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Belladonna of Sadness (1973); And Gaining Sexual Liberation After Trauma

August 28, 2019

BosBelladonna of Sadness is one of the very few films I’ve seen that focuses on the violation of a woman and her subsequent perseverance through it in an empowering way. The subject of this film isn’t seen as a victim for long, instead she learns to embrace her sexuality and gives in the anger that resides within because of her attack. Unlike most other films dealing with such a heavy-handed topic, our lead’s recovery is marred by complications of internal grief in learning to reclaim her body for herself – a sentiment that is seen by the characters within the film (and undoubtedly viewers of it) as “sinful” or the work of the devil. On the surface, we are meant to believe her transformation is the devil’s work too, but the subtext of this film—for me at least—is female empowerment through sex positivity and self-assurance. Not bad for a 1973 animated film written and directed by men.

Our subject in Belladonna of Sadness is Jeanne, a gorgeous fixture of a woman with doe-like eyes, pristine features, tumbles of curls flowing from her crown and full jaw-dropping lips. She’s a caricature of beauty in the most objective form drawn with delicate lines and gentle strokes of varied water colors. Her curse is merely existing during the Middle Ages under feudal rule. Jeanne is unconditionally in love and newly wed to Jean. But on their wedding night, the baron of their village exercises his power and malevolence by raping her. Devastated, Jean and Jeanne are forever changed and Jean, although still in love, can’t face Jeanne the same way leading to the breakdown of their marriage and their humanity.

A woman of her times, Jeanne has no one to comfort her. She is given no empathy, guidance or help in dealing with the tragedy that has affected her. That is until a small figure appears in her bed one night. Claiming to be her, it has manifested from her cries of desperation and bargains to give her the help she begged for on that ill-fated night. In exchange for power to Jeanne, the being simply wants to feed off her hate and rage for growth. Jeanne spends the rest of the film bargaining with this figure, whom she later assumes to be the Devil, while undergoing a metamorphosis in her perception of self and in her power among the town leaving her adversaries— the lord, his lady and his court— out for blood.

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Like so many other films that come into my life out of pure synchronicity, I’d long heard of Belladonna of Sadness as one of the many underground, cult films that I needed to watch but it never piqued my interest until recently. Not knowing anything about the film, I rented it out of a desire to watch something animated and foreign. I didn’t expect such a heavy topic and brutal imagery when I turned it on at 11pm on a Friday night. Nevertheless, as synchronicity would have, it’s the type of film that came to be at the right moment and time in my life. I wouldn’t have fully understood this film in my younger years nor appreciated the deeper spiritual conversation that exists within its story. I think I would have purely seen it as a titillating sex show in animation form.

Instead, Belladonna of Sadness resonated with me on a deep psychosomatic level, at a time now where I’m working through my own past trauma. It’s a mind-blowing, beautifully animated film with a rich story centered around female empowerment. Jeanne is a commanding figure full of grace and poise but she’s also vulnerable and filled with doubt. The Devil that she speaks to is merely an apparition of her own inner voice, one that isn’t evil at all but a provocateur pushing the limits and defying social norms and standards against how women should behave. She’s raped on her wedding night and her husband’s first reaction isn’t to console her but attempt to kill her. Much later in the film, he abandons her when she needs him the most. He can’t deal with her trauma and leaves her to figure it out alone.

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The tragedy of women who find themselves in similar situations in the past and present is unsettling and by setting the film in the Medieval period, writers Yoshiyuki Fukuda and Eiichi Yamamoto call awareness to the centuries-long abuse and neglect of women conventionally accepted by the moral and religious thoughts of our times. Yet Jeanne’s only way to recover after her violation is by reclaiming her sexuality and giving herself permission to own the pleasure that her body can produce. This is all done through the voice in her head, the ominous figure that she can only imagine is the Devil, because certainly no God-fearing holy woman could or should ever enjoy sex or the pleasure of someone they love after having their first encounter with it be so horribly soiled.

Herself as a manifestation of this figure begins when she recognizes that her body is reawakening one night in bed next to her husband. Her nipples become erect and she begins to feel a sensation all over her body before that feeling blossoms in between her legs. Her husband’s sleeping body isn’t the catalyst nor is it fantasies or thoughts of anyone else. It’s the thought of relief which will give her power that makes her excited, although naturally she’s ashamed of the act of self-pleasure.

I believe that most women who have been sexually abused in their lives battle this dilemma: conflict between dealing with shame and self-hatred versus sexual desire and control. Socially, we have perpetually told abuse victims that they are unworthy or damaged after their assault. That they should now be ashamed of someone else’s sin on their bodies. That now you alone have to bear the brunt of that violation for the rest of your life. What I loved about Belladonna of Sadness is that very thought is present for Jeanne. The tragedy and memory of her rape will never go away. Sexual trauma, no matter how many therapy sessions you undergo or how much self-care you partake in will never go away. It stays with you in random flashes of memory that are triggered by trivial things, like a passing stranger’s beard color, a darkened hallway, the way someone may touch or pull at your arm. These things will only remind you of someone else’s sin on your body.

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But Jeanne learns to overcome the memory. She learns to regain pleasure for herself in her own body. She learns to heal, though the ability to do so proves difficult. The Devil, again a personification of her inner voice, goads her to forgo what others think, and sometimes she can. 

There’s an interesting scene where Jeanne sees the world and herself through the eyes of the Devil: beautiful, chaste and irresistible in the purest, most innocent way. Its hard for her to accept this vision. She’s convinced that the image can’t be of God. In fact, she thinks she’s being tricked when she revels in the “sin” and sees the power she could have by becoming a witch, i.e. a sexually liberated woman in tune with nature and therefore God. She is certain there is no beauty for her, there can’t be. She’s still filled with anger and resentment to those who’ve harmed her and when she decides to give in to her “badness,” we see there is no true wickedness in her heart. Being “bad” – sinful, a witch – to Jeanne and women like her is to rebel against an oppressive system, one that uses sex as control over women.

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Jeanne learns that sex can be a shared pleasurable experience, and through it she becomes a woman of the people, giving them empathy and love and intoxication like they’ve never experienced before. She utilizes this new power to heal others from their various forms of pain and because of it, her influence is tenfold. This overarching theme is what I enjoyed so much in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. This notion that trauma, once acknowledged and reconciled from within, can awaken new strength and power in someone. “Superpowers” that not only help us heal but helps us heal others. We can grow from it. We can be stronger in spite of pain and suffering and because of it while teaching others in our community to do the same.

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