The Story of O

France/Germany/Italy 1975

Reviewed by Linda Ruth Williams


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

France, the 70s. A young woman fashion photographer known only as O is taken by her lover René to Château Roissy, where she is chained, whipped and taught the rules of submission. She leaves wearing a ring as a sign of her initiation. Back at work, she photographs a model called Jacqueline. René introduces O to Sir Stephen H, who was raised as René's brother, and the two men share O. Jacqueline moves into O's flat, and is seduced by her. O is sent by Sir Stephen to the country house of a woman named Anne-Marie. She and the other young women there prepare to be marked by Sir Stephen. At the end of her visit Sir Stephen's rings are inserted into her labia and she is branded with his initials. Sir Stephen then shares her with two other men, the commander and Yvan. Sir Stephen, O, Jacqueline and René go to the commander's party in Brittany. O takes Jacqueline to Roissy. Finally, O makes Sir Stephen confess he would endure the same punishments for her and brands him by stubbing her cigar out on his hand.


The problem with arty porn is that it tries so hard to be something it's not; if only the wolf of pornography would stop dressing up as the lamb of erotica. The fate of Pauline Réage's novella Histoire d'O, first published in the 50s, was to be adulated by the Paris intelligentsia as a treatise on existential nothingness, and then condemned by 70s cultural feminists as a male fantasy of woman's desire for self-abnegation. Yet if Just Jaeckin's more or less faithful adaptation does anything, at least it reminds us what a small story of commonplace degradation O always was.

Ever since Story of O failed to gain a certificate from the BBFC in 1975, its reputation as the most notorious of banned sex-art flicks has grown, partly because it was feminism's bête noire and partly because of the sub-genre of dodgy female sex-quest films which came afterwards, from Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977) to The Lover (1992) and Romance this year. Now that Story of O can finally be seen on British screens it seems that time has done it few favours. As befits a work directed by Jaeckin, veteran of such soft-focus 70s and 80s sex-tosh as Emmanuelle (1974) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981), Story of O presents hardcore subject matter in an inanely softcore fashion. For the most part, this tale of self-annihilation looks like a cross between a Biba commercial and a progressive-rock video, awash with knee-booted, shaggy-haircut 'chicks' drifting across misty landscapes in pseudo-medieval frocks - a fantasy of women forever at leisure and eternally available. Yet although there are nipples aplenty and a fair share of (female) pubic hair, there's hardly any male flesh, excited or otherwise, in sight. The sole reason for the film's notoriety seems to be its focus on bondage and whipping.

So is this still a film worthy of our objection? Illicit acts notwithstanding, underneath it all O is a woman who wants more than anything else to please her man. More unsettling than a masochism which finds its satisfaction in pain is the woman who can only say "yes". Nodding in the direction of porn's debt to the vampire film, Story of O's self-justification comes in its constant reminders of O's consent, which she is repeatedly asked for. Worse than being branded on the rump like a prize Jersey cow are the behavioural gymnastics O has to practise in order to ensure she never puts a foot wrong. A performance as insipid as Corinne Cléry's is thus, ironically, perfectly judged. In the voiceover O wonders "why she found her terror so delicious," but since Cléry's performance only moves from A for anodyne to B for bland, we never get to T for terror.

The film does, however, have a certain kitsch charm, awash as it is with appalling synthesised elevator music sweeping across the embarrassing dialogue dubbed into English. O's photo-shoot scenes are masterpieces of swinging 70s design, matched only by those featuring Faye Dunaway as chic photographer in The Eyes of Laura Mars made a year earlier. Story of O may yet survive as a cult classic of porno-kitsch. To his credit Jaeckin also keeps alive the possibility that this is indeed all an internal fantasy, a story played out only in the telling. The double opening is carried over from the book: O's story starts twice, with the voiceover coolly calling the second start just "another version of the same story". There is also a double ending, rather more progressive than Réage's original. The novella simply informs us suicide is the next logical stage of O's journey: "There existed another ending to the story of O," it reads. "Seeing herself about to be left by Sir Stephen, she preferred to die. To which he gave his consent." Jaeckin prefers to cast O as a proto-equaliser in the sex war. Tricking her lover into agreeing he too would endure punishment for her, she brands an 'O' on his hand with her cigar butt. The final frame of romantically entwined hands, his singed with her initial and hers bearing the O ring she got at Roissy, may stand as an apt image of the state of permissiveness circa 1975, the path of free love culminating in a coupling of mutual bondage and shared scars.


Gérard Lorin
Eric Rochat
Sébastien Japrisot
Based on the novel Histoire d'O by
Pauline Réage
[i.e. Anne Desclos]
Director of Photography
Robert Fraisse
Francine Pierre
Art Director
Baptiste Poirot
Pierre Bachelet
©S.N. Prodis Paris
Production Companies
Gérard Lorin - S.N. Prodis, Eric Rochat - Yang Films present a co-production of S.N. Prodis/Yang Films/ A.D. Création/Terra Filmkunst GmbH
Executive Producer
Eric Rochat
Associate Producer
Claude Giroux
Production Manager
Roger Fleytoux
Unit Managers
François Menny
Patrick Poubel
Sylvain Hecht
Location Manager
Jean-Philippe Dupont
Assistant Directors
André Delacroix
Jean-Louis Lapassade
Christine Gozlan
Yvon Sassiaud
Script Supervisor
Colette Crochot
Camera Operator
Yves Rodallec
Set Decorator
Olivier Paultre
Tan Guidicelli
Aïda Carange
Florence Fouquier
Patrick Ales
Eric Wackers
Music Arranged/Directed by
Matt Camison
Alex Pront
J.C. Duval
Laurent Quaglio
Sound Editors
Gina Pignier
Catherine Dubeau
Elisabeth Parnière
Claude Plouganou
Sound Effects
Jean-Pierre Lelong

Corinne Cléry
O, a photographer
Udo Kier
Anthony Steel
Sir Stephen H
Jean Gaven
Pierre, O's valet
Christiane Minazzoli
Martine Kelly
Jean-Pierre Andréani
Eric, master III
Gabriel Cattand
the commander
Li Sellgren
Jacqueline, a model
Albane Navizet
Nadine Perlès
Laure Moutoussamy
Norah, the maid
Henri Piegay
master I
Alain Noury
Jehanne Blaise
Ewa Carson
Sylvie Olivier
Bernard Jeantet
Jean-François Mathieu
Stéphane Macha
Vladimir Brajovic
master III
Judith Novak
Gabriel Briand
master IV
Alain Jarry
Caroline Baudry
Vibeke Knudsen
Roger Trapp
Pin Pin
Robert Schootemeyer
master V
Michèle Montel
Arrow Film Distributors Ltd
tbc feet
tbc minutes
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011