Among the adventure films of the 1980s — inspired by the commercial success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, is Just Jaeckin’s Gwendoline. Gwendoline (Tawny Kitaen) arrives via cargo container in China, intent on completing the life work of her father, a lepidopterist who disappeared while trying to locate a mythological butterfly. Discovered by thieves, she’s tied up and sold into slavery before being rescued by smirking adventurer Willard (Brent Huff) and her maid Beth (Zabou Breitman). Aware she will need experienced help to find the butterfly — and, perhaps, news of her father — Gwendoline and Beth blackmail Willard into helping them in her quest.
Gwendoline, Beth, and Willard get captured, imprisoned, and tied up a lot. This is because, like Barbarella, Gwendoline is a loose adaptation of an adult comic strip. Here it’s the comics of John Willie, whose Sweet Gwendoline character was constantly being captured and tied up in the pages of men’s magazines Wink and Bizarre.
Both Kitaen and Huff were new actors. In an interview on the disc, Huff says “three weeks before I was auditioning for a Burger King commercial.” Kitaen says “and I was working at Burger King.” When Huff laughs, she insists: “Seriously, I was.” Although Brent may have been auditioning for Burger King, he was well-established at that point as a fashion model. Kitaen had also done some commercial work and modeling; a few years later, she’d be a favorite in Whitesnake videos on MTV.
In the Severin interview, Jaeckin sounds somewhat defensive about his casting of Kitaen and Huff, insisting they were both perfect for the part and that he still believes they did an excellent job. It’s worth pointing out here that Brent Huff and Tawny Kitaen were both American and Jaeckin is much more comfortable speaking in French. Huff and Kitaen’s delivery has an odd, stilted, overly enunciated quality, making them sound like American voice-overs of themselves. It’s hard to imagine an American director, especially one of Jaeckin ’s already extraordinary reputation, approving these takes for what is clearly a high-budget affair.
The more experienced actors in the crew — Jean Rougerie, Zabou Breitman, and accomplished French New Wave actress Bernadette Lafont are comic-book-like, but Huff and Kitaen stumble through each scene in a way that is both cringy and endearing. This makes several of the sex scenes seem … weird. This is especially true of a scene where our stars, captured and hog-tied by the savage Kiops tribe, have phone sex three feet away from each other. Selling this to any degree requires some pretty solid acting chops, and I’m afraid I ended up watching this terrifyingly awkward scene with my hands over my eyes.
Performances aside, however, Gwendoline is a gorgeous film, filled with brilliant colors and amazing design. Jaeckin got his start as a magazine photographer, then left filmmaking entirely for photography, sculpture, and art. Kitaen describes him as a “perfectionist,” which shows pretty clearly in everything in the movie except the dialogue. His eye for setting is just as much in evidence here as it was in his most famous film, Emmanuelle, where the natural beauty of the shooting locations overwhelmed even that of the cast. Some of my favorite scenes were the ones shot on location in the Phillippines, and Jaeckin is not shy about pulling the camera back to let us get a good look at the landscape.
The Yik Yak sets lean pretty heavily into fetish-bondage themes. The Queen straps naked women into giant machinery as punishment, and even used as the horses in an extended chariot race. This seems less sexual than you might expect, calling to mind Rolls-Royce hood ornaments more than Bettie Page.
Gwendoline’s approach to sex is very similar to that of Barbarella. It is only the evil Queen of the Yik Yak, who micromanages who gets to have sex and with whom and then murders the men afterwards, who doesn’t seem to have any fun.
Gwendoline, released originally in a butchered 88-minute version titled The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak, has been restored and re-released by Severin. Their edition contains both edits and several excellent interviews not only with Jaeckin and the stars but also with production designer Françoise De Leu, who explains how her work on Gwendoline opened the world of French production design to women for the first time.