“I just want to be a hole,” says the pensive masochist in Catherine Breillat’s Romance. The heroine of Story of O, godmother to cerebral submissives, encodes that wish in her orifice-shaped moniker. Whipped, chained, pierced, branded, a three-course buffet spread for her boyfriend and his associates, the self-nullifying O consents to epic mortification as proof of her unconditional ardor. Prosecuted, banned, burned (by prudes and feminists alike), and never out of print since its scandalous appearance in 1954, Story of O, credited to the fictitious “Pauline Réage,” can be read as secular transfiguration of religious devotion, deadpan parody of s/m erotica, or—as the author’s amour, Parisian literary giant Jean Paulhan concluded—”the most fiercely intense love letter a man could ever receive.”
He received it from Dominique Aury, his mistress and colleague at the peerless Gallimard publishing house and the Nouvelle Revue Française—the sole woman in a rarefied circle that included Albert Camus and Raymond Queneau. She was 47 and afraid of losing Paulhan; he was a quarter-century her senior, married to another woman, a philanderer, and a big fan of the Marquis de Sade. Aury wrote Story of O at night—in pencil, no revisions, no copies—under her parents’ roof, where she still lived; Paulhan delighted in his Pauline, and it only helped matters that local authorities proclaimed the work “violently and constantly immoral.”
Pola Rapaport’s slender documentary-cum-reconstruction Writer of O disappoints in its workmanlike approach to such fragrant material. Catherine Mouchet’s scowling, sour-bluestocking performance as the O-era Aury—mouth twisted in resentment, tremulous voice on the verge of a sob—does a disservice to the expansive, articulate woman we see in the film’s engrossing interview clips, while the re-enactments of scenes from the book are tame even by Skinemax standards. Elaborating John de St. Jorre’s 1994 New Yorker piece that unveiled Aury as O’s author, the writer-director adds banal first-person testimony (reading Story of O “felt like being burned in a fire”) and unfortunate expressionist illustration, as when she drops in some stock footage of, um, a train entering a tunnel.