BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - Joanna / BFI Flipside Blu-ray Review

This month BFI's Flipside label offers Michael Sarne's Joanna (1968), depicting the titular 17 year-old's odyssey of self-discovery in late 1960s London, a quintessential slice of brash surrealism and self-expression that certainly fits the profile for a Swinging Sixties film.

British cinema of the period seemed to consist of two movements, one overlapping the other, the cycles of British New Wave and Swinging Sixties cinema. The New Wave, 'kitchen sink' or 'Angry Young Men' dramas, typified by Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), A Kind of Loving (1962), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) eventually gave way to more quixotic material such as Darling (1965), The Knack …and How to Get It (1965), Blowup (1966), Alfie (1966), Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Georgy Girl (1966) and Smashing Time (1967).

The latter cycle certainly reflects the success of the former wherein major Hollywood studios, sensing there was money to be made in British films after the New Wave had made its critical and financial success at home and abroad, established their bases in London and proceeded to finance the output of UK and international directors and writers. Joanna is an example of this attitude, with Sarne picked up fresh from the success of his 'anti-travelogue' Road to Saint Tropez (1966) which had been acquired by Twentieth Century Fox to run as part of a double bill with their James Coburn Bond pastiche In Like Flint (1967).

'the female Alfie'
Fox was so pleased with the box office receipts from this spy-fi caper, covering their costs and bringing in a profit for Road to Saint Tropez into the bargain, and flush with the unexpected success of The Sound of Music (1965), that they offered Sarne a million-dollar budget to make what he had pitched to them as 'the female Alfie.' In effect, Sarne's one line pitch for Joanna was spot on. The cycle of Swinging London films, as noted by Moya Luckett in British Cinema, Past and Present, "pivot around single young women (and sometimes men), defying convention as they try to fulfil their ambitions and find romance in a modern and uniquely unconventional London."

His script traces the 'rake's progress' of a promiscuous young art student as she explores the class, social and cultural boundaries of London with the character based on a former girlfriend of Sarne's whom he describes as "a 'real original', an archetype for the liberated, modern girl." Again, it echoes the theme of films such as Darling, Georgy Girl and Smashing Time where we see young women arriving in the city and using it as a means to map out their own identities, to articulate their ideals and optimism.

Yet, Joanna, like its bedfellows, is not an entirely positive view of the London-centric rampant commercialism and glamour of the late 1960s. While the city offers itself to Joanna as "a site of pleasure and autonomy" much of the film, thoroughly exploiting the glossiness and superficiality of female glamour and fashion of the period, suggests that without a sense of commitment to 'something' that she can believe in Joanna will never find nor understand her true self. Her Swinging Sixties experience will be as shallow as it appears to us as viewers on screen, even when the film breaks the fourth wall a la Alfie and both Joanna and her friend Beryl, turn to camera and address us directly.

Sarne uses the mod visual language of the period to underline that much of what we see is a fantasy of wish-fulfilment, a vision of cool Britain created in a whirlwind of crass commercialism by the city's powerful advertising, marketing and design agencies, and that by exposing it as a fantasy, as an aggregation of the fashion, music and design of the times, he can explore its effects and attempt a discourse on what greater sexual freedom, romance, self-development and education can really mean to an individual like Joanna.

As Luckett maintains, these films, and Joanna is a prime example, are "indebted to an art school surrealism that similarly influenced the era's popular music. Surrealism's aspirations to a greater realist discourse should not be forgotten and it is this precise sur-realism that is embedded within Swinging London." Clearly with Sarne's background in fashion photography and commercials, and his own success in the music charts with 'Come Outside', his duet with the late Wendy Richard, in 1962, he was obviously the appropriate conduit through which much of the bizarre, au courant glamour of Joanna is transmitted.

The film opens and closes at Kings Cross train station. The opening titles run over black and white verite footage of Joanna's arrival in London until, in a blaze of colour, she emerges from the train in a startling white PVC and red outfit (with her name on the back just to ensure you haven't missed her). Fully acknowledging the subject and start of the film and self-reflexively alerting us to the fact that the character Joanna and the actress Genevieve Waite are both aware of this as she leaps out of the train, 'Joanna' flashes in big red lettering across the screen.
'that jump cut from wish to fulfilment' 
The end of the film is equally playful, as all the characters line up on the platform to say farewell to her in a song and dance routine, where the mechanics of the making of the film burst into the frame showing Sarne and his crew filming the scene and with Waite/Joanna rushing up to kiss him goodbye as she leaves London. This very much emulates the commercial playfulness and pop sensibility ('that jump cut from wish to fulfilment' that Ronald Bryden of The Observer noted in 1966) Richard Lester brought to his work on A Hard Day's Night (1964), Help! (1965) and The Knack …and How to Get It (1965).

After landing at her grandmother's house (Marda Vanne) with suitcases full of jam, she begins her life as an art-student. This milieu is yet another acknowledgment of the period and how the art-school and London's art scene ushered in an explosion of ideas, experimentation and social revolution. Joanna's relationship with blonde, good-looking artist tutor Hendrik Casson (Christian Doermer) and how she eventually secures his patronage by Lord Peter Sanderson (Donald Sutherland in a very mannered performance that, depending on your view, could be seen as one of the film's eventual triumphs) nods to the folklore of influential dealers and socialites on the scene such as Kasmin and 'groovy Bob' Fraser.

Even though Joanna pays lip service to the freewheeling morals of men like Casson and her sports-car owning playboy lover Bruce (Anthony Ainley), she really wants a full-on, romantic relationship, one that might help her settle down and commit to life. Before long she's in with the 'in crowd' and, through her friendship with Beryl (Glenna Forster-Jones) and her night-club owning gangster brother Gordon (Calvin Lockhart), she meets Lord Peter Sanderson, a generous aristocrat who is ill and merely wants to live life to the full before he succumbs to the disease that's killing him. On a holiday in Morocco, he impresses upon Joanna the need to commit to her life before it all passes by her. Gradually, she falls in love with Gordon but his debts and underworld connections lead to violence and separation.

Shot by Walter Lassally, veteran of A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Tom Jones (1963), the film's visual appeal lies in his enthusiasm for the iconography of London and its urban and green spaces, for the saturated colour and design of the clothes, objects and decor of the Sixties, highlighted when Joanna and Beryl go 'shopping' at iconic boutique Bus Stop or when Joanna romps around Knightsbridge and Chelsea. Not only does he bring a lyrical quality to her daydreams in the Albert Memorial and Kensington Gardens but he also captures the beauty of the Moroccan coast when the four characters go on holiday.

It's very much a film about a young girl growing up in a city, her imagination fooling her into thinking she's about to have a whirlwind romance in Paris when she's actually crying her eyes out in the back of a London cab. Hence we get a sequence where Sarne suddenly juxtaposes shots of Parisian streets over the cab journey or twice uses Scott Walker's beautiful 'When Joanna Loved Me' to emphasise this romantic core of the character as she wades through the superficiality of the Chelsea set.

Sarne, in Groovy Movies: Far Out Films of the Psychedelic Era, claimed "I wasn't consciously trying to make it a piece of psychedelia. It was supposed to be like looking through the world in rose-coloured spectacles. I wanted it to be intentionally misleading, that you have this girl who gets most things wrong but sees the world in a tremendously romantic way." Indeed, the success of the whole film pivots on whether you find Waite affecting as the lead character.

Very much the innocent abroad, Joanna bounces from each sexual encounter and friendship to the next, in a series of vibrantly coloured, outrageous Sixties fashions, her dreams and nightmares intercut with her bohemian existence and constant partying. It's difficult to empathise with both Joanna and Beryl because for most of the film they are crushed by the fashions and make-up from behind which both characters are constantly attempting to emerge. The eye make-up alone, on both women, is the epitome of camp excess and pretence that perhaps is symbolic of the hidden reality about both women that the film attempts to articulate.

The film is also littered with fantasy and dream sequences, some of which are delightful and some of which are downright bizarre. Joanna is seen waking up from various dreams - one of which depicts her driving a flashy sports car across a beach while voicing concern about the gash in her passenger's neck (very symbolically, it's her father) and then getting a good hiding from him, others which show her, and Beryl as her maid, bathing in a pond full of bright pink flowers, both of them riding an elephant outside Harrods, dancing in a park with Gordon and Beryl while Casson conducts an orchestra and a bizarre moment where Casson throws Beryl off a tower block as Joanna runs, in flowing pinks, towards the camera.
"rebellion against the restraint of classicism"
All this phantasmagoria is echoed in a moment where at an art lecture about the French Baroque, the tutor suggests to Joanna and her fellow students that "typical baroque exuberance... signifies rebellion against the restraint of classicism." Sarne's film certainly attempts that. Sarne, Lassally and their editor Norman Wanstall happily muck about with time in the film, often jump cutting to events just after or before they happen, suggesting Joanna's sense of dream-like recall and her penchant for fantasising. It's also an attempt to create a sense of the contrast between the freedom and flamboyance of an avant-garde, art-school London and the traditions and values of pre-1960s British society.

You get the feeling, especially after a remarkable scene on a Moroccan beach where Sutherland's arch performance as Sanderson really acquires depth ("people are such...lovely things" he philosophises) and when he confesses to Joanna that he is dying and demands she find her self and her life, that the rest of the film is very much about her desire to realise this and less about the ephemeral, fleeting sights and sounds of the milieu in which she has been adrift. Mortality becomes a central theme from this moment on and even her painter-lover Casson also reminds Joanna that we all "want to say something before it's too late" and that we need to get this done before life speeds up out of our control. Both moments and her later relationship with Gordon suggest that the reinvention of her self is well under way.

This also applies to her attitudes towards class, race and wealth too, where Joanna's penury is in direct opposition to the moneyed, aristocratic Sanderson and her corporate banker lover, Dominic and yet is never seen as a barrier to cultural and social acceptance. Later, the interracial relationship with Gordon is quite a bold statement for the times and it reflects the gradual changes that were happening in regards to sex, marriage, employment and ambition in the period.

Calvin Lockhart's appearance, as a raffish gangster, may now be equated with the violent, politically incorrect stereotypes of the 'blaxploitation' film but there is a sincerity in the relationship between Gordon and Joanna that brings a much welcome emotional intensity to the film. Lockhart certainly provides one of the best performances in an uneven, often rambling story. You may find Joanna's description of Gordon as "a black bastard" and all the references to the black characters as "spades" a tad uncomfortable from today's perspective.

Sarne's self-conscious non-linear editing, the copious flashbacks, dream sequences, and his use of music and visuals is commendable but the film rests with the characters and whether you feel they are an accurate representation of Swinging London and more, importantly, a sufficient critique of its artifice, vanity and meaningless beyond the confines of London itself. I suspect the antics of Joanna did not ring true for most British audiences who didn't really experience the Sixties as they are portrayed here. Therefore, you may find that Waite is the weak link (perhaps a clothes horse rather than a rounded character), the film is actually way too long and indulgent and you end up agreeing with Renata Adler of the New York Times who described Joanna as "hours of one-note, hard-edge, baby-voice hipness that is about as alive as polyethylene." In that respect, Joanna captures the 'all surface and no substance' remoteness of the era and blatantly romanticises the Swinging Sixties and yet, ironically, doesn't quite make the necessary empathetic connection between the characters, the romantic fantasy and the audience.

Overall the high-definition transfer is deliciously vibrant, showcasing Sarne's psychedelic colour palette with great intensity and, while there are some fluctuations in stability, sharpness, colour density and the odd instance of damage, the detail and colour are often really rich and sumptuous. The mono sound is very good and for the most part dialogue is clear and the use of music and non-diegetic sound effects (cash registers, kettles etc) on the soundtrack is another layer that adds to the film's aesthetics.

Special features
Road to Saint Tropez (1966, 31 mins): Sarne’s debut film, an ‘anti-travelogue’ starring a very young Udo Kier, Melissa Stribling and Gabriella Licudi. Comes with a wonderfully witty and idiosyncratic voice over from Fenella Fielding.
Death May Be Your Santa Claus (Frankie Dymon Junior, 1968, 37 mins): an experimental examination of an interracial relationship in late 1960s London.
New interview with Mike Sarne (2010, 16 mins, DVD only)
Joanna, Mike Sarne’s novelisation of the film, presented as a downloadable PDF (DVD only)
Illustrated booklet with essays and film notes by Chris Campion (writer and author who is currently working on a biography of John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas) and an essay by Kodwo Eshun.

All films presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition

20th Century Fox 1968
BFI Dual Edition (Flipside 0016) / Released 25 April 2011 / Cat no: BFIB1062 / Cert 18 / colour / English language / 113 mins / original aspect ratio 2.35:1 / Region 2 // Disc 1: BD50 / 1080p / 24fps / PCM mono audio (48k/24bit) // Disc 2: DVD9 / PAL / Dolby Digital mono audio (320 kbps)

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