One of the many gifts of cinema is that, perhaps, more than any other art film, it allows us the fullest experience of the dream state while still conscious. Even better, it can allows entrance into someone else's dream state, touching both our own innate imagination, as well as any latent voyeuristic tendencies. It takes a special film to successfully bridge the world of seeming reality with one that is a bit more ethereal, a bit darker and pregnant with darker potential. One film that fits this bill tailor made is 1977's Visions of Clair.
Released by Cal-Vista to apparently dismal sales and quiet but at least in place existence on VHS and later on, DVD, Visions of Clair is one of those titles that is an art film in a porn film's clothing. It is a true adult film, in every meaning and shade of the term. Sensuality and sexuality permeates the entire film but is threaded throughout unreliable narrators, human dysfunction and possibly the supernatural. In short, to quote Eddie Muller's and Daniel Faris' excellent book Grindhouse, “Visions of Clair” is a no hatter and in the most glorious way.
The film begins with Ron (John Rolling), a lanky artist in his studio, sketching a nude woman on a large piece of paper. He's face is furrowed and he ends up ripping the large drawing down, uttering “Shit!” His model is revealed to be the ivory skinned, dark haired beauty named Clair (Annette Haven) , who is reclining in a near beatific manner, which her only reaching to his fit being “What's wrong?” Ron talks about losing his “momentum” and that Clair's beauty is too conventionally attractive. In short, her beauty is more porcelain perfect and less fettered with human character. He makes a point of not being attracted to her, a statement that Clair takes a womanly challenge.
She approaches Ron slinky but gently and unbuttons his pants, pulling his still quite flaccid member out. (Note this, since seeing an unengorged member in explicit adult films, especially by the late 70's, was not the most common occurrence. The goal in other films can be to play into the fantasy where every penis is insta-ready for action and conquer.) She does get Ron up to task and they begin to make love. Music suddenly starts to swell, beginning as some lovely but melancholy tinged classical notes. But as their lovemaking goes on, the music grows more strange, morphing into some borderline industrial noises.
Right as Ron is about to climax, Claire sits up, having him spill his seed on himself. This sets him off again, sniping at her, “So you refuse my offering, goddess?” He gets up and lifts a large gold necklace out of a box. (Though it is never explicitly stated in the movie, the pendant appears to be depicting Isis, the most powerful of the Egyptian goddesses and worshiped as both the “mother of life” and the “crone of death.” Both will be strangely fitting for young and yet possibly ageless Clair.)
He offers it to Clair, stating that she said she wear it “...as she sees herself...,” further adding “You're invincible.” Ron then tells her to be careful, since it does not belong to him. At this moment, Daphne (Bonnie Holiday), Ron's girlfriend arrives. He introduces them, though Daphne is too busy being mesmerized by Claire than to be concerned with her own lover's lack of clothes and overall awkwardness.
Four years later and Claire is admiring herself in a hand mirror, when Daphne approaches her. The latter, big eyed, pretty and vulnerable, flashes back to Ron and asks what happened. Again. Claire assures her that it was all so long ago and that his death was an “accident.” It is clear that this is a record skipping loop of a conversation these two go through. Daphne then goes on to worry about Roahne (Susan Bates), a curly haired artist staying in Clair's estate along with them. Daphne doesn't like her, especially the way Roahne looks at her and wants her to go. Clair mentions that she's intrigued by a potential portrait Roahne's painting of her fantasies. Given the intimations, Clair doesn't have the best track record with sensitive artists, something Roahne herself will soon learn in her own journey.
“Visions of Clair” is a film that lingers in your main and even sub-conscious well after you have finished the ending credits. It is a dreamy puzzle piece that is exactly like its titular character herself.
Enigmatic, beautiful, possibly supernatural and out of a mere mortal's reach. This is perhaps one of the reasons why it has had to patiently sit in obscurity for thirty plus years. Released a few years after the big hum of “porno chic,” which is where it possibly would have thrived a bit better. By the late 70's, while adult was still very much in its full bloom of the golden era, whatever chances it had to be properly respected and evaluated by the mainstream had already grown a bit dim. (With Radley Metzger's 1976 opus, “The Opening of Misty Beethoven” being one of the last adult films to be critically examined by the mainstream in the 70's.) So the arthouse crowd, whose attitudes towards sexually explicit films being problematic, were more than likely not going to go out of their way to an adult movie house for this film.
So if not the arthouse crowd, which is really where Visions of Clair belongs, then what about the adult movie audience themselves? Given the fact that the film challenges the brain and lacks a sex scene that doesn't have at least one tonal or editing disturbance, from the industrial music towards the end of Clair's and Ron's sex scene to the final one, where Clair and Daphne's lovemaking is inter cut with Roahne's nude dancing with a knife and (spoiler) bloody-in-a-subtle-arty-way death, it makes it nigh impossible for any audience prurience. (Unless your personal turn on is weird, dreams blurring into nightmares erotica, then you might have a good time!) This approach is perfect for the film, since, much like how Clair refused Ron's seed, it refuses the viewer their own physical release. It's a buildup to erotic limbo or purgatorio.
Cast wise, Youngblood assembled a more than solid group of actors, starting off with adult film superstar Annette Haven in the titular role of Clair. Haven is one of those actresses whom, while undeniably beautiful to look at, can lack a certain type of warmth that one generally associates with the actresses of the golden age. However, Haven's cool quality and good acting skills can shine with the right part, with Clair being one of her best. Her Clair is captivating and simultaneously a bit off, in that way that a supernatural creature, or a person who is merely mentally ill, can be. (More on that in a bit.)
Bonnie Holiday, who was reportedly a lover of Haven's off-screen via a menage-a-trois situation and introduced her to the adult film business, is strikingly vulnerable as Daphne. To the extent that you worry for her emotional well being via her assorted flashbacks to a haunted looking Ron, as well as her physical during Roahne's sexual visions of Daphne being manhandled a bit. Her and Haven have intriguing on screen chemistry which plays fittingly into Claire and Daphne's electric but possibly tainted connection.
Susan Bates, whose filmography amounts to three other titles, with all but one appearing be “non sex,” is striking and somnambulist like as Roahne. There are two things worth noting about her character's name. One is that Bates was actually credited as “Roahne Alexander” in the 1974 film, “China Girl,” directed by Edwin Durrell. Also, the fact that “Roahne” as a name feels like the anima/animus of the name “Ron.” Both characters are lithe artists whose lives are fatally altered by Clair, due to either their own personal breakdowns and self destruction or by Clair herself.
Speaking of Ron, thought his on-screen time is fairly brief, John Rolling is memorable as the tormented artist. He's not quite as polished as the others but possesses a strong presence, with the shots of him looking despondent that Daphne flashes back to being unforgettable. Jay Gamble as Roahne's mookish friend/muse/failed date rapist David is also quite effective. If I was a betting writer, I would bet money that Gamble had some acting training or stage background, since he is the most solid actor in the whole film. This plays into his character on more than the obvious level, since his character is the only that appears to be firmly grounded in the “real” world. Doesn't mean he is a good person by any stretch, but he is the one that that is the most “Earthy.” He is also the character whom in one breath talks about how he grew up being in love with Clair and still sort of is, but then as soon as she snubs him and Roahne in a dive diner, launches into a misogynistic styled tirade.
It is that same tirade where he notes how there was talk that her father had her committed when she was younger, which throws another curious question mark into the mix. Is Claire a goddess and possible descendent of Isis? A wraith or succubus bound to Earth? Or is she just a mentally ill woman whom has invented Roahne as a way to cope with the mysterious death of Ron that haunts her current lover so? The character of David makes any and all of these scenarios questionable. Is he telling the truth or is he too an invention of Claire and/or Roahne's? Much like the truth of religion or spirituality itself, there are no right or wrong answers. You're just left in the cinematic fog, trying to create your own puzzle pieces to fit the spaces that have been purposefully left for you.
Director Zachary Youngblood made a bold and vibrant work with “Visions of Clair.” It may lack the polish of say, a Gerard Damiano film, but it is smart and a creatively brave work. Coupled with a strong soundtrack by a band credited as Ohm's Law (not to be confused with a 2000's era Canadian band of the same name), “Visions of Clair” is an exceptional gem at the bottom of a dusty, looked drawer. One can only hope that it will get the same preservation and treatment that certain 1970's era adult films below its quality have received. It is waiting for it and so are we.
Huge thanks to Brad Stevens, who was the one that brought this great and strange film into my life. For more of his work, please check out his Bradlands column over at Sight & Sound.