Saturday, February 24, 2007

French Dressing

Her outfit was... a long dress with a full skirt, worn over a sturdy whalebone bodice gathered tightly at the waist, and over a stiffly starched linen petticoat. The low-cut neck scarcely concealed the breasts which, raised by the constricting bodice, were only lightly veiled by the network of lace.

This is the costume given to Story of O's eponymous heroine when she enters "the chateau," as it's called -- a regime of erotic submission she accepts as though in a familiar, recurring dream. The language is austere, depersonalized. The narrative voice refers to "the" rather than "her" breasts. And in fact, soon after, one of the "masters" of the chateau tells O that her hands are not her own, and that she has "lost all right to privacy or concealment."

O receives her instructions with the same unquestioning passivity with which she allowed herself to be dressed in her costume. Or at least that's how it's usually -- and to my mind not quite correctly -- described. A better word than "passivity," I think, would be "recognition," and of a very literate, sophisticated order.

Neither O nor her readers need to be told that the costume is a dolled-up version of that of a chambermaid, in cruel, absolutist pre-Revolutionary France. And when she's told that Pierre, "who will chain and unchain you, who will whip you... when the others have no time for you," neither she nor her readers is entirely surprised to find that Pierre is "dressed like the valet in some operetta."

The power relations in the chateau -- levels of hierarchy; iron and leather restraints; ritualized sexual obedience; and the screams and tears that the masters wrest from O and the other women in their long, lowcut dresses -- are rendered with eerie conviction. Oddly, though, what makes it so assured, so quietly confident, is its stagy predictability. This has all happened before, O thinks. And so does the reader. At the very least it's happened in the work of the Marquis de Sade, the aristocrat who lived through the revolution and the terror and who staged his own private versions of them in his over-the-top, bloody, sometimes yucky and sometimes wildly funny writings.

Sade dreamed about the limits of absolute freedom and the beguilements of totalizing system and domination. It's fair to say that he invented the genre of BDSM, though he probably wouldn't recognize it in the cuddlier, domesticated versions we're used to. But it's his genre that O enters, quite as Buffy (and Willow, and we) re-enter the world of teen movie horror for yet the umpteenth time. The real conflict in genre fiction, I believe, is the endless argument between the helpless part of us that wants – that has -- to go there once more, and the wisecracking intellectual part of us that can’t quite believe we’ve been suckered, again and forever seduced by the worn old props and operetta costumes.

It’s that conversation that I listen for in genre – the endless, two-sided chatter, the unashamed, ambivalent questioning that I strain to hear (and knock myself out to write) in romance and erotic fiction.

7 comments:

Shelli Stevens said...

You know I've never read the book or seen the movie. But I hear so much about it. I think I'm kind of afraid to! LOL.

Pam Rosenthal said...

The movie's not much, IMO.

Jane Lockwood said...

The narrative voice refers to "the" rather than "her" breasts. And in fact, soon after, one of the "masters" of the chateau tells O that her hands are not her own, and that she has "lost all right to privacy or concealment."

That's the work of a smart translator, since in French you refer to your own body parts impersonally as "la" or "le" (the). It's a long time since I read "O" but I do love to bring a sense of formality and performance into scenes--I think it's essential. The "props" of a historical setting are very useful--the clothes, the formality, the nuances of different forms of address. We are so lucky to have all this stuff to play with!

Pam Rosenthal said...

Great point, Jane. And yes, the theatricality of period clothing, the rituals of status and distinction -- all of that's a treasure trove/toy box for an erotic writer. The fetishism, the kink of it (take it, Lacy) runs on a kind of parallel track to the nerdy obsession on system and detail that gives Buffy its intellectual spark and provides the self-knowing, self-mocking humor behind the brilliance (can't wait to get to Coleen Gleason's Regency Buffy book -- could you tell?).

Jane George said...

Sorry to chime in late, just got a moment to wander over here. Pam wrote:

**The real conflict in genre fiction, I believe, is the endless argument between the helpless part of us that wants – that has -- to go there once more, and the wisecracking intellectual part of us that can’t quite believe we’ve been suckered, again and forever seduced by the worn old props and operetta costumes.**

Wow! Thanks for putting into such intelligent words the very reason I'm now wrastling a first attempt at historical paranormal romance into, er, submission. (Pardon, the pun, please.)

Pam. I noticed on your profile that Children of Paradise is one of your favorite films. In my early twenties I had something of a Jean-Louis Barrault obsession!

Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks Jane (George, this time). What I wrote was sort of my credo, though I'm glad I didn't understand myself so well a decade ago, or I would never have had the enormous fun of writing the Carrie books in order to find it out.

As for Jean-Louis Barrault -- I don't know much about what he's been in except for "Children of Paradise" and "La Nuit de Varennes," where he's sly and engaging as Restif de la Bretonne -- and wonderful up against Marcello Mastroianni as an aging Casanova (though the movie itself sort of sags, imo).

What other moves is he in? I'd love to check them out.

Jane George said...

Here's a list I stole from Wikipedia:

Les beaux jours, Jenny, L'Or dans la Montagne and Sous les Yeux d'occident.

I have not seen them. I'd like to, in my spare (hah) time.

I was purely infatuated with Jean-Louis' on-screen person. What a lovely gentleman.