Mention comics (as in graphic novels) to anyone in the English speaking world and images of lycra clad superheroes will inevitably come to mind. True, the medium progressed over the decades, but for the most part is still widely dominated by the antics of characters created by Stan Lee & Co for Marvel, DC or Dark Horse. Yes, comics over the years may have become darker in tone, but this does not mean that we necessarily have a wider choice of subjects available. The truth is that, at least with regards to the US market, there is still very little choice. For every Maus or Fax From Sarajevo we have several hundred comics that clearly fall into the men in tights category.
Not so on the European continent where, especially in France and Belgium, comics ever since the 1960s have been declared the 9th Art, museums have been established to celebrate individual comic artists and general comic book history, high profile festivals regularly reward the most outstanding achievements in the medium and, most importantly, a variety of comics were regularly published that cover a vast array of different genres and are aimed at a diverse audience of readers.
Franco-Belgian comic magazines such as A Suivre and Métal Hurlant helped publish the work of international comic artists like Milo Manara, Jacques Tardi, Hugo Pratt, Moebius/Jean Giraud, Hermann or William Vance.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the political climate of the time, those French “bandes dessinées” were welcomed by intellectuals and the growing student movement and soon could be found in practically all serious book stores in elegant editions.
At the forefront of this movement was Guido Crepax, a comic artist from Milan, who throughout the 60s and 70s managed to establish a huge European fanbase with his erotically charged series of stories featuring a variety of heroines in various stages of undress and adaptations of Justine, Emmanuelle and Histoire d’O. One of his most popular series was Valentina about a female fashion photographer, a character clearly inspired by Louise Brooks.
His very cinematic style of drawing beautiful art deco imagery was just begging for an adaptation and Corrado Farina was just the man for that job. Primarily a director of commercials and documentaries, he was also a big comic book fan and Baba Yaga was to remain one of only two feature films that he made.
The version of this film made available by Shameless is the director’s cut that Farina considers to be the truest to his original vision and contains additional scenes that were previously removed by either the producers or the censors. Whereas the majority of this release has an English track, the previously deleted scenes are inserted with their Italian tracks and English subtitles and are on inferior film stock.
While walking out alone one night, fashion photographer Valentina (Isabelle de Funès) meets a strange, otherworldly lady (Carroll Baker) who introduces herself as Baba Yaga (a witchlike character in Slavic folklore), visits her studio the next day and invites her over to her house, a spooky deserted mansion full of magic paraphernalia and a seemingly endless hole in the floor.
Soon dreams and reality begin to blur for Valentina. Dolls dressed up in S&M gear come to life, her camera literally starts ‘shooting’ people, she dreams of executions and torture scenes in front of German Reichs- and Wehrmacht Officers (one of them played by the director himself) while becoming strangely infatuated with Baba Yaga who has taken more than just a friendly interest in her.
It really is impossible to even attempt a straightforward plot summary for Baba Yaga. The film is, in essence, an assortment of erotic dreams and phantasies and as such follows a surreal dream logic. Call it an excuse to see actresses and models get their clothes off at every moment and engage in as much lesbian and S&M action as possible, call it a pseudo liberating tractate on feminism…Baba Yaga can be a lot of things for a lot of people.
Most of all it is a fun-filled bit of eurotrash that would probably never get the green light again in this day and age, yet was a big commercial success in the cinemas at the time. Ingeniously edited in true comic book style, accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack by Piero Umiliani (of Muppets Mah Na Mah Na fame) and filled with quite a large amount of anti-establishment, agit prop style happenings, this is clearly a product defined by its time, a true work of Pop Art.
Oh, and did I mention that George Eastman, the original Anthropophagus, plays Valentina’s boyfriend?
Extras on this DVD consist of a text commentary, an interview with the director and two short documentaries directed by Farrina, one of them dedicated to Guido Crepax, the other praising the educational benefits of having children read comics including some of the highly charged erotic ones of the time! We also have the obligatory picture gallery and trailers for the main feature as well as for other Shameless releases. (Watch out for Oasis Of Fear/Dirty Pictures, one of the whackiest eurotrashers you’re ever likely to find!)
If your idea of a successful comic book adaptation is The Fantastic Four, then stay well clear of this disc. If, however, you often felt that Barbarella could have done with a little bit more titillation, then go and spend some time with Baba Yaga. You won’t regret it.
Baba Yaga is out now.