‘THE STORY OF RICHARD O’
* This review may contain plot spoilers – please watch before reading, although seeing as the DVD is in French language only, you may wish to welcome these plot spoilers if you don’t do Francais! *
The 2007 French film ‘L’histoire de Richard O’ (The Story of Richard O) directed by Damien Odoul and starring Mathieu Amalric is, without meaning to remind of anything too blatantly obvious, a modern riff on the classic erotic novel and 1975 movie, ‘Story of O’ by Dominique Aury. In that book, a young and proper girl is schooled in the ways of unproper lust and domination amongst the upper classes, initiated and encouraged into doing so by her friends and family. It was something of a shocker at the time, and probably still is – or certainly should be, if only for old time’s sake!
This new take on the ‘O’ legend, found here in the tale of Richard, deals with a man's singular sexual obsession – there's a purpose to Richard's nymphomania I think, even though it would be hard to say exactly what that purpose is, though it's probably about finding some kind of state of being with sex as a focus above work and above caring about anything much else except for getting it out on a daily or hourly basis. This may seem like a unique focus to have, but as all men already know, this is already pretty much our entire reason for living already. Women who have read Fifty Shades of Grey also know this. Richard's life is one of cause and effect, what goes around usually also goes down. It’s his Yin and Yang. Or his Kama and Sutra. Everything goes every which way in the life of Richard O. He's the French version of the German Felix Krull without the aspirations. He could, also, just be the French Sid James. It's a fine line.
The film takes off on its own wild ride into the darker recesses of life’s bump and grind without the need for plot that Story of O perhaps needed to fuel her perversions with. There’s no linear plot here. The life of Richard in Paris in August centres around himself and his unnamed best male friend (and there is some hint at a relationship between these two sad blokes that borders on the sexual) and his seduction of a succession of women and girls whose video diaries and nudity is captured on film by his loyal, tall, oddball companion and himself. The girls, obligingly, add their fantasies to the filmed vox pop shots, whether seduction in a public place or (not very convincingly) bandaged up (very David Cronenberg Crash-like that one) or simple sex games like oily massage or Kama Sutra tryouts (a rather inventive scene where Richard and his female companion adopt the poses in the book of love as near to exactly as illustrated, and as still and as silently as the pictures on the page as possible).
After numerous scenes of unfaked but not entirely salicious screwing, the twist of the tale is that Richard’s friend – the ugly oddball one without a name – gets the most beautiful girl (the one he’s been spying on) and ends up having the most fun while Richard just limps on, with a hard on, into a kind of meaningless existence, proving that sex is fun, but sex and love can’t be road tested, or exist as anything too similar to a daily routine as eating or walking or talking, which is what he wants. It just happens one day – then it could be quick or could be forever. In the case of Richard’s big buddy, it’s forever. Or so it seems. This man-most-unlikely of a friend, tall and gangly, teeth that stick out like white road signs, and eternally cumbersome, gets the prettiest girl by far, and we don’t even have to see them make love, to know that what they do after the camera averts its gaze from their naked bodies viewed in still life, in this contented state - is far sexier than the kind of thing Richard O gets up to behind the bike sheds, beer barrels and in the marital beds of Paris!
Which isn’t to say that what he does get up to is anything at all able to be described as prudish. In fact, it’s some shock to the system to see a recent Bond villain - Mathieu Amalric who played, quite sublimely, the wealthy environmental entrepreneur and all round rotten corporate egg Dominic Greene in 2008’s superior, snappy and rough, tough Bond; Quantum of Solace - get so impressively excited on camera and indulge his fetishes in the way that Gerard Depardieu once did, and by that I mean totally without shame or even a stunt double, prop penis, Prince Harry-style hand cover or CGI to protect his modesty with.
Mathieu Amalric only took on the role of a Bond villain to impress his kids, I read. I’d glad he did because, as that Bond villain, he reeked realistic but restrained fury and greed in what was a refreshingly subdued performance in a Bond film freed of both pomp and length. But Amalric remains one of the best actors of his generation and truly a wonderful presence in film, both acting and directing.
While he may be best known, in the UK certainly, for that role in Quantum of Solace or his incredibly moving performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) about the life of Elle editor Jean Dominique-Bauby (who suffered a stroke and lived in a locked-in world as a result) - Amalric has also appeared in some of the quirkiest and most enigmatic French movies alongside some of that country’s greatest stars. ‘Ma vie sexuelle’ (My Sex Life) from 1996 remains one of his best loved films with the actor cast here as a university lecturer looking to become a full-time eternal academic but having doubts that mirror his equal uncertainty over having a ‘safe’ 10-year-vintage girlfriend while enjoying the unsafe uncertainty of random encounters with other younger lovers (including an early masterclass in seduction from Marion Coltillard as one of the leery lecturer's students).
Amalric has also notched up appearances in films from some of the world's greatest directors appearing in David Cronenberg’s acclaimed ‘Cosmopolis’ this year, to Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ from 2005 as well as starred alongside some of the world's greatest actors: Asia Argento in 2008’s ‘On War’, Isabelle Huppert in ‘The False Servant/ La fausse suivante’ (2000) and, of course, Gérard Depardieu with whom he has appeared in three eclecric movies to date. Such unshowy but distinct roles have ensured that Mathieu Amalric is certainly among the greatest actors of modern French cinema, and at just 47 years old, his best is possibly still to come.
The director of ‘The Story of Richard O’ is part poet/ part film-maker/ all provocateur, Damien Odoul who also made the teenage rural horror and coming of age meditation that was ‘Le soufflé’ (‘Deep Breath’) in 2001 and the cheating-husband-on-the-prowl, more homely but no less heartfelt horrors of ‘Errances’ in 2003. Odoul, then, is a director who expresses his own obsessions and personal issues through his life's work; a soul searching journey from childhood to adulthood and a fiddling around for life’s meaning somewhere in the middle, a burger of deep meaning with an uncertain filling, which clearly annoys some, but also endears him to many others.
There’s little plot to ‘The Story of Richard O’ beyond random scenes of lovemaking or the filming of random girls talking and sometimes acting upon the fantasies being recorded. Are these female fantasies or those of the two males encouraging them? It seems that there is some equality here, and Richard especially is ultimately driven towards being a pathetic figure (even breaking down, lamely, on a few occasions towards the end - something of an empty carcass drained of testosterone) by the women far more capable of handling sexual arousal taken to extremes and who have become, rather like 'O' herself in the original novel, at first the ones daring to submit, then the ones (perhaps all along, as Richard often gets abused and frightened off by powerful women he thinks he can handle) dictating and instigating all subsequent submission - playing his game, their way.
In the movie’s final scenes, Richard O, the movie's cocksure protagonist, is almost forgotten; he becomes irrelevant, as much as the plot becomes almost pointless too - there is nothing to find out anymore, sex has become routine as much as eating, walking, sleeping. It's not as much fun as he thought it would be. Worst of all – Richard O looks bored.
The rules are made to be broken and it’s Richard’s friend who, ultimately, has found liberation from his dominating pal’s sexual obsessions thanks to his own less active but no less creepy agenda, specifically the spying on a very beautiful young blonde girl walking around in her underwear and then in nothing at all in the windows of a flat opposite while he waits loyally in the corridor outside a bedroom for his friend Richard to finish his increasingly tiresome trysts within. We expect the girl to react angrily when she finds out that she’s being spied upon, and not, instead, wanting this peeping pervert from the flat opposite to now bed her and become her boyfriend - true love's weirdest ways.
There is a lot of humour to be found in this movie. Some of the girls Richard meets, especially the paranoid hysteric, are great fun, as is the girl baptised by the bandages and pretend sprained ankle fantasies. The sexiest and most memorable of all Richard O's encounters is probably with the young girl in the bar (Alexandra Sollogoub who hasn’t made another movie since – a shame) who takes Richard out the back and wildly asks to be screwed as hard as he can manage, then after the event heading outside and in front of strangers, hitching up her skirt to reveal her bare bottom – an image that made the poster art for this movie so memorable.
Mathieu Amalric plays the role of Richard with deep affection and sadness in-between fits of wild fire or burnt out copulating, but also imbues the surprisingly endearing character with some clumsiness; he likes showing off by jumping over benches in parks and hurting his leg in doing so, but still carrying on, or diving, stupidly, into fountains, in stunts that Amalric appears to carry out himself much to his credit (and a few rolls off rickety beds onto his neck or some repeated judo flings hard onto his back as well, look like the kind of stunts most Hollywood film producers today go into sudden kitten-birthing over).
Most effective of all, aside from the quite unforgettable sexual encounters in this movie, are quirky scenes that burn themselves onto the retina like lasers in a nightclub lightshow that break all the safety rules and go straight for the eyes. Richard and his unnamed gawky friend (described only in the film’s credits as ‘le Grand’ - a touching, creepy and unsettling performance by Stéphane Terpereau who has appeared in all of Damien Odoul’s feature movies to date) tenderly riding a bike together is effective and even oddly romantic; Richard’s tall friend almost like his master and slave simultaneously – in charge of O’s destiny, possibly corrupting the man (we suspect at first) yet also, (we eventually realise), somehow subservient. Again, a nice link to the original Story of O's role play with power games.
Don’t get this review wrong – the film here doesn’t just wallow in naval gazing (or naval licking, or filling up with honey and sucking on, or whatever) nor does it have sex on the brain all the time (unlike clearly this reviewer does). Lovingly composed scenes framed by brightly-speckled and headlight or streetlamp-lit Paris streets at night or views from windows over suburban sprawls washed in the cloudy grey but Autumn-crisp and bright light of dawn are as beautiful as film-making gets - and you know, there’s a love story at the heart of all this perversion on show and some often very funny, old-fashioned bawdiness too.
A mention must also go to the stunning soundtrack (a ‘must go listen to more on YouTube when the movie finishes’ kind) that defines the setting perfectly, and oozes with some deliciously depraved stuff thanks to the quirky Canadian rap, hip-hop, country and folk-rock enigma behind it all; a one-man band who has recorded under various assumed names but here is listed as ‘Buck 65’. If you don’t fall in love with the film itself you may well fall in love with the music, you may be turned on, turned off, or laughing out loud. But I don’t think you’ll ever forget the extraordinary adventures of one ‘Richard O’.
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer
‘L’Histoire de Richard O’
Specs: Region 2/ 1.77:1/ French audio only/ no subs
Studio: Bac Films/ 2008/ 74 mins/ B0014RI3M0
Extras Include: Deleted scenes/ Short film: ‘Anima’ by Damien Odoul