“Death is so impersonal. It needs a grand gesture to give it meaning.”
The Story of Joanna tells of the peculiar relationship between a reclusive aristocrat, Jason (Jamie Gillis), and a submissive female, the titular Joanna (Terri Hall), who falls under his spell. The dynamics of the relationship are established early on, when after a meal at Jason’s sumptuous chateau, Joanna asserts that “Everyone wants to be loved, don’t they?”. Her answer comes just moments later, as she is coldly instructed to raise her dress and bend over a wooden table for her suitor’s satisfaction.
The films sadomasochistic core is cemented when Joanna is verbally abused, advised she must love Jason without any hope of reciprocation, and forced to both serve and service three of his dubious acquaintances. In the scenes that follow she is chained, whipped and has frenzied dreams of being ravished. Most cruelly of all, having promised her that she will finally be rewarded, that her lover will visit her that very night, Jason sends his butler to her room in his stead.
The underlying motivation for Jason’s behaviour is finally verbalised in an extremely unusual scene containing male-to-male fellatio. Jason is dying of an unspecified illness and his final wish is for annihilation to occur at the hand of someone who loves him. Joanna’s torment, which had appeared to be purely for the satisfaction of her master’s desires, thus assumes an even darker complexion.
The Story of Joanna is a remarkable adult film in a number ways. Much like the aforementioned Miss Jones, it maintains an almost funereal atmosphere throughout. Furthermore, and characteristic of its directors best work, it seems to have been made with a total disregard for either the core audience or conventions of the genre. This is a movie that is entirely devoid of nudity until it’s quarter of an hour old, and one that incorporates a lengthy ballet sequence well before the first extended sex scene. Most startlingly of all – and quite possibly unique in the world of hetero-sexual hardcore – is the oft-censored blowjob the Butler (Zebedy Colt) dutifully administers to his master. It’s worth noting that, although the sexual content is quite sparse by contemporary standards – in fact, the first and third acts are almost entirely free of such distractions – there are a number of scenes that could be deemed transgressive. Aside for the aforementioned fellatio, the film contains group scenes, double-penetration, fisting and levels of coercion that would be frowned upon today.
Despite all the brutality – which, in fairness, is more psychological than physical – this is an unfeasibly elegant movie. The spectacular locations and careful costuming are certainly a factor, but special mention should be of the languid cinematography. The sex scene between Terri Hall and Zebedy Colt is particularly relevant here; shot entirely in extreme close-up, the camera crawls slowly over barely identifiable body parts, bestowing an abstract, almost dream-like, quality on an emotionally-charged encounter. The omnipresent classical soundtrack, by turns menacing and ethereal, also contributes enormously to the general air of demented refinement.
In addition to the films technical aspects, the central performances are also excellent. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing these roles. Gillis, widely regarded as the best dramatic actor of the period, and particularly adept at playing psychotic characters, is perfectly cast as the doomed sadist. And the doe-eyed Terri Hall, not generally known for her thespian qualities, is utterly convincing as the victimised ingénue. Of course, the utter horror on her face as her luxurious hair is cut brutally short prior to the films climax, may not be entirely feigned.
The Story of Joanna remains a classic example of porno-chic, of a period when (some) adult films were made with both grand artistic aspirations and the desire for mainstream credibility