Bilitis (Blu-ray Review)
Release Date(s)1977 (March 29, 2022)
Studio(s)Fun City Editions
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: C+
- Extras Grade: B
Bilitis is a 1977 French erotic drama that was the first feature film from British photographer David Hamilton. Hamilton had gained fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view) for his gauzy, soft-focus nude photography, which often featured teenage girls. He was frequently the subject of debates regarding art vs. pornography, but coffee table collections of his work were once readily available at bookstores like B Dalton’s. These days, they’re no longer so widely distributed, which may partly be due to allegations that surfaced in October of 2016. French television personality Flavie Flament accused him of raping her while she was only 13, and anonymous accusations from three other former models followed suit. Hamilton denied the allegations and even threatened legal action against his accusers, but just one month later, he died of an apparent suicide at the age of 83.
Bilitis was inspired by the collection of poetry The Songs of Bilitis (aka Les Chansons de Bilitis), which the French poet Pierre Louys had published in 1894. The screenplay by Robert Boussinot, Catherine Breillat, and Jacques Nahum centers around Bilitis (Patti D'Arbanville), a young schoolgirl who spends a summer with Melissa (Mona Kristensen) and Pierre (Gilles Kohler), an older married couple who have a complicated relationship. Bilitis dallies with a photographer (Bernard Giraudeau) while also finding herself falling for Melissa, and she quickly learns about the pains that relationships of all kinds can bring.
The influence of Breillat gives Bilitis a bit more depth than any other Hamilton film. Breillat has examined adolescent sexuality from a feminine point of view in her own films like A Real Young Girl and Fat Girl, and she has fearlessly explored graphic sexuality that makes Bilitis look tame in films like Romance. So, while there’s an undeniable male gaze in Hamilton’s camerawork and staging, there’s a tension between that and some of the story elements. Despite the abundant female nudity on display, Bilitis isn’t really a male fantasy, but instead presents a somewhat more nuanced look at the complexities of female desire. That idea is most clearly expressed in the ending, where Bilitis ultimately turns her back on the distressing realities of adult sexuality in favor of a return to the safer world of adolescent fantasy—it’s like a soft-focus version of Labyrinth, with more nudity and less Muppets.
It’s also worth pointing out that D’Arbanville—who gives a memorable performance—was actually 25 when the film went into production, so Bilitis isn’t quite as uncomfortable to watch as some of Hamilton’s other films (though there are a few scenes early in the film featuring some models of questionable age). Regardless of how anyone feels about Hamilton, especially in light of the allegations against him, Bilitis remains the safest introduction to his work.
Cinematographer Bernard Daillencourt shot Bilitis on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.66:1 for its theatrical release. This version uses a new 4K restoration taken from the original camera negative, and it’s a handsome transfer, within the limitations of the original cinematography. The image is soft and undetailed, but that’s natural given the persistent use of diffusion filters. The contrast is also a bit limited, with muted colors, but all of that is a side effect of those same filters—Bilitis can’t and shouldn’t look any different. The only thing that can demonstrate more clarity is the texture of the film itself, and that’s where there’s a slight issue here. The grain generally looks natural, but the encode occasionally struggles to keep up with it, and are there places where the grain is swarming with noise. The problem may be the bit rate, which dips too low at times to handle grain like this. Yet those moments are fleeting, and may be less noticeable on a flat panel than they are in projection. Overall, this is by far the best that Bilitis has ever looked on home video.
Audio is offered French and English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. (The subtitles are selected automatically when the French audio is chosen, but they have to be selected manually via the player’s remote when choosing English instead.) The original sound elements were either unavailable, or else they no longer exist, because these are clearly taken from the original optical audio tracks on the film itself, and are presented unrestored. There’s background hiss throughout, as well as some crackling, and even a few loud pops. The dialogue has distortion, including a bit of excessive sibilance. On the other hand, the iconic score from Francis Lai sounds fine, though it may help to lower the playback level a bit to tame some of the distortion that can affect it.
The Fun City Editions Blu-ray release of Bilitis is a walk down memory lane for anyone who spent time in video stores during the Eighties. Sister Hyde designed the artwork, which was inspired by classic VHS covers from the era. The insert mimics the look of RCA/Columbia art on one side, while the reverse is inspired by the distinctive Warner Bros clamshell packaging. There’s also a slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,500 units, which is an homage to Media Home Entertainment releases. It’s a beautiful design that should satisfy even the most stubborn of cover art critics, so kudos to Sister Hyde and Fun City for this one. The set also includes a 12-page insert with an essay by Samm Deighan, as well as the following extras:
- Audio Commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson
- The Hamilton Blur (HD – 19:08)
Film Historians Heller-Nicholas and Nelson are clearly happy to be providing a commentary for Bilitis, and they strike the right balance between enjoying themselves and providing useful information for listeners. Heller-Nicholas opens the track by cheekily describing herself as a recovering academic, and Nelson picks up that ball and runs with it by claiming that he’s using a soft-focus filter for his voice. They both give full credit to Patti D’Arbanville, referring to her as a beacon of light. Heller-Nicholas even refers to Bilitis as a “Patti D’Arbanville film,” before acknowledging that they do have to get through the details involving the accusations against Hamilton. While they’re careful to repeatedly use the word “alleged,” they leave no doubts about which side that they’re on. They spend plenty of time analyzing the sexuality presented in the film, such as the intersection between desire, repulsion, and shame. They also discuss Breillat, Pierre Louys, Bernard Daillencourt (with a passing nod to Francois Lai). It's a great commentary track, not just because it’s both fun and informative, but also because it openly acknowledges all of the issues related to the film.
The Hamilton Blur is an interview with camera operator Noel Very, who talks about his experiences with both Daillencourt and Hamilton. He shows examples of the filters that they used, and shows the effects that they had on the final image.
Bilitis is obviously the kind of film that won’t be for everyone. Yet for adventurous souls who are looking for challenging material that doesn’t neatly fit into expected boxes, this Fun City Editions Blu-ray release is well worth your time.
- Stephen Bjork
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