There are, I think, at least two ways of reading Blue Belle / La Fine dell'innocenza.
The first, suggested by the Oriental setting and Annie Belle's appearances in Forever Emanuelle and Black Emanuelle, White Emanuelle - the later opposite Laura Gemser - is as Em(m)anuelle junior.
The second, suggested by Harry Alan Tower's involvement in the production, along with the presence of his wife/partner Maria Rohm in the cast, is as a more Sadean exercise along the lines of Jess Franco's Eugenie and Justine, being about the initiation of a naïve young woman into the workings of the real world.
La bellissima Belle
Whatever the case, director Massimo Dallamano was a good choice to help a stranger to such material, with his Sacher-Masoch adaptation Venus in Furs and schoolgirls in peril gialli What Have You Done to Solange? and What Have You Done to Your Daughters?, demonstrating a facility for taking what could have merely been sleaze seriously.
A messy close up of someone eating, recalling Dallamano's background as spaghetti western cinematographer
The story, significantly co-authored by Belle, begins with her guardian Michael arriving at the convent school to take her character, confusingly also called Annie Belle in apparent reference to Emmanuelle Arsan's eponymous, semi-autobiographical heroine, away with him.
He gives her a new outfit, which she changes into in the back of the Rolls Royce as a passing cyclist keeps pace with the car and, presumably much like the implied male spectator, enjoys the show.
Already, however, there is also a split evident: if the cyclist knows nothing of the couple and their relationship and plays no further part in the proceedings, we are likely to already more than a little disconcerted by the film-makers' declining to spell out the exact details of Michael and Belle's relationship with one another nor offer the expected explicit condemnation of his borderline incestuous cum Humbert Humbert tendencies.
Nor do things become much clearer after the action shifts to Hong Kong. Michael introduces Belle to his idle rich expatriate associates, before then being arrested on - admittedly well-founded - suspicion of currency smuggling. Left on her own, Laure is forced to make her own way in this demi-monde.
Intertextuality, 70s style
What follows is very much the usual stuff: copious nudity; some intentional humour, much of it revolving Al Cliver's collection of erotic curious and the reactions of more respectable old-timers to them (Cliver's presence feels very much of the cast-one, get-one-free variety, as also seen with the Gemser-Gabriele Tinti pairing in the Black Emanuelle films) ; extensive travelogue and quasi-documentary shooting, including sequences at a Buddhist temple where nun Ines Pellegrini delivers some pat Eastern wisdoms; various softcore lesbian and heterosexual numbers and, most problematic of all, a no-becomes-yes rape scene in which Belle loses her hitherto surprisingly retained virginity at the hands of her new mentor and confidant Linda's lover, Angelo. (Angelo's identity is revealed by the giallo-esque image of his distinctive ring, which Belle recognises in the resulting flashback.) In the end, however, Belle emerges triumphant, a new woman ready to face the world and whatever it can throw at her.
The female gaze, objectifying the male body?
Dallamano's backround as a cinematographer is in evidence in the way he directs, with a particular emphasis on shots that position us distanced from the action through some sort of barrier - a window frame, a piece of ironwork, a fence etc. - or with one character looking in on another.
The importance of voyeurism is further confirmed by several observational moments within the film, with telescopes, binoculars or through a keyhole. While for the most part these present men observing women, they are not exclusively about the "male gaze," with the keyhole scene in fact showing two women objectifying a man. In addition, another scene presents one character listening in, via a discreetly off the hook telephone, to two others making love, indicating a different, aural rather than visual regime and dynamic at work.
Given the film's exotic and Orientalist themes, it is perhaps also worth mentioning that the dominance of the visual over the other senses is arguably less a universal than a product of western culture at a particular point in its development and that, as such, psychoanalytic notions that tend to be derived from the experience of these selfsame cultures may also be less generalisable than their proponents have often recognised. Though there is nothing new in this, with it quickly being recognised that Laura Mulvey's ideas here, for instance, very much assumed a white, middle class, heterosexual position, it is I think also worth reiterating.
Another interrelated issue here is that of consciousness and false consciousness: What do we say and do when the female spectator identifies with the 'wrong' subject position, as defined by the theorist and their theory? How does the theorist square a concern for women's own, supposedly authentic voice and experience, when it does not echo her own? What does the theoriest say when someone who is 'objectively' oppressed by patriarchy, capitalism and/or colonialism subjectively refuses to acknowledge this oppression?
Though such issues may seem navel gazing, the point is that they cut to the heart of exploitation cinema itself. Indeed, Blue Belle brings them closer to the fore than most exploitation films because of the multiple roles played by Belle. While it is difficult to say how far the film reflects her own thoughts on gender relations and coming of age, especially given that the actual writing of the screenplay also included contributions from Dallamano and Towers, the confused messages that emerge are nothing if not challenging.
Who was behind the oh so 1970s "porno rape" scene? Who detailed the reactions of Belle and those around her to her violation? Were these understood as representations of fantasy or of reality? If rape is undoubtedly abhorrent, does this mean that rape fantasies are necessarily bad, as per the old 'pornography is theory, rape is practice' line? Unsurprisingly I don't pretend to have any answers here - indeed, I think such questions are basically unanswerable. But again it is the fact that a basically unpretentious exploitation film that is provoking me to think about them and, hopefully, you to respond.
Like its models and the mondo, with its equivalent scenes of the exotic, unusual and perverse, the film's narrative approach is decidedly episodic, with individual scenes and sequences that often exist in and for themselves as much as a part of the larger whole: After the opening sequence has introduced Belle with medium-length brown hair the next scene, set in the Alps, sees her with her more familiar bleach-blonde pixie crop.
Another, decidedly what-the-hell moment, sees Belle being attacked by a group of robbers and rescued by the timely interventions of a martial artist as if in a Bruce Lee film. This is, however, then retrospectively revealed as being a scene from the making of a film within a film. If the inclusion of such material is incongruous, it also serves to further highlight the interconnections between world popular cinemas - think also here of the Ford / Kurosawa / Leone triangle, of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars - and their willingness to borrow from one another's traditions in search of new attractions to present to their sensation-hungry audiences.
A similar hybridity is evident in Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera's scoring in which the acoustic guitar and female vocal led ballad predominant in the early European sequences, is contrasted with sitar - admittedly not the most obvious Chinese instrument - in some of the Hong Kong sequences before these two themes are eventually reconciled and combined in the penultimate scene.