'Excuse me, I'm looking for the film Bilitis by David Hamilton ...' I toured the video libraries of Hamburg repeating this sentence like a mantra. Some shops had it once but dropped it years ago. Most didn't know what I was talking about. When I moved to the red light district, my request was answered with a knowing smirk in gay stores but the typical straight porn dealer's response was blank.
I started to wonder whether the genre of the 'erotic' film had fallen from grace with the mainstream audience. If the status quo is defined by freely available, explicit pornography, why should anyone have an interest in films that sublimate their sexual content as an erotic art form? I finally found Bilitis (1976) and other erotic films from the 1970s in the library of a Cultural Studies course; which just goes to show that when certain aesthetic modes cease to fulfil their original function they become objects of 'culture'.
So how should one approach the peculiar aesthetic of Hamilton's photographs and films? His signature style - romantic soft-focus images of young girls - is easily recognizable and now part of the history of visual culture. A typical 'Hamilton' shows girls in transparent white summer dresses or embroidered nightgowns shot against the light so the clothes seem to be luminescent. Whiteness streams in through an open window or breaks through the treetops to illuminate a scene in which a teenage nymph displays a glimpse of her body. Usually she is not alone but in the company of a second girl, who resembles her like a double. The girls either appear to be lost in dreams, gazing into the distance in Pre-Raphaelite poses or touching, embracing and caressing each other. Mostly the photographs are set in the open air, on Mediterranean beaches or in forests or fields. Interior shots are staged in nostalgic country houses decorated with flowers, enamel bathtubs, Art Nouveau mirrors, four-poster beds, pastel-coloured gauze veils, velveteen drapery and ornamental fabrics. Another classic mise-en-scène is the winter garden, with indoor palm trees and pale rattan furniture.
Hamilton himself confesses to being an admirer of the pictorialist tradition in 19th-century photography. Along with Joseph Nicéphore Niepce or Robert Demanchy, both of whom retouched their photos to add an artistic air, Hamilton shares the belief that photography should try to approximate the high art of painting. Out of this conviction he has produced still lifes after Morandi, Chardin and Caravaggio, and nudes after Balthus, Raphael and Degas. The photographs
are made to emulate painting with the help of extreme soft-focus or back-lighting effects. Naturally, this aspiration to 'high' art, as well as the strong presence of the decor, means that Hamilton's images appeal to Camp taste. This is aestheticism out of control: a whole world transformed into a soft-focus fantasy.
Hamilton's fame is closely tied to the German magazine Twen (originally launched in 1959), which, together with Realities in France, was the first to publish his images. When you flick through issues from the early 1960s, the sense of a new era dawning and the rise of the Beatnik generation is overwhelming. The pages are filled with reports about Jazz, Albert Camus, Claudia Cardinale and fast cars. Twen is radiant with the electrifying promise of sexual liberation from the constraints of the restrictive morals of post-war Germany. The early magazine covers combined images of girls' faces (and later their bodies too) with headlines that resembled outright political slogans: Twen campaigned for the acceptance of sex before marriage, the use of contraceptives, the tolerance of abortion and the decriminalization of homosexuality (even Adorno contributed an ardent manifesto to this campaign).
In 1961 Twen published its first colour spread; right from the start a romantic, soft-focus technique was heavily in evidence. Preferred locations were the exotic (Java, Tahiti, Copacabana) and the atmospheric (romantic images of Paris in the autumn, white horses on the beach at dawn, nudes in a tropical waterfall), shot by a series of photographers that included Art Kane, Irving Penn and Will McBride. Everything was rendered in a dreamy haze of blurry colour and back-lighting techniques, creating dazzling Impressionistic effects. A similar aesthetic was used to advertise anything from intimate hygiene products to the Ford Capri. In 1969 even the German socialist party, the SPD, illustrated its slogan 'We modernize Germany' with a romantic view of an autobahn bridge in the setting sun and a soft-focus shot of a young couple in a field of yellow-flowered rape. On a technical level it seems that the blurring of the image maximized the visual impact of flecks of pure colour at an early stage in the development of four-colour printing. Still, it is striking to see how the progressive sexual politics of the 1960s were connected to such romantic and nostalgic images.
One of Hamilton's first projects for Twen was a fashion spread in May 1968 about the new 'granny look': long nostalgic dresses worn by young models in a dreamy park. In August 1969, in a homage to Leonor Fini (whose paintings were reproduced alongside Hamilton's photographs), he staged a fashion shoot for Dior in a vintage train compartment with lace curtains. Two (identical) androgynous models have fallen asleep; large floppy hats cover their eyes and the contours of their bodies dissolve in a mist of pastel colours. The subtitle reads: 'A revolution of the witches and fairies, who embody sexuality, but still have nothing sexual about them.' In February 1970 a series of Hamilton's photos were accompanied by lyrics from Leonard Cohen's song 'Suzanne' (1966). These pictures show a girl in a summer dress dancing through a park with a parasol; a girl reclining in a wicker chair next to a Tiffany lamp; and finally a girl gazing at the reflection of her naked body in an Art Deco mirror. Bright sunlight turns the scenes into nebulous, ethereal visions of blissful purity. The models in Hamilton's images embody an ideal of beauty: a slender and androgynous teenage girl with pronounced cheekbones and an innocent air. This ideal was very much in line with the contemporary image of the 'Swedish girl', who represented a feminine ideal of 'natural' sexuality from the mid-1960s onwards. From 1969 until it folded in 1970, many Twen covers shot by Hamilton depicted such Nordic beauties.
But why this insistence on images that signify poetic dreams, natural purity and innocence? In the May 1969 issue of Twen the author of an article about the 'decay of the culture of love' complains that since the introduction of the pill men have started to behave like rabbits. She suggests that insensitive men, instead of focusing on the mechanics of sex, should read more Rilke. 1 In the same issue, another feature promotes a new American trend, 'Touching', which is espoused as 'more beautiful than sex' because it represents the 'art' of caressing and consciously experiencing the body of the other. 'Skin touches ... skin, bodyheat meets bodyheat, breath meets breath, dreams become hopes: This is touching.
A game for two.' 2 These two texts embody the philosophy of the softened erotic image. It is wrong to assume that 'erotic' images refrain from explicit depiction of sex solely for reasons of censorship. Softcore is not a 'softened' version of hardcore porn. It has its own ideology. Hardcore films raise the depiction of genital sex to a level of maximum visibility; the erotic film or image invokes a different ideal: the non-genital contact of androgynous bodies, confined to looking and touching. By deliberately excluding the obscene act of penetration, the erotic film creates an idyllic world of sexual purity. In this respect Just Jaeckin's Emmanuelle (1973) played a crucial role not only in defining the visual conventions of the genre of erotic film but also in propagating the philosophy of the sexual idyll. The film was a major success and pioneered the screening of softcore feature films in mainstream cinemas. Initially the producers had asked Hamilton to direct Emmanuelle but he turned down the offer. Familiar motifs and techniques are used in the film: soft-focus and back-lighting effects, translucent summer dresses, winter gardens, wicker chairs ... The colonial style mise-en-scène tops everything off with the thrill of exotic luxury.
Emmanuelle (Sylvia Kristel) travels to Bangkok to meet her husband, who encourages her to have sexual adventures. As a result she has erotic encounters with experienced women: she is seduced by her female squash teacher in a bright white gym and makes love to a female archaeologist under a tropical waterfall. Finally, an impotent gentleman philosopher reveals to her that 'eroticism is an art that helps to humanize the sexual act ... It is the triumph of fantasy over nature.' Along the way the film introduces a crucial distinction: the obscenity of the sexual act is represented by instinct-driven men with a proneness to rape, while true eroticism only occurs in tender sexual play between women. Naturally, the depiction of 'lesbian' love is worlds apart from an actual acknowledgement of homoerotic desires: the imagery of two women making love serves only to illustrate the ideal of a non-genital sexuality freed from the threat of penetration.
Bilitis, based on Pierre Louÿs' poem Les chansons de Bilitis (1894), is the first - and by far the best - of five erotic feature films directed by Hamilton. 3 The plot is organized around a similar opposition between the idyll of tender, erotic lesbian love and the threat of male genital sexuality. Bilitis (Patti D'Arbanville) is a teenage nymph who spends the summer at the country house of a family friend, Melissa (Mona Kristensen). Bilitis has a crush on the photographer Lucas (Bernard Girandeau). As he makes advances, however, she rejects him, revolted by his obtrusiveness. Instead she turns to Melissa and seduces her in the winter garden. The country house becomes a paradise of gentle, intimate love between the two women. The idyll is heightened by the absence of Melissa's husband, Pierre, who has gone to Nice, on the pretext of participating in a horse race, to pursue an affair. Pierre is a creep. He pesters Bilitis with obscene remarks, maltreats and rapes his wife. Bilitis decides to find a new partner for Melissa and discovers a candidate in the androgynous Bohemian Nikias (Mathieu Carrière). In this bizarre constellation of characters the object of desire is continuously displaced. The body of Bilitis, which in the beginning is the centre of visual interest, is substituted by the body of her adult double, Melissa. Then the gaze shifts to Melissa's male mirror image, Nikias. As long as Pierre is out of the house, an erotic Utopia of fluid, androgynous love is possible.
This idyll is captured in the key sequence of the film: the scene of Bilitis caressing Melissa. This was the image used on the poster accompanying the soundtrack of the film, and became an essential element in the decoration of teenagers' bedrooms during the late 1970s. There is a certain historical truth in the frozen idylls of the soft-focus imagery; they represent an artificial heaven conserved and purified by the sexual Utopia of the 1960s. As seamless representations of harmony, they belied the growing depression of the 1970s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Charles Manson murders: erotic fantasies that offered a retreat from the reality of the drop-out culture, in which the promise of free love was finally drowned in the self-induced impotence of heroin addiction.
1. Marianne Ranco, 'Geht die Kultur der Liebe kaputt?'
(Is the Culture of Love Dying?), Twen no. 5, May 1969.
2. Anonymous, 'Touching', Twen no. 5, May 1969.
3. The films that followed are Laura (1979), Tender Cousins (1980),
First Desires (1983) and A Summer in Saint Tropez (1983