Sweet Ecstasy
Douce violence
review by Gregory Avery, 5 March 2004

In the film Sweet Ecstasy, the young Elke Sommer looks up at the camera with star sapphire eyes gazing from beneath a mound of wild, unruly white-blond hair. She plays a tigerish young thing named ... Elke, who lives as she wants, loves as she wants, and sets two men who are interested in her against each other, one of whom is almost killed.

Sweet Ecstasy came out in the U.S. in 1962, six years after the release of And God Created Woman caused an international sensation. In that film, the young Brigitte Bardot played Juliette, who lived as she wanted, loved as she wanted, and set two men (brothers, to be precise) who are interested in her against each other, one of whom is almost killed. (A third man, played by Curd Jurgens, is also interested in Juliette but knows when to put the brakes on.)

That's not the only similarity the two films have. They both take place in French coastal towns (Sweet Ecstasy on the Cote d'Azur, facing the Mediterranean). Christian Pezey, who plays the younger of the two men in Sweet Ecstasy, bears a marked resemblance to Jean-Louis Trintignant, the younger man in the Bardot film. In both films, there's a scene where the lead female character dances provocatively to exotic music. (Also, both female characters are blond, Bardot having dyed her hair blond to play Juliette.)

The character of Elke in Sweet Ecstasy states upfront that she is "incapable of loving anyone", meaning she is incapable of having emotions for someone. Bardot's Juliette in And God Created Woman, because she has no inhibitions about herself, was seen as being detached and, therefore, amoral, a misinterpretation of the instinctive, unaffected (in terms of actorly mannerisms) persona which came across in the film. It was not indicative of an absence of feeling. (Although Bardot, towards the end of her acting career, would increasingly hide beneath long blond hair and black eyeliner makeup, whether she was appearing in a Western or a modern-day story.) And God Created Woman made instant celebrities out of "B.B." (a trained classical dancer who had appeared in mostly bit parts and supporting roles) and her director, Roger Vadim. By 1962, Bardot had shown she could act, in Henri-Georges Clouzot's La Vérité (tragically unavailable in the U.S., at the moment), and was about to appear in Jean-Luc Godard's new film  Contempt; Vadim had made his modern day version of Les Liaisons Dangereuse, and his remarkable vampire drama Blood and Roses, both with then-current wife Annette Stroyberg (who, in the latter, is seen floating across the grounds of a country house, in a silvery couture dress, as a party is breaking up during the early morning hours).

Christian Pezey's character, Olivier, is first seen entering a theater where rehearsals are being held for something called Les Chemins Dangereuse (Dangerous Roads). His sister, Claire (played by Claire Maurier), is staring in it; backstage, she asks him what the matter is. "Are you in love?" "No. Just depressed," Olivier replies. (Yes, Sweet Ecstasy has been dubbed by anonymous drones into English.) Sister Claire, naturally, scolds him ("That is the end!"); Olivier then meets Barbara (Vittoria Prada), a nice girl to whom he offers a lift in his roadster, hence to nearby Villefranche, where they run into the juvenile delinquents.

Albeit they're juvenile delinquents who say things like, "We've got the yacht for the weekend!" They're more like bohemian types, spawned by rich families. The nominal leader is Maddy, played by Pierre Brice, who bears a resemblance to the young Alain Delon in Purple Noon. He and Olivier engage in some banter on morality, after which Maddy suggests that Olivier go a round with Elke, even though up until then Elke had been Maddy's girl. This leads to the one scene which probably scandalized American audiences in 1962 -- Elke and Olivier are accelerating from Phase One to Phase two when, oops! Elke's blouse pops open. (Not to worry, you don't get to see too much of anything.) Then Olivier turns into a wet blanket: he doesn't want to engage in THAT sort of empty love. Elke, understandably, responds by telling him to go play with the fishes, and you can't blame her -- a gentleman usually doesn't get a woman that hot and bothered and then refuses to be attentive to her needs (which is seen in some quarters as sadistic). The movie hedges its bets, however -- an earlier scene has already shown that Maddy and Elke have conspired against Olivier, deciding that Olivier is too good for his own good, and that Elke will serve as the corrupting force. The film's original French title was Douce Violence -- Tender Violence.

This was the second of two films the director Max Pecas made with Elke Sommer -- the actress is more recognizable as Elke Sommer in the first film, Daniella by Night, a murder mystery that Radley Metzger's Audubon Films, the American distributor, sold as a saucy romp through the clubs and fashion houses of Paris. For the 1959 film Un Mundo para mí -- which starred Agnes Laurent, another "nouveau Bardot" -- Metzger completely re-edited and cut in boodles of new footage, releasing it as Soft Skin on Black Silk. It looks like some clipping was done on Sweet Ecstasy, too -- characters will walk off-camera and, in the next shot, magically appear at an airport miles away, with no explanation as to how they got there. Along with the oops-my-blouse-popped-open scene, Sweet Ecstasy features a surfside tussle between Maddy and Elke, a scene where Elke is tied up and then auctioned off to the highest bidder, and another where she is trapped and almost burned alive. Maddy and Olivier, inevitably, get riled and settle their differences between each other in a sort-of duel involving platforms raised and lowered by cranes and a building that's under construction. Charles Aznavour co-wrote the incidental music for the film, which also uses two songs recorded by French rock star Johnny Hallyday (taken from his 1961 album Viens Danser Le Twist, the French title for the Chubby Checker song Let's Do the Twist). (Hallyday can currently be seen in the film Crime Spree, opposite another French pop singer, Renaud -- they actually have a scene where their two characters keep switching between radio stations that are playing songs recorded by Renaud and Johnny Hallyday.)

While Sweet Ecstasy may not be as risque as it once was, I wouldn't exactly say that the film has turned entirely quaint. I've always liked Elke Sommer, and, having now seen this film, am rather glad that she broke out of the Bardot wannabe mode and found her own screen persona. Just as a good part of the success of A Shot in the Dark has to do with her portrayal of the housemaid Maria, whom everyone is convinced is a murderer (save for Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouzot), whatever edge Sweet Ecstasy retains has to do with her portrayal of a wanton seductress, fiery and changeable, gradually deciding that she would like to stay with one man and one man only. I'm sure she was probably glad to throw the teasing comb away after this film, though.

Time has been somewhat kind to both Sommer and Bardot's careers. Bardot famously ended her film career in 1974 (in her last big feature role, she, literally, sent her screen persona up in flames), devoting herself to the foundation she set up for the protection of animals. (And taking time to write a memoir -- which is another story.) Sommer is still active as a performer, having appeared in two noteworthy Mario Bava films, including Lisa and the Devil, with its remarkable dreamlike structure, and giving a chilling performance as Magda Goebbles in the miniseries Inside the Third Reich, opposite Rutger Hauer and Derek Jacobi.

And Sweet Ecstasy contains one scene where two water-skiers tear off across the Bay of Cannes, the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean fleet clearly visible in the background, while, on the soundtrack, Johnny Hallyday can be heard howling, "Il faut saisir sa chance quand elle passe" -- seize the chance when she comes. You can't get more blissfully Sixties than that.

Directed by:
Max Pecas

Elke Sommer
Christian Pezey
Pierre Brice
Vittoria Prada
Claire Maurier

Written by:
G.M. Dubat
Max Pecas







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