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Baba Yaga (1973)

Corrado Farina

Italy / France

91 min, color, English

Review © 2007 Branislav L. Slantchev

Baba Yaga is one of those rare films that threaten to turn any attempt to analyze them into a psychoanalysis of the reviewer's own psychoses and prejudices, or, at the very least, into an expose of his concept of what ideas like 'the good society,' 'liberty,' and 'power' mean. Ostensibly a horror flick that tries to be a faithful adaptation of an adult comic series by Crepax, Baba Yaga is a social drama that reveals the contradictions of the 1970s underground in its wholesale rejection of traditional values and challenge both to state authority and bourgeois morals. How well it succeeds in its silent indictment of these contradictions we are now perhaps in a better position to judge, being twice removed from that era; twice because I did not live through it and because our present is quite a bit different.

Valentina in the darkness of Milan Totally non-campy licking of a garter

The story is simple enough. The setting is the turbulent 1970s Milan. A photographer by the name of Valentina (Isabelle de Funès) 'accidentally' encounters a mysterious older woman wearing old-fashioned large-brimmed hats and lots of black lace. The pale, if somewhat puffy, being turns out to be Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker), a witch with unwholesome S&M lesbian tendencies. Baba Yaga tries to seduce Valentina using all sorts of power plays and some supernatural forces that gradually cause the poor girl to start mixing up dreams and reality to the point that she becomes thoroughly confused and ends up in the witch's house buck-naked and gets herself whipped under the pretext of this being some sort of revelation of ancient hidden truths now lost to mankind. But in fact, the witch possesses no such truths and when Valentina manages to break the spell for a split second, Baba Yaga is eternally defeated.

Valentina's first dreams of power and nakedness Gratuitous shot of the perennially disturbed Isabelle De Funès

Not much going on in this thing, to be sure, and if this were the sum of the film, then Baba Yaga would have deservedly vanished into celluloid oblivion. But this has not happened, and the somewhat belated rediscovery of this minor gem should clue us in as to why this is the case. I don't think it has much to do with it being a successful adaptation of a comic book. Even the director admits that he did not quite manage to do that in the interview. But what's more, these days we have much more than Diabolik to compare this to. Forget the huge success of Spider-man or the faithful Superman, just take the astounding Sin City and we can all agree that Rodriguez has reached the pinnacle of comic book adaptation. Judged by these modern standards, Baba Yaga indeed appears quaint, so it's hard to see how its faithfulness of comic-book editing can account for its resurrection.

Cappuccino and revolution! Fight bourgeois decadence with escapist fantasies!

I think that it is the political and sociological undercurrent that makes it a fascinating glimpse into a time of upheaval, a time of a search for a new definition of what it means to be modern or for a society to be just. Valentina, her lover Arno (George Eastman), and their friends are those among those intellectuals that saw themselves as harbingers, if not active leaders, of a new revolution; a clean break with the past that will sweep away the stagnant self-righteous stifling bourgeois society with its emphasis on comfort, conformity, and the pursuit of the material good life, a society whose basic norms they challenged as racist, chauvinistic, and, above all, unjust because they relegated the working class to an inferior position from which it could never emerge. All of this is evident in Valentina's bed-time reading materials (Marx's "Das Capital" is prominently displayed), her sarcastic chastising of her lover for being a "whore" because one day he films a rat dreaming to juxtapose it with a famous industrialist and the next day he's off shooting a laundry detergent commercial, among others.

"I myself am a fan of Carl Zeiss optics" Light bed-time reading for the fashionable post-Freudian Marxist

It's all obviously very fashionable and these people move in the highly educated and intellectualized circles of society where they spend their time attending parties that allow them to engage in high-brow but vacuous discussion of societal and artistic trends or participating in anti-establishment activities like filming anti-American skits in a graveyard (deleted scene) only to scatter like frightened butterflies the moment two cops show up in a car. In other words, the film portrays the typical intellectual rebel of the era, a fascinating contradiction in terms because despite his emphasis on societal justice, his position is that of a brahmin, a leader and teacher who imagines himself initiating the mass of stupid workers into the mysteries of liberty. These people were not exactly modest in their aspirations and they did not shy from imagining themselves as leading the revolution. Apparently untroubled by the fact that any such revolution, if it ever took place, would have them chopping woods in the Western equivalent of Siberia (that is, if they managed to keep their heads on) rather than accord them the leadership position they blithely assumed to be entitled to, these "intellectuals" were charlatans of the worst sort for they were not friends of the poor, and the disenfranchised. In fact, their entire existence was predicated on the wealth of Western society that could afford to sustain people engaged only in thinking and the production of arts.

Well, this is based on a comic strip Oddly unerotic love-making scene

But it gets worse than that, for Marx is not their only bedtime reading. Valentina is shown perusing the works of Marquis de Sade, and one cannot doubt that Freudian along with assorted "revolutionary" writings based on far east teachings made an odd concoction on which to base one's life philosophy. (This is not meant as an endorsement of Marx, but rather to show that the vaunted eclecticism was self-defeating in the extreme.) In other words, these so-called intellectuals were the self-absorbed types who reveled in their own psychoses, who were engaged into an introspective and egotistical pursuit of their own passions. In this, they resembled more the caricature of a decadent aristocrat of the pre-revolutionary era than members of the vanguard of the proletariat. For invariably, these self-indulgent excursions into one's own psyche led to sex or sexual deviance, at least deviance from the established norms. It is this sort of rebellion that fascinated them: anything that affirmed their individuality defined in contrast to the dominant mores was revolutionary. It is in this way that sticking three dicks into one's pussy was conceived as the ultimate form of challenge to power. Rebellion by orgasm; what can be more pathetic than that?

A hapless victim of the new Cosmo 10 Ways to Seduce Your Man by Reading Howard Zinn These flea-market jewels will never do for a self-respecting underground witch

The problem, of course, is that these intellectuals were not entirely unaware of the contradictions between their publicly avowed high ideals and their actual practice. Some tried to sublimate this through pseudo-philosophical ramblings that justified the use of drugs and free sex. But most were content to engage in linguistic mumbo-jumbo and continue their pursuits rendered even more meaningless by the simple fact that the authorities they were supposedly challenging were for the most part content to let them be, apparently quite aware of the ultimate fruitlessness of this endeavor. Some are actually secretly longing for full acceptance into the bourgeois society they affect to despise and their rebellion ends the moment they gain entry. Arno with his cheerful admission of being a "whore" is one example, but an even better one is his friend who (in a deleted scene) triumphantly announces that his comic strip was picked up by a large publisher. When asked whether this wouldn't mean he'd have to abandon the revolutionary rhetoric, he confesses that he would have to "soften the edges" a bit but that it is a compromise worth making in order to gain a wider readership. Never mind that this audience would not be receiving the message he has hitherto pretended to be of vital importance. When it comes down to it, money and acceptance is what he's really after. Again, these intellectuals reveal themselves to have far more in common with the high society they criticize than with the masses whose interests they claim to represent. It's no accident that this last conversation occurs just before the group enters an art theater to watch the German expressionist masterpiece "Der Golem," hardly an activity that your average worker would engage in.

The remnant of the anti-American sequence they forgot to cut Would have helped the pace quite a bit

Valentina is quite aware of the contradiction of her position. She reads newspapers and supports anti-government student activities. And yet in her job as a photographer, she spends her days shooting naked women against projections of slides from romantic escapist novels of Emilio Salgari. Her contribution to anti-establishment activities consists of getting a black man to pose with a white woman semi-naked. This particular scene is ironic: the black man is highly educated but to fight racism (that's what Valentina avows her purpose to be), she has him strip to the waist, forget that he's educated, and be like his wild ancestors in Africa who ate the missionaries. It is quite clear that either Valentina does not understand what racism is or, more likely, she does not care; all she's after is the shock value of affirming the traditional white man's fear of black man seducing their women. This "intellectual" has not progressed much beyond Birth of a Nation in that respect. Shock, not thought, is what these people are after.

Valentina in Baba Yaga's house, the monument to bad taste The intellectual way to fight racism

But as I said, Valentina is acutely aware of the contradiction between her professed goals and her activities. This awareness is not really conscious as it manifests itself in those dreams that the encounter with the witch triggers. In them, she sees various representations of state authority, at this point in time not surprisingly taking the form of military or police forces. At first, she is marched by two women dressed as Nazis in a cavern. They lead her to a hole in the ground where she undresses under the gaze of a stern officer (played by the director) and them jumps into the bottomless pit. The Freudian fear of falling combines with the fear of being naked in public, both sublimations of the fear of being powerless. Valentina begins by seeing herself as the victim of an oppressive hierarchy, quite in keeping with her daytime conception of her self.

Farina knows his weird angles Yet another moody shot of a disturbed Isabelle De Funès

But this changes abruptly as the witch begins her power games. Soon, Valentina imagines herself not as the victim but as the perpetrator. In another dream sequence, she is dressed in the Prussian uniform of World War I, and is a member of a firing squad that executes a naked woman as the latter wades into the sea naked with blindfolded eyes. (The commanding officer is again played by the director who also shows up as one of the cops that breaks up the anti-American jamboree at the graveyard.) Again, there's the militaristic authority of traditional society and the powerless nakedness of its victim. But here Valentina is the executioner, which reflects her steady realization that what she does in life has nothing to do with what she thinks her ideals are. It is the first step to seeing herself as part of that very same society she is supposedly rejecting. The same essentially occurs in the day-dream sequence in which she takes a photo of an anti-religious hippie protester only to kill him with the flip of the camera's mirror. Even more to the point than the sequence on the beach, this one shows her activity as a photographer being contrary to the revolutionary ideals this man represents.

Valentina as the Prussian executioner That Killer Doll can't keep her clothes on

Most of these dream sequences also have a sexual undercurrent designed to emphasize the point that these developments do not take place on the rational surface but in the emotional id, as Freud would have been happy to attest. Once the realization that she's effectively betrayed her ideals dawns on her, there are only two ways out for Valentina. She can cast off the intellectual pretensions and join the striking students. Or she can accept the punishment and then drop the revolutionary mask. Of these, she chooses (not surprisingly) the latter. She goes to Baba Yaga's house and submits (apparently willing to believe herself mesmerized and powerless) to whipping. The witch thinks she has overpowered Valentina but nothing could be farther from the truth. It is Valentina who is the active seeker of the S&M punishment: she comes to the house knowing full well what to expect, she waits patiently in the room upstairs staring at the clock without hands until she is led by Annette (the killer doll come alive) to the torture chamber where Baba Yaga strips her and Annette whips her. The symbolic nature of this punishment is evident in the next scene where Valentina is back in the room, naked. She rises and her face contorts with pain, she remembers the whipping, then touches her back and the camera reveals that there are no marks anywhere on her body. It's all psychological.

The secret of life turns out to be a banal S&M fetish fantasy Alas! Poor Yorick, I mean Annette, what the fuck am I doing in this schlock?

The final scene of the film has two policemen show up just after Valentina has dispatched Baba Yaga to oblivion through a hole in the floor. They are led by a noisy neighbor and this sudden injection of rational authority reveals the house to have been uninhabited, full of undisturbed cobwebs, and covered in dust. The intrusion of reality snaps the spell for Valentina and Arno, drawing them out of their self-absorption. She quickly manufactures an explanation for their presence in an abandoned building at night (she's a photographer and needed to take some pictures). The policemen snort, obviously thinking that the two trespassed to have kinky sex, but let them go only ordering them to show up at the station next day, no doubt to fill some stupid meaningless bureaucratic form. They not only agree but, in the ultimate submission to the authority they previously rejected, Arno in fact declares himself happy to do so. As they walk out, the old woman neighbor is heard nagging the policemen that they were supposed to arrest the couple to protect society from the likes of them. And this only underscores the point: the police know that these two are not dangerous. It is the benevolent tolerance of the authorities that reveals how vacuous this rebellion has become. Valentina is now free to enjoy her acceptance into bourgeois society without any qualms and nightmares.

January 3, 2007