Mystique (1980)

Flawed but fascinating, MYSTIQUE offers a rare opportunity to witness the relentlessly morose universe of the late Roger Watkins of LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET infamy filtered through the sensibilities of another filmmaker. In this case Roberta Findlay, resorting to her male alter ego of “Robert W. Norman”, thereby perhaps accidentally initiating an unofficial trilogy of the downbeat with A WOMAN’S TORMENT and THE TIFFANY MINX. While Watkins, fresh from wowing fans and critics alike with his dirty movie debut HER NAME WAS LISA, obviously remains the premium interpreter of his self-confessed inner turmoil, Findlay certainly gives it the old college try, gamely taking on board all of the author’s lofty idiosyncrasies. For the film at hand, these include an opening quote from French existential poet Paul Valéry (equating a drop of wine spilled in the ocean, from his poem “Le Vin Perdu”, with the waste of a life lived on the sidelines) and borrowing the names of the wives of Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner for his main characters where he, of course, gained genre notoriety as “Richard Mahler” ! True to form, soundtrack’s liberally littered with highbrow selections from both composers’ body of work. Rarely has an adult film worn its art-house ambitions well above its station so comically on its sleeve right from the outset. And yet, Findlay deftly manages to sidestep these hurdles of disproportionate pretension through good old-fashioned filmmaking savvy (thanks to a career stretching way back to ’60s sexploitation) and a competent cast acting as safety net.

The obvious go to choice whenever an adult movie character requires a wide range of emotions, Georgina Spelvin once again delivers a tour de force turn as Alma, a famous photographer retreating from life in her secluded beach-side property (Findlay’s own, figuring in many of her films) when she’s diagnosed as suffering from an otherwise unspecified terminal illness by kindly physician Jake Teague, ill-fitting hairpiece covering his usual bald-pate. Haunted by reveries of photo shoots past, she spots scarlet-cloaked Cosima (Samantha Fox) trespassing one day and, intrigued by the girl’s otherworldly appearance, invites her in for tea and crumpet. Soon they embark on a whirlwind lesbian liaison, scissoring to their heart’s content (SOUTH PARK pretty much ruined the erotic potential of that one…), though it quickly dawns that the scheming, manipulative Cosima harbors ulterior motives to twilight Sapphic splendor with lonely, pathetic Alma. As a heart to heart erupts in an argument when clingy Alma pressures her paramour to utter the L-word (love, not lesbian), stressing her crippling insecurity, Cosima storms out of the house. The morning after, she returns with a pair of pick-ups (early Randy West and one shot Vaughn Mitchell) to punish Alma by sicking them on her as she’s taking a bath, watching in chilling bemusement appropriately attired as a circus ringmaster. Waking in her own bed and cursing Cosima for not coming to her aid, Alma’s assured that it was all just a bad dream. Humiliation intensifies as Cosima hires an entire household, threatening to leave unless Alma accepts, casually taking liberties and ruining her valuables.

Yielding to her mistress’s demands in an extended orgy climax, perfectly set to the wistfully soothing strains of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Alma comes to realize that Cosima’s but a figment of her imagination, created out of need for an all-consuming romance in the face of death. This is where the narrative threatens to become problematic, most viewers probably refusing to comply with the frankly half-baked philosophy that Alma should be forcefully freed from the ivory tower she has inhabited her entire life and embrace the selfless sacrifice of her physical being if she’s to make peace with the approaching end. For most part, Alma’s ordeal is shown as so unflinchingly grueling that the arrival of the grim reaper would surely be welcomed with great relief ! Still, almost another illustration of Stockholm syndrome, Alma’s attachment to Cosima rings true because of Spelvin’s flawlessly fearless performance, admirably avoiding attending pitfalls of pathos and ridicule. Although not quite in the same league as an actress, but then even in adult’s Golden Age hardly anyone was, Samantha Fox acquits herself well enough, cutting a striking figure making her initial appearance and displaying a disquieting capacity for unadulterated evil through narrative progress. Teague doesn’t stand much of a chance in the peripheral part of the doctor thanklessly entrusted to bear the bad news putting the plot in motion but the usually affable West impresses in a rare turn as a thug.

Stunningly shot by the great lady herself (apart from her own work, she also photographed Chuck Vincent’s criminally underrated VISIONS and Ron “Henri Pachard” Sullivan’s blockbuster BABYLON PINK), movie’s handicapped by mostly unerotic sex though this seems to have been intentional. Creepy fantasy “lovemaking” between Spelvin and Teague, upon his informing her of her critical condition, stylistically predates the strikingly similar approach David Lynch applied to the bedroom bit involving Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman in his blood-curdling LOST HIGHWAY. Alma’s descent into an inferno, belatedly revealed as stemming from her own making, is brought to life in most unpleasant fashion as one reprehensible character after another joins and disrupts the maudlin menagerie of unrequited lady love. The ubiquitous Ron Jeremy’s easy to spot, Merle Michaels is ladies maid Marie and Elizabeth the laundry girl is played by seldom seen Erica Richardson who was the Dutch farm girl in Vincent’s THAT LUCKY STIFF and demonstrated awesome rectal dexterity in both Shaun Costello’s SUNNY and Bill Milling’s BLONDE IN BLACK SILK. Yolanda Bonnea as servant girl Lotte’s another single shot starlet. Movie’s sole arousing moments come courtesy of Alma’s photo shoot fantasies interspersing her downward spiral, a Greek number complete with columns and togas involving Dave Ruby with sole hit wonders Patricia West and Bobby Kassner and a romantic Civil War era piano recital between barely recognizable Helen Madigan and the ever nerdy Dick Howard, intimately involved in life as well as art at the time.