center where I totally understand that claim.  I can’t fully vouch for its most stunning sequence’s lengthy bookends, though, which occasionally tested my patience despite their flagrant obscenity, as if I were watching Apichatpongian slow cinema instead of vintage smut.  The opening sequence is effectively a non-sequitur, featuring our main POV stud (Bill Harrison) leaving his construction site job, witnessing a deadly car accident, and snatching the purse of the woman who was run over.  He shakes off the guilt of that petty theft by masturbating in the shower, attempting to focus on the porno mag centerfolds hanging on his apartment walls instead of the tragedy he got himself needlessly involved in.  It takes 20 languid minutes for our well-endowed construction hunk to give into his obsession with the mysterious woman, following an invitation in her purse to the titular Bijou theatre, when the movie finally comes (and comes and comes and comes) alive.  The Bijou turns out to be less of a secret sex club than it is a phantasmagorical otherworld.  After following a few Alice in Wonderland instructions (signs flashing “Remove shoes” & “Remove clothes” instead of “Eat me” or “Drink me”), our main man finds himself in an endless black void decorated only with smoke, mirrors, tinsel, and nightclub lighting rigs.  His descent into the subliminal bowels of the Bijou is a gorgeous, disorienting display, recalling the funhouse mirror freakout at the climax of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai.  Then, a 30-minute orgy ensues among the “all-male cast,” gradually overpowering the D.I.Y. psychedelia with the monotony of a nonstop sex scene.

Wakefield Poole directed Bijou the same year that the Golden Age of Porno was supposedly kicked off by the mainstream success of Deep Throat, a film with much less pronounced artistic ambitions, to say the least.  His previous film The Boys in the Sand was a similar cultural landmark, covered like a Real Film by the trades in a way no previous gay porno could have hoped for, despite its weirdly muted legacy as a porno-chic landmark lurking in Deep Throat‘s shadow.  As a follow-up to that early critical success, Bijou seems less interested in mainstream attention than it is in academic pursuits.  The way Poole transforms his tiny NYC apartment into an endless liminal pleasure realm can’t help but recall the arthouse porno sensibilities of James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus, which was filmed on the same kind of D.I.Y. “studio” set (although much less efficiently).  In its best moments, Bijou plays like the scrappier, more brutish kid brother of Narcissus, doubling down on the abstraction & obscenity of Bidgood’s work instead of the sub-Technicolor beauty.  Poole includes self-portrait camera tests and screen-test cast interviews as side-by-side slideshow projections, the kind of visual experimentation that was making waves in that era’s art galleries, not its porno theatres.  The classical soundtrack makes even the orgy sequence play like a perverse parody of Disney’s Fantasia, the closest that studio has ever gotten to genuine pomp & prestige.  In its most transcendent moments, Poole’s version of pornography can only be compared to art film experimentation, more often recalling Kenneth Anger than Gregory Dark (although all three directors likely had major influence on the music video as an artform).  Unlike Pink Narcissus, though, Bijou isn’t entirely comprised of transcendent moments, and it takes a little patience to get to the core down-the-rabbit-hole sequence that makes it such a well-regarded all-timer.

I don’t know that I have the passion nor the stamina to make it as a full-on, well-versed porno sommelier (for that, I will defer to Ask Any Buddy‘s Elizabeth Purchell, longtime Bijou advocate), but I do think it’s a genre I owe more time & attention, so it’s one I’m likely to continue collecting.  Swampflix doesn’t have much of a guiding ethos beyond promoting appreciation for low-budget, high-art genre filmmaking, and there is plenty pornography that deserves to be discussed & exalted in that context, alongside more frequently cited genres like action, sci-fi, and horror.  In that canon, Bijou is clearly a central, definitive text, even if its loopy, unrushed entirety can’t live up to the psychedelic transcendence of its best stretch.

-Brandon Ledet

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