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What makes a film erotic?

Ask ten people, get ten answers. Believe me, I know: When I was writing The 50 Most Erotic Films of All Time, I asked everyone from my mom to my perviest friends, and the range of answers was an eye opener. One person's risque thrill is another's dirty disgrace, and erotic movies range from the frank to the slyly suggestive.

It's all a judgment call, and this section represents my judgment... trust me, I cast a wide net.

Reviews:  Between Your Legs •  Eros •  Erotic Tales •  Exterminating Angels •  Secret Things •  The 7 Year ZigZag •  Wide Sargasso Sea

Features:  Louise Brooks


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Between Your Legs/Entre Las Piernas

(2004)
Directed by: Manuel Gomez Pereira.
Written by: Juan Luis Iborra, Manuel Gomez Pereira and Yolanda Garcia Serrano, based on the novel Entre las piernas by Joaquin Oristrell.
With: Victoria Abril, Javier Bardem, Carmelo Gomez, Angels Bassas, Sergi Lopez, Javier Albala, Maria Adanez, Victor Rueda, Carmen Balague, Manuel Manquina, Salvador Madrid, Roberto Alvarez and Alberto San Juan.

Manuel Gomez Pereira's erotic thriller that tips its hat to the films of that most prudish of prurient directors, Alfred Hitchcock, then drops its pants with Almodovarian glee.

Late-night radio talk show producer Miranda (Abril) and her husband, police detective Felix (Gomez), appear to have an enviably happy marriage. But Miranda is a secret sex addict; walking the family dog is her cover for regular strolls in the park in search of anonymous sex. Screenwriter-producer Javier (Bardem) has been hooked on phone sex since a frustrating but erotic encounter with a mysterious woman at an airport; his wife, Lola (Bassas), has left him in disgust and is now dating his partner, Claudio (Lopez). Hoping to break the stranglehold of their addiction, Miranda and Javier both join a therapy group. Naturally, no good comes of bringing together a group of sexual compulsives, and after one session Miranda and Javier hurl themselves into an affair that starts with sex in the back of a conveniently unlocked car in a municipal parking lot.

Unfortunately, a body is later found in the trunk of that same car, and Felix is assigned to the case. Still more unfortunately, the dead man turns out to be failed screenwriter Jacinto (Rueda), who was desperate to sell his screenplays to Javier's company and whose work Javier rejected with particular viciousness. And Javier has other problems as well: He learns that tapes of his phone sex sessions have been circulating among members of Madrid's sexual underground, making him an unwitting audio porn star. The plot threads come together in a sleazy whopper of a narrative climax that's thoroughly entertaining if not entirely plausible (suffice it to say that thoughts of The Crying Game are not unwarranted). Bardem, Avril and Lopez immerse themselves in their trashy characters con gusto, and the film is handsomely photographed by Juan Amoros and briskly directed by Manuel Gomez Pereira, who's best known making for farces like 1995's Boca a Boca, which also starred Bardem.


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Eros

(2004)
Directed by: Wong Kar Wai (The Hand, Steven Soderbergh (Equilibrium) and Michelangelo Antonioni (The Dangerous Thread of Things.
Written by: Wong Kar Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Tonino Guerra, based on Antonioni's short-story collection Quel Bowling sul Tevere).
With: Chang Chen and Gong Li (The Hand), Robert Downey Jr., Alan Arkin and Ele Keats (Equilibrium), Christopher Buchholz, Regina Nemni and Luisa Ranieri (The Dangerous Thread of Things).

Like most anthologies, this thematically linked trio of shorts is a mixed bag. Wong Kar Wai's The Hand, set in '60s Shanghai, is a small gem of sublimated lust; Michelangelo Antonioni's The Dangerous Thread of Things, which unfolds in present-day Tuscany, examines erotic ennui; and Steven Soderbergh's Equilibrium, set in 1955 New York, is a larky trifle about obsession.

In The Hand, inexperienced tailor's apprentice Zhang (Chang) falls under the spell of high-class prostitute Miss Hua (Gong), who assures the shy, virginal dressmaker that until he's become intimately familiar with a woman's touch, he'll never excel at making women's clothes. Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle evoke the intensity of their fragile, mutually dependent relationship, which endures even as his fortunes rise and hers fall, through Zhang's sensual, fetishistic pleasure in handling the silks, sequins and elaborate netting of Hua's exquisite gowns.

In "Equilibrium, high-strung adman Nick Penrose (Downey Jr.) pours out his anxieties to psychiatrist Dr. Pearl (Arkin), who's more interested in looking out the window with ever-more high-powered sets of binoculars than in listening to the details of Nick's dream tryst with a nameless beauty (Keats). The segment is shot almost entirely in black-and-white, punctuated by glimpses of Nick's cool blue dreamscape.

Finally, three of Antonioni's short stories are combined into a single, elliptical tale, The Dangerous Thread of Things, about an alienated rich couple (Nemni and Buchholz, the son of Magnificent Seven actor Horst,), a bold, voluptuous beauty (Ranieri) and an isolated stretch of immaculate beach. So stilted and affected that it feels like a pitch-perfect parody of Antonioni's trademark mannerisms. It ends with the women doing a nude dance on the beach followed by a cool, enigmatic stare-down as the waves lap gently at the sand. This tripartite curiosity was conceived by producer Stephane Tchal Gadjieff after he worked with Antonioni (who was partly paralyzed and left speechless by a stroke in 1985) on 1995's Beyond the Clouds. Dangerous Thread was shot in 2001; the other two were made almost two years later, when Soderbergh stepped in after Pedro Almodovar dropped out of the project. The segments are connected by dreamy, animated erotic drawings by Lorenzo Mattotti, accompanied by Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso's dirgelike "Michelangelo Antonioni," and while none of the filmmakers offer strikingly new insights into the mysteries of love or sex, Wong's bittersweet segment is a subtle, haunting beauty.


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Erotic Tales

(2000)
Directed by: Susan Seidelman (The Dutch Master), Amos Kollek (Angela), Jos Stelling (The Waiting Room).
Written by: Jonathan Brett and Susan Seidelman, Amos Kollek, Jos Stelling.
With: Mira Sorvino, Aida Turturro, Sharon Angela (The Dutch Master, Victor Argo, Valerie Geffner (Angela, Annet Malherbe, Gene Bervoets, Bianca Koedam (The Waiting Room).

An art-house variation on the Red Shoe Diaries, this three-film package is a best-of compliation of shorts made for a German television anthology that managed to be sex-themed without being especially sexy. The brainchild of producer Roberta Ziegler, the Erotic Tales series produced more than two dozen 30-minute films in four series between 1994 and 2002, most by well-known European and American filmmakers.

The first in this collection, Susan Seidelman's The Dutch Master (1994), was part of Series One and revolves around repressed, about-to-be married dental hygienist Teresa (Sorvino). Much to the surprise of her co-workers Kim (Turturro) and Dorothy (Angela), with whom she regularly eats lunch on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Teresa one day ventures inside and becomes obsessed with Dutch painter Pieter De Hooch's "The Drinker." Day by day, Teresa becomes more deeply enthralled by the painting — particularly the 17th-century hunk observing the tipsy young woman for whom it's named — until it seems she finds the painting more real than her own life.

Amos Kollek's Angela (2000) debuted as part of the fourth series. A bored septuagenarian (Argo) gets a new lease on life after a phone call from a forward, sultry voiced young woman — the titular Angela (Valerie Geffner) — whose carnal high jinks he's been watching from his apartment window. But when they finally get together, he discovers there's more Angela than meets the eye. Kollek fans will recognize this tale, which he recycled with a few changes and the same cast, as a subplot in his 2001 feature Fast Food Fast Women; in both cases, Argo's low-key performance is the highlight.

The final film, Dutch director Jos Stelling's The Waiting Room (1995), was part of the second season and is told entirely without dialogue. A man with roving eyes (Bervoets) and his wife (Malherbe) are killing time at the train station before embarking on a trip. While she's off looking for coffee, he spots a brazen beauty (Koedam) who looks right back, then makes a surprising move. With its sly reversal of the balance of erotic power, The Waiting Room is easily the best of the batch, but it's still a trifle.


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Exterminating Angels/Les Anges exterminateurs

(2006)
Written and Directed by: Jean-Claude Brisseau.
With: Frederic van den Driessche, Maroussia Dubreuil, Marie Allan, Lise Bellynck, Jeanne Cellard, Raphaele Godin and Margaret Zenou.

When French provocateuse Catherine Breillat began parsing the discomforts and absurdities of filming explicit erotic sequences for her astringently non-pornographic Fat Girl (2001), the result was Sex is Comedy (2002). Compatriot Jean-Claude Brisseau's fictionalized look at the making of his controversial Secret Things (2002), a brimstone-tinged fable about economics and eros, finds only tragedy.

Brisseau's fictional stand-in — successful, married filmmaker Francois (van den Driessche) — is in the middle of auditioning actresses for a frank erotic thriller; they must, among other things, demonstrate their "potential for exhibitionism" by masturbating on camera. A post-audition conversation with one young hopeful convinces him to devote his next film to simultaneously capturing the visual "grace of pleasure" and exploring the complicated emotions that underlie women's experience and expression of sexual desire.

Francois again conducts auditions that require young women to bare their bodies, but this time also asks that they expose their souls; their fantasies, experiences and feelings will form the basis of his script. He shuns professional porn actresses, whom he feels embody cliches shaped by men's voyeuristic desires; Francois wants to parse the hypocrisy surrounding cultural depictions of sex and the way those depictions color ordinary women's experience of their own pleasure. Three uninhibited lovelies — straightforward and forthright Julie (Bellynck); unstable Charlotte (Dubreuil), a survivor of sexual abuse and crazy parents; and fresh-faced Stephanie (Allan) — emerge from Francois' tryouts, but he cluelessly ignores the volatility of their chemistry until it blows up in his face.

Ooh la la — it's hard not to imagine that Francois is actually arty soft-core entrepreneur Zalman King with a French intellectual overlay. But if Exterminating Angels is Brisseau's exculpatory version of the sordid real-life events that stained his reputation within the French film community — he was convicted of harassing and defrauding actresses who auditioned for Secret Things — Francois is a slippery fellow on whom to hang a defense. Is the lesson that women are unfathomable bitches whose basic instincts are best kept under lock and key? Or is it that pompous auteurs who callously exploit vulnerable actresses and then abandon them to their demons get what they deserve? Hard to say, and that's a good thing. Does Brisseau mean us to take Charlotte's belief that she's possessed by the devil at face value? Perhaps: the titular "angels" (Godin, Zenou) — black-clad women who whisper questionable advice in the ears of Francois and his collaborators and then vanish — seem real, and Francois' dead grandma (Cellard) is lurking in the shadows, trying to advise and protect him. Like Secret Things, the film is ultimately infuriating, subtle, self-indulgent, astute and disingenuous, which makes for great, if divisive, conversation. (In French, with subtitles)


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Secret Things/Choses Secretes

(2002)
Written and Directed by: Jean-Claude Brisseau.
With: Coralie Revel, Sabrina Seyvecou, Roger Mirmont, Fabrice Deville, Blandine Bury, Olivier Soler, Viviane Theophildes, Dorothee Picard, Pierre Gabaston and Lisa Heredia.

The best Zalman King film ever made by a French intellectual, Jean-Claude Briusseau's sexually charged fable chronicles a modern-day courtesan's sentimental education.

Naive, sexually inexperienced and unfulfilled, Sandrine (Seyvecou) tends bar at a strip club and secretly admires the bold sensuality star attraction Nathalie (Revel). When the club's sleazy owner tries to bully Sandrine into having sex with a customer, Nathalie intervenes and both are unceremoniously fired — literally thrown out on their asses. Sandrine is in a panic: She's penniless, without prospects and can't ask her parents for help — they're barely getting by themselves. But Nathalie — a frosty philosopher of the bedroom who preaches that once a woman frees her libido from the slavery of love, nothing can stand in her way — has been making plans. All she needed was a partner, and now that she has Sandrine, whom she's been schooling in the ways of the flesh, it's time to get started. All they have to do is secure office jobs and then use their strategically deployed wiles to permanently escape second-class citizenship and economic servitude. Simple but time honored: It worked for pragmatic Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck)in Baby Face, and men haven't changed much since 1933.

Both are hired by a Champs-Elysees financial firm, Sandrine in statistics and manipulative Nathalie in personnel; together they plot Sandrine's ascent from office manager Cadene (Soler) to happily married CEO Delacroix (Mirmont), right-hand man to the firm's dying founder, Monsieur Barnay. The only prize greater than Delacroix is General Director Christophe Barnay (FDeville), who will inherit the company when his father dies. But the handsome Christophe is dangerous game, a Nietzchean hedonist who's driven more than one ex-girlfriend to self-immolation; Nathalie advises that Sandrine stick with the easily manipulated Delacroix, but the wheels of disaster begin turning when she deviates from her own steely principles.

Though the plot recalls nothing more than an extended episode of Red Shoe Diaries, Brisseau's casting is distinctly European: Neither Revel nor Seyvecou has the pneumatic assets of American soft-core starlets and both can genuinely act. Prepare to be amazed as the gorgeously dark-haired, blue-eyed Revel makes her way through a series of monologues detailing the social iniquities visited on the working class that would defeat many a lesser thespian. The pale, coltish Seyvecou, ordinary to the point of plainness, makes Sandrine's transformation from timid mouse to confident femme fatale vividly arresting. Brisseau's lesson in economics and eros ends in a frenzy of incest, murder, blasphemy and orgiastic excess that the Marquis de Sade would applaud. It would be hard to mount a straight-faced defense of Brisseau's feverish moral tale, complete with a lurking angel of death, but the carnal machinations are hugely entertaining — particularly if you like your skin with a bracing apocalyptic chaser.


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The 7 Year ZigZag

(2003)

Written and Directed by: Richard Green.
With: Richard Green, Caroline Davis and Robin Banks.

Musician and actor-turned-filmmaker Richard Green's audacious hybrid of film, poetry, cabaret and "living animation" sounds like the kind of goofy, experimental indulgence you should cross the street to avoid. But he actually makes the mix sing, and the film is genuinely absorbing.

Green plays two roles, the "storyteller" and Nick, a character in one of two unmade films-within-the-film. As the storyteller, he narrates the semi-autobiographical story of an aspiring writer-musician's pursuit of his dream: Making an allegorical movie called "The Doomsayer." The narration is all in verse whose Dr. Suess-style rhythms and hep-cat slang ought to clash miserably, but Green's velvety voice smoothes them into a surprisingly palatable mix. The Storyteller moves from New York to L.A., "Doomsayer" script in hand, then takes a corporate detour. His aging father, an inventor, has finally come up with an idea that's attracted $1 million in investment capitol. Concerned about his dad's declining health, the Storyteller puts away his screenplay to help manage the company while writing music on the side. The swing/jazz/rock songs he composes in turn inspire two more projects: a second screenplay for a musical called "The Next Step," which he hopes will help finance the less commercial "Doomsayer" (yes, he thinks a swing musical is commercial), and the ZigZag Club, a floating cabaret.

"The Next Step" chronicles the misadventures of Nick and Lily (Davis), young lovers trying to turn a faded bar into a happening music club. It's brought to life as a series of "living storyboards" that feature actors in stark B&W make-up against inked backgrounds, and key sequences mirror the Storyteller's own Hollywood odyssey. The ZigZag Club features elaborate live performances of standards and retro-style original tunes, and it flourishes while "The Next Step" founders; the movie comes tantalizingly close to being produced several times, but the deal always falls through. And on top of his frustrated ambitions, the storyteller is tormented by the thought that he carelessly let the love of his life (Banks) slip away. Meanwhile, "The Doomsayer" is gathering dust and the storyteller's dream seems to be taking a back seat to wheeling, dealing and jiving.

Although the low budget mars certain sequences that were clearly conceived on a scale that cries out for top-of-the-line razzmatazz, the sheer force of imagination that produced the film's unique mix of different styles, musical numbers and hipster doggerel is extraordinary.


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Wide Sargasso Sea

(1993)
Directed by: John Duigan.
Written by: Jan Sharp, Carole Angier, Shelagh Delaney, Bronwyn Murray and John Duigan, from the novel by Jean Rhys.
With: Karina Lombard, Nathaniel Parker, Rachel Ward, Michael York, Martine Beswicke, Rowena King, Claudia Robinson, Casey Berna, Daniel Conway and Paul Campbell.

Adapted from Jean Rhys' pioneering 1966 prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, in which she imagines the early life of the first Mrs. Rochester, the "madwoman in the attic," Australian director John Duigan's steamy, sensual film was unfairly dismissed as soft core smut with literary pretensions.

Proper gentleman Edward Rochester (Parker), the landless son of a respectable English family, faints dead away when he's first introduced to Antoinette Cosway (Lombard), the landed Jamaican Creole girl his family has arranged for him to marry, and he can't entirely blame the fever he caught at sea.

Antoinette's mother, Annette (Ward), rescued the Cosway family — despised by the colonial English and loathed by native Jamaicans, they were neither European nor Caribbean, aristocrats nor commoners — from hard times by making an advantageous marriage. She marries a wealthy Englishman so she and her daughter Antoinette can keep their decaying plantation in the mountains, but after a fire set by the vengeful plantation workers destroys the house and kills their new baby, Annette goes mad. Antoinette is abandoned to convent schools until her distant stepfather arranges her marriage to Rochester.

Despite their inauspicious first meeting, Antoinette and Rochester marry and seem to be well matched: He's bewitched by her grace and sensuality, while she blossoms beneath his caresses. They move up to the Cosway's property in the hills and, surrounded by lush greenery and intoxicating flowers, make love and luxuriate in the riotous beauty of the tropics. But their happiness soon withers in the oppressive heat and poisonous atmosphere of gossip and resentment that surrounds them. Rochester grows distant and Antoinette's frantic efforts to win him back look increasingly like madness. He begins an affair with serving girl Amalia (King), given to drink and scenes, and eventually moves back to England, where the cold and greyness unhinge the fragile Antoinette's mind. The film ends as she hears that her husband intends to marry an English girl, and she sets fire to the vast, forbidding house she finds as chilly as his heart.

Raised on the Caribbean island of Dominica, Rhys' sensibilities were forged in the conflict between European order and the sensual allure of the jungle, both real and metaphorical. Just as the specter of the first Mrs. Rochester haunts Jane Eyre, demons of race, class and the legacy of slavery haunt Wide Sargasso Sea: Rochester is too English to ever understand Jamaica — he's a benign bigot and a prude to the bone, a man who mistrusts self-indulgence and believes so completely in the world's unshakable rationality that a glimpse of the seething emotions beneath its surface nearly drives him insane. He's afraid of Antoinette because her wanton loveliness inflames the beast beneath his own skin, the one he'd like to deny.

Conceived as a white man's beguiling, nightmare lover, Antoinette harbors the wildness of Africa beneath her French coquettishness and milky skin touched with the barest hint of coffee. It only takes a venomous whisper to convince him that her candid sensuality and childlike delight in life are manifestations of the corrupting touch of madness, and he's soon dreaming that he's trapped under water, strangling in the weeds as Antoinette swims by like a happy, heartless porpoise.

The Sargasso Sea is literally "miles and miles of floating weed," but metaphorically it's the swamp of female sexuality, dark and damp and tinged with lunacy: Joseph Conrad's heart of darkness was miles up the Amazon, but the Sargasso Sea is no farther away than the space between a woman's legs. Always teetering on the brink of smuttiness, Duigan's film never quite captures the bitter subtlety of Rhys' novel. But it gets the look, and frankly, that's more fun.


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Louise Brooks: Reluctant Icon

"There is no Garbo. There is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks." — Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinemateqhue Francaise

Louise Brooks was a shooting star: For a few short years in the roaring 20s, she burned so brightly that it was, in retrospect at least, inevitable that she flamed out before she was 30. A well brought up, middle-class girl from Cherryvale, Kansas, where she studied with modern-dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. She danced with their troupe as a teenager then became a Ziegfield girl, which led to a contract with Paramount Pictures, who didn't have a clue what to do with her. Brooks' immortality was ensured by darkly sophisticated German film, G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box/ Die Büchse der Pandora (1929), in which she played an amoral seductress who seized the day and scarcely noticed the litter of broken hearts, dreams and lives bobbing in her silken wake. You may not know her name, but you know her look: Slender and pale as a calla lily, her serenely enigmatic face capped by a jet- black helmet of bobbed hair. Most actresses of the silent era, from heavy-lidded vamp Theda Bara to child-like Lillian Gish to hyperactive jazz baby Clara Bow, look thoroughly of their time. But Brooks could walk into a trendy 21st-century club and outshine the sleekest hipster without even trying.

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brooks3.jpg The iconic Louise was all cool, stunningly contrasts: Black hair, white pearls, black dress against marble-white skin. It's hard to imagine her moving, let along speaking. The real Louise was bold, spirited and defiant. She claimed to have slept with Greta Garbo and joined Charlie Chaplin in an orgy that went on for days. Bluestockings like her mother's friends back home would have called her a shameless hussy (assuming they could bring themselves to address such shocking behavior at all), but Brooks figured she and her show business friends were young, attractive, bubbling with energy and lucky enough to have escaped Depression-era poverty because fate dealt them a great hand; why wouldn't they let the good times roll? It's not as though they were hurting anyone.

Except, of course, themselves: Chaplin's leftist politics earned him the dangerous enmity of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, but it was his compulsive priapic adventuring that turned the tide of public opinion against their beloved Little Tramp and drove him to seek refuge in Switzerlande. That said, Chaplin's exile was cushy: Molded by a childhood of Dickensian poverty and deprivation, Chaplin managed his career and finances with the ruthless pragmatism of a man perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop.

. Brooks' smart-talking, sophisticated facade lay lightly over an inner Blanche Dubois: Strangers had always been kind, as they are to lovely, uninhibited girls, and she made no provision for the day they wouldn't. She was impulsive and impractical, a knee-jerk authority hater smart enough to know how she ought to handle studio politicking and too stubborn to do it. Hollywood executives liked their stars malleable and insecure, and Brooks refused to play the game. She appeared in 14 American movies between 1925 and 1929, then decamped for Europe, where she made her three finest films: the German Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both 1929) and the French Prix de Beaute (1930).

The first shock of Pandora's Box, adapted from German playwright Frank Wedekind's once-scandalous Erdgeist and Die Buchse der Pandora, is Brooks' vivacity. In action she's mesmerizing, bold and capricious, sensual and direct. She knows how to drape herself over a sofa, how to reach out her arms to be embraced, how to stroke a man's hair or a woman's arms. Brooks is thoroughly sensual without a trace of calculation, and Pandora's Box vibrates with her erotic energy. Pabst had seen her in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port (1928) and was convinced she was the only actress who could play gorgeous guttersnipe Lulu, a girl of mysterious background and startlingly directness. But she wasn't available, and Marlene Dietrich, veteran of more than a dozen undistinguished sex romps, was campaigning hard for the lead. Dietrich, still carrying a little baby fat and three years away from The Blue Angel, which wrote her ticket to Hollywood stardom, knew a star-making role when she saw one. And Pabst was ready to sign her, despite finding Dietrich "too old [all of 26] and too obvious — one sexy look and the picture would become burlesque," when the 22-year-old Brooks was suddenly at liberty.


brookspandora.jpg Brooks' Lulu is a quicksilver mass of contradictions: Innocent and worldly, calculating and aimless, sophisticated sphinx and unworldly girl. She likes sex, but she likes luxury even more. Brooks plays Lulu as a tremendously modern seductress; she knows the face that will get her what she wants, and doesn't hesitate to put it on.. What her Lulu lacks in breeding and education she makes up for with feral savvy. She knows what secrets lurk in the hearts of men, and they're not very complicated. Lulu seduces Herr Schoen, a much older newspaper man, and breaks up his plans to marry a more respectable girl. On their wedding day, Schoen finds her in the arms of not one rival, but three: Lulu waltzes seductively with the lesbian Countess Gerschwitz, kisses Schilgoch — an older man whom she represents variously as her father and her friend — and embraces Schoen's own grown son, Alwa. Why? Because she wants to. Schoen goads Lulu into shooting him and she's charged with murder. And yet somehow, a vision in widow's weeds and downcast eyes, she seduces the jury gets away with being convicted of manslaughter. When a false cry of fire goes up in the courtroom, she escapes in the melee, and she and Alwa flee to Monte Carlo. He gambles away their money and she's sold to an Egyptian whoremaster, but she, Alwa and Shilgoch manage to escape to London. Within months they're destitute, and Lulu — the only one with anything worth selling — takes her wares to the street. "It is Christmas Eve," Brooks wrote decades later in an essay collected in Lulu in Hollywood, "and she is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac." Lulu's first and last London client is Jack the Ripper.

brookshands.jpg The fifth movie adapted from Frank Wedekind's "Lulu" plays, Pandora's Box is saturated with sex and Brooks' recollections of Berlin, where Pandora's Box was shot, suggest part of the reason. This was the Berlin of Cabaret, where decadence was indeed divine and Lulus were its high priestesses.

"Sex was the business of the town," Brooks later wrote. "At the Eden hotel… the café bar was lined with the higer priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors' agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian quarter. Race track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theatre. In the revue Chocolate Kiddies, when Josephine Baker appeared naked except for a girdle of bananas, it was precisely as Lulu's stage entrance was described by Wedekind: 'They rage there as in a menagerie when the meat appears at the cage.'"

While abroad, Brooks got the call to return to Hollywood and dub dialogue for the silent Canary Murder Case (1928), a minor film in which she had played a minor role. Sound technology was about to consign silent movies to the scrap heap of history, and studio heads were scrambling to salvage what they could of their existing inventory. Brooks said "no" with typical unthinking capriciousness, forcing Paramount to hire someone else to do the job (that someone happened to be Margaret Livingston, an industry veteran who had been the mistress of producer Thomas Ince; Livingston was aboard William Randolph Heart's yacht on November 18, 1924, when Ince died under still-mysterious circumstances). It's easy blame puritan America and philistine Hollywood for Brooks' downfall, but after working with her on three films even Pabst had had enough of her antics. She herself confessed that he had warned, "Your life is exactly like Lulu's, and you will end the same way." Ouch.

By the time Brooks deigned to return to Hollywood, the dice were cast: The word was out that she was more trouble than she was worth. Brooks hung around and made an additional seven films between 1931 and 1938, playing what amounted to bit parts in several of them, before finally conceding that her great Hollywood adventure was over. She spent most of her post- Hollywood life in poverty and isolation, even as successive generations of movie lovers fell in love with her eternally vibrant image.


brookscate.jpg By 1955, when Langlois made his famous declaration in the catalogue of the Cinematheque's "60 Years of Cinema" exhibition, Brooks was nearly 50, holed up in a miserable apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side. She was rescued by film preservationist James Card, who worked for Kodak's George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, a film archive and museum located in Rochester, New York. He persuaded her to move upstate, and she spent the rest of her life writing in, sometimes about movies in general but more often about her own darkly picaresque journey through the dream machine. Her addictively readable prose was acid tipped and laced with a rueful sense of humor, simultaneously bitter, world weary and laceratingly perceptive.

Brooks'died in 1985, but her legacy lives, extending far beyond her own films (if you don't own the Criterion Collection edition of Pandora's Box, I highly recommend you rectify that situation ASAP). Like pin-up princess Bettie Page, another small town girl with a big persona, Brooks' image is so ingrained in our pop-culture consciousness that it risks being divorced from its source.

When writer John P. McEvoy's racy Jazz-age novels about enterprising showgirl Dixie Dugan became a syndicated newspaper strip in 1929 (after they'd already inspired a Broadway musical starring Ruby Keeler), artist Joseph Streibel made her look like Brooks. The strip's mind-boggling run began in 1929 and lasted until 1966, outlasting both McEvoy and his son. Adult comics writer/artists Guido Crepax and Hugo Pratt reimagined Brooks in Valentina and Corto Maltese (in which her avatar is named Louise Brookszowyc.). Brooks has inspired fetish painter Brian Viveros (as Page did Robert Blue and Olivia), and her image haunts the sci-fi/horror computer game System Shock 2's (1999) in the guise of nurse Erin Bloome.

Both Melanie Griffith's sexy alter ego in Something Wild (1986) and Cate Blanchett's Russian she-wolf Irina Spalo in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) owe everything to Brooks, as does Vogue editrix extraordinaire Anna Wintour. Actresses Selma Blair and Katie Holmes have tried the Brooks look on for for size and when Argentine novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote The Invention of Morel, a surreal meditation on lust, flesh and fantasy and the uncredited inspiration for Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), he had the haunting, heartbreakingly unattainable Brooks on the brain.

Louise Brooks of Kansas is long gone, but "Louise Brooks," the timeless, boldly tantalizing icon, will be with us until the last razored bob has lost its edge. And I don't see that happening any time soon.