The IMDb plot keywords for Viva include “large breasts” and “limp penis”, a rough indicator of what’s being served up in Anna Biller’s debut, a relentlessly accurate and grim pastiche of the pornified world of the 1970s sexploitation movie, or 1970s society itself.
Biller wrote, directed, produced, edited, wrote some of the songs, designed the clothes and sets, painted the paintings, did the animated sequence and even played the organ. She also plays the main character. You could say it’s her film.
What a world she’s conjured. Barbi (Biller), a suburban wife who we meet in her bath, tits prominent, smoking, drinking wine and looking pretty morose as she flicks through a magazine. When not bathing (which she does a lot of), Barbi spends most of her time either being chased around the office at work by her boss, or waiting on her Ken-haired husband Rick (Chad England), the sort of man who expects a martini to greet him when he gets home from work, which he drinks in his own special chair, a throne obviously not having been available in the mail-order catalogue.
Barbi has a best friend, Sheila (Bridget Brno), a whisky-for-breakfast gal who reads Playboy for the recipes and trades innuendo-laden dialogue by the pool with her husband Mark (Jared Sanford, also Biller’s co-producer). Mark and Sheila both laugh way too often and way too loud.
The plot follows these two women, who are convinced they are hotter than the “skinny” girls in Playboy, as they fall out with their menfolk and make a bid for freedom, only to find that they are still trapped, incarnating the philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of the tyrrany of sexual discourse – Barbi (now renamed Viva) and Sheila (who now has the porn name Candy) end up as hookers.
From here a journey into the further realms of sexuality, 1970s style. Barbi starts off, in husband Ken’s words as “the perfect little woman” and winds up, in Mark’s, as “not only a whore” but “a dirty lesbian”.
Biller serves up the ideas with a buffet of strong visuals and an eye for period detail that is both accurate and funny – at one point there is a barbecue and devilled eggs and ham on pineapple is served. The clothes are magnificent. At a late orgy scene there is a man wearing a small chain mail cape over a see-through white shirt. The sets are too, and learning that the film started life as a series of spoof photos of images Biller had seen in an old Playboy magazine entirely figures – so much brown and orange.
It is all round a great-looking film. C Thomas Lewis’s cinematography aims for super-saturated Technicolor hues and the acting has the same Russ Meyer-style cheesy approach. It would be described as bad if it was for real, and tonally is similar to the chintzy soundtrack of lounge music and songs written by Biller. There’s one in particular, a 1960s hangover paean to love sung by drippy hippie Elmer (Paolo Davanzo) at a nudist camp, that is particularly on the money – “Love, it’s good for the birds, it’s good for the trees, it’s good for you and me,” it drones on beatifically.
It is in many ways the feminist film that feminists should have been making in the 1970s – amplification to the point of absurdity being Biller’s modus operandi.
That extends to the running time, which is way too long at two hours, but nothing exceeds like excess, it seems, though Biller keeps it coming visually even if the ideas have all been worked through long before the curtain comes down.
If you’ve seen Biller’s follow-up, The Love Witch, you’ll have seen where Biller went next – into more of the same, but even more so. The Love Witch is the better film, with a lot of that simply down to budget and other constraints. Production on Viva was paused repeatedly when Biller ran out of money.
As I write (August 2023) Biller is preparing her third feature, The Face of Horror. Big breasts? Limp dicks? We’ll see.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023