Spellbound in a whirlwind of love, sex, desire, and disaster, Belladonna of Sadness is a blistering wound of emotions and vices. The nature of sin and excess; the act of wanting too much without understanding the cost. A cautionary tale of indulgence as showcased by an unnamed kingdom positioned in the Middle Ages. The unfortunate recipients of which are Jean and Jeanne, a couple young in love in a world far too cutthroat to accept the purity of their union. Their honeymoon, a nightmarish event, forever tainted by the cruel actions of an aristocrat drunk with power. Deflowered and battered, Jeanne, a victim of the worst kind of atrocity, is left a wilted rose in her husband's arms. A newlywed couple demoralized by the ones appointed by God to reign over them. Betrayed by those in power and emotionally abandoned by her husband, Jeanne is left to pick up the pieces. With nothing but time to keep her company—misplaced guilt far too stifling to forget, and an act of selfishness far too wicked to forgive—she searches for solace away from society's pitiful gaze. For a way to regain some semblance of self after being deprived of her womanhood.
And in this moment of weakness, desperate and defeated, whispers of vengeance caress her ear, the temptation of which becomes far too alluring to ignore. These sweet whispers are made by a demon, one conjured up by the smoldering embers of spite ignited in place of the self-pity that occupied her idle mind. A chance to strike back at the ones that robbed her is offered. A doleful plea made in the stillness of night, she succumbs to the opportunity, accepting the help of the phallic spirit that appears before her. A decision this trickster demon revels in, as he obtains another fresh prey to sink his fangs into. Her future regret providing a source of nourishment for his mischief, as the slow grooming process begins. A pact was now made with the Devil, signed with the ink of atrocities yet to come and regrets yet to manifest.
This is the world stage that Belladonna of Sadness creates, the means in which it's brought to life sharing equal importance. Watercolor brushstrokes wisp across the curvature of Jeanne's delicate frame, her fair skin left bare, absent of pigmentation. Color pencil outlines contort around landscapes, containing greenery, houses, citizens and wildlife alike; everything encased in its perimeters. Even abstract expressions aren't forgotten; moments of doubt, corruption, depravity, and envy illustrated by ink bleeding in all directions across the canvas. Brittle charcoal lines trailing right behind it to further emphasize the spread of these ideas and emotions.
Oil pastels, watercolor paint, charcoal, color pencils, graphite pencils, stencil outlines; all these utensils used for expression cascades towards a singular vision, harmoniously melding together to bring the story to life. Influenced by the art styles of Harry Clarke, Gustav Klimt, and many others, Belladonna is given a gothic-like expressionistic visual portrayal. Lengthy body postures with spindly limbs. Decorated clothing that hugs their bodies like a second skin. Every bit of it giving birth to a timeless look. Something like a rediscovered tapestry that was lost to the Dark Ages.
Even the namesake of Belladonna helps define the film. Belladonna, a toxic berry also referred to as deadly nightshade, or "bella donna" as derived from the Italian phrase meaning "beautiful woman"—essentially, a deadly beauty—was a plant used throughout history as either a cosmetic accessory or an instrument of death. The film doesn't shy away from this as well, as the Black Plague parallels are just as self-evident here as it is in films like 1957's The Seventh Seal. The biggest difference between the two being the person that serves as arbiter of judgment. Instead of Death himself casting a shadow on all those he encounters, the role is personally taken on by the Devil. He brandishes death in one hand while dangling false hope in the other. That false hope coming in the form of his future mistress-to-be, Jeanne; something we're made privy to as the story slowly unfolds. It's a fate unwillingly bestowed onto her but one she will come to embrace, for better or for worse. It's the birth of a deadly beauty, of belladonna itself.
Tasting the forbidden fruit, what started out as an earnest plea for help quickly spirals into madness, as the payment levied for her request is paid by body and soul. Jeanne gets her vengeance but at a cost that far exceeds what she had expected. Everything is brought to ruin. Her head rests in the crook of her arm, smeared tears coagulate, glistening off her cheek as she reminisces about a simpler time before her decision. But despite her best attempts to return to the beginning, her repentance falls on deaf ears. The outcome only worsens. And so she accepts her role.
We see the depravity of mankind depicted as social tact is abandoned. When people are stripped naked of society's robes and gives into their deepest, darkest desires. Jeanne becomes their catalyst to indulge. Her soul no longer in her possession. Her flesh, an instrument of pleasure. She loses all fabric of her being, and in the process, becomes a force much greater than herself. Like mother nature, she takes her seat among urban legend. A succubus. A pariah. An enchantress of the night. She is lust. A wielded weapon in Lucifer's arsenal.
She sought out revenge from those that used her only to gain the power to harm them through the act of being used. A cruel irony—God isn't the only one with a sense of humor.
It all culminates in the throws of a hedonistic free-for-all. Sex partners made of noblemen and street peasants alike. A ceaseless indulgence as bodies melts into each other, creating an ungodly form, no trace of decency surviving the transmutation. A distorted representation of sin incarnate. Sodom and Gomorrah birthed anew. The Devil's latest atrocity. He sits their satisfied, looking on at the banquet hall of the finest assortment of human perversion. And positioned squarely at the other end of the table sits his finest creation. A mother of scorn. Jeanne joins him hand-in-hand, unafraid of the consequences anymore. The road towards humanity has long been lost in the shadows as she steps closer to the realm of Gods and Demons. Female empowerment has never had a more terrifying representative. Her wrath is as unwavering as her seduction is lethal. And this is what we're left with.
There isn't a happy ending here. Just another chapter where mankind loses. Whether it serves as a sobering reminder of humanity's inevitable self-destruction or just a matter-of-fact depiction of death and sin with parallels of the Great Plague, it's up to you to take what you will from it. As for me, it's a fascinating film that I always find myself revisiting. Each recounter rekindling my love for it or gleaning something new to cherish. It may not have been a commercial success, but as an artistic statement, its efforts were admirable, sustaining a legacy for all those it has gone on to influence.