“I turn you on. I turn everybody on!’ says Viva (Anna Biller) at a fancy dress orgy, as she tries to navigate her own sexual awakening in early 1970s LA, slowly realising that while the men she meets also love women’s sexual awakenings it’s not for the same reason.
Viva starts and finishes the film as suburban housewife Barbi, a beautiful, bright but guileless woman who is bored witless by her life – especially when she is sacked from her job because her boss has found out she is married. Her husband is workaholic Rick (Chad England), a Ken doll with an offensive blond wig and an attitude to match (“Anyone ever tell you you’re the perfect little woman?” he says to his long-suffering wife) who has made so few compromises in his relationship that he thinks nothing of working til 10 every night and disappearing for weeks on end for business trips, or to ski.
Barbi meanwhile is reduced to endless cleaning of her immaculate house interspersed with long baths where she has a glass of wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a copy of “Playboy Magazine” balanced precariously on her knees. (Nowadays Barbi would be filling her days on the internet posting memes about it being “time for gin”, and pictures of her cat dressed up like a little old lady.)
Anna Biller’s film is almost certainly polarising – I loved it, and once used to the rhythm of the dialogue it doesn’t seem stilted or melodramatic. The self-obsession of many of the characters (particularly the men) is partly reflected in the viewer’s response, so you can end up narcissistically wondering how the director knows so much about you. (Which, as an ex-editor, is exactly what I thought when watching a lovely exchange mid-orgy about the correct use of grammar.)
The dullness of the suburbs leaves Barbi, Rick (when he’s home), and neighbours Sheila (Bridget Brno) and Mark (Jared Sanford) with little to do but entertain themselves and each other with daytime drinks, elaborately catered lunches, and poolside frolicking. Barbi and Sheila compete with each other for the attention of the men though there is a genuine underlying affection. Their husbands engage in oneupmanship interspersed with flickers of a bromance.
Playboy Magazine (never just Playboy) seems to be the two women’s go-to reference book for everything, from posing (though they criticise the naked models for being too thin) to recipes. Their constant comments about the articles, while clearly not being remotely coy about the nude photos, rather subverts the “but I only read it for the great writing!” excuse so often heard from men until the internet and smartphones made such self-justification redundant.
There is trouble looming in both women’s marriages though, and with Rick storming out of town for a whole month and Mark splitting from Sheila, the women decide to explore more than just the neighbourhood. They head off for a night out, meet brothel madam Mrs James (appropriately enough on a street corner) and change their names. Sheila becomes Candy and Barbi becomes Viva: “I want to be called Viva which in Italy means to live. Because that’s what I wanna do now, to live”.
Mrs James sends them off to meet various men and earn some money – Candy to a doddery millionaire who can provide the diamonds and fur coat after which she hankers; Viva, who has said she wants someone “kind and sensitive”, to a succession of sleazy, self-obsessed, smug, rapey “artists” for whom holding back means finishing their latest cigarette before trying to get a girl to strip off and have sex with them. She does at least get to have some fun with relatively kind and relatively sensitive Agnes, rolling around on the lawn together while trying to rip off each other’s enormous chiffon kaftans (they’re probably still there, all tangled up).
Viva even gets invited to an orgy, which looks exactly what I’d expect a 1970s orgy to be like, were I ever to think about what a 1970s orgy would look like: everyone is in culturally-appropriated costumes or naked, there’s singing, psychedelic animation and some nice imagery involving large red apples.
Although Viva is set in LA and is based on American sex comedies, I found the humour very British: “there’s nothing I like more than being wet!” says Sheila suggestively as she and Barbi frolic in the pool with Mark watching. And the two women (sorry, girls) have that voluptuous, homemade sexiness that women who are slim but never work out have. They look like they spend far more time drinking, smoking, laughing and eating Swedish meatballs (oooooh!) than exercising, and I could definitely see them in a typical British 1970s sex film though with grey skies and even greyer teeth.
Barbi thinks she is sharing her journey with Sheila, but Sheila likes to talk the talk without walking the walk. Prostitution is part of the sexual revolution, she tells Barbi, but she’s manipulating her guileless neighbour, pushing her to go further while sowing her own not-so-wild oats from the sidelines. Barbi is much more of a genuine free spirit, held back only by the constraints of men, and dives straight in.
The 1970s drip through every frame of this film, like a marie rose sauce oozing its inevitable way towards those tiny defrosted prawns and half an iceberg lettuce leaf during prepping for a dinner party. Bright colours are everywhere – citrus green, orange, scarlet, sunshine yellow, retina-grazing colours that are never far away from a toning pattern in similar shades – in a cushion, or a curtain, or on a dress. Sheila’s barbecue spread, which doesn’t actually involve a barbecue, has some delightful olives on ham that look like breasts with giant nipples.
Everyone is either dressed up to the nines or naked or, in Barbie and Sheila’s case, in diaphanous baby doll nighties and kaftans, breasts visible underneath but big knickers always clearly in situ, cheekily sexy but never too much. The men, when undressed, favour all-covering, very tight white underpants.
The language is as stylised as the film sets, every utterance declaimed with melodrama, hoots of forced laughter and often also instructions. Getting out of their taxi at the start of their night out Barbi asks: “What are we going to do?”. “I don’t know, let’s stand over there and think” says Sheila, optimistically.
By the end of the film Viva feels she’s become a sex goddess which frightens her (deities, of course, are frequently shaped by men): “I became a female animal made only for pleasure”. She’s also back with Rick, though it does at least seem as if she’s a more equal partner in the marriage. And she gets out of her other life just in time, as, irony of ironies, by now nudity is deemed boring.
Viva is about one woman’s journey into her sexuality, and how much men love that, because, well, they get to look at naked women then have sex with them. Hearteningly despite being raped, drugged, and having to constantly push back against men’s anger when she refuses to sleep with them, Viva continues her unswerving path though her adventures, almost always on her terms.
It’s less polished than Biller’s decade-later follow up The Love Witch, but that works as the cheeky sexiness looks as if it is meant to be rougher and more home-made than Love Witch Elaine’s glamorous seductiveness. Like The Love Witch, there is plenty of full frontal background nudity while the main cast are slightly more coy (there’s a very funny scene where Viva, at a nudist camp but determinedly remaining fully dressed in a bright green mini dress and boots, sits next to new friend Elmer as he strums his guitar and warbles about free love – standing behind her are several naked men singing along, only visible from the neck down).
Unsurprisingly soon the nudity becomes – in a way soon to be echoed by the film’s ending – completely unremarkable (hence my focussing on the grammar incident during the orgy). Viva, though, is anything but.
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