It is a pleasure to watch Zalman King’s Delta of Venus (1995), time and again. It is not autobiographical, is seen by sex-positive feminists as a pioneering work, and is inspired by Anaïs Nin’s book of the same name – what more could a girl ask for?
A struggling North American writer (Elena) and a fellow expatriate (Lawrence – a successful writer) begin an intense, lust-filled, brief affair in the tumult of 1940’s Paris during the early part of World War II. The beginning of the movie can be pleasantly overwhelming. Intensely arousing in its language, the presentation of the simple, sexual, lusty, ‘dirty’ romance between two North Americans in a foreign land, as they are surrounded by creative and artistic friends, is breath-taking. As basic as the dialogues are, his emphasis on communication, hers on experience, his fear of falling in love with her, and their descriptions of what sexual fantasies might be going on in other people’s minds continue to be pertinent to most contemporary conversations many of us have even today.
As someone who explores sexual fantasies beyond the normative, missionary, heterosexual penetrative intercourse, it is exhilarating to see a shy woman (who has never let anyone see her body before this experience) tell her lover how she would like to be pleased while he orally stimulates her.
Set in the WWII era, there is an uncanny similarity between then and now. “Every party became a political rally, and every political rally a party”, as is said in the film. And, in the middle of the war, there are humans, looking for respite, pleasure, sexual expression, and freedom. Gay and lesbian people, crossdressers, trans people, polyamorous people, exhibitionists, nude models, painters, sculptors, writers, artists, soldiers old and young, sex workers, all alike – seem to be craving for the freedom to sexually express themselves and experience the pleasure that comes with being human.
Elena’s two hook-ups with Lawrence fuel her creativity again and she craves and wishes for Lawrence to not go on his world tour but knows that he will go. However, on the night before he leaves, she is shattered to discover Lawrence on the street, passionately having sex with a sex worker.
She is broken, hurt, and asks him, “Why her?”. Lawrence replies, “I have a passion for self-destruction”.
These two sentences!
On the one hand these two sentences feel like such a clichéd, problematic representation of an emotionally unavailable, insecure, scared man, and a conventional, monogamist woman who cannot differentiate between love and pleasure. On the other hand, it makes you feel lost, it makes you wonder. It makes you question. Why is hedonism still unacceptable? Why is it difficult to break one’s conditioning and experience pleasure for all that it is, just pure simple pleasure? Why is it difficult to understand, and even appreciate sex work, nude modelling and statements like ‘A body is a body is a body’?
Lawrence tries to apologise to Elena, but she refuses to budge, and he leaves the next morning, angry at himself, apologetic to her. As Fascism seems to gain power, war is at the doorstep of France, Elena is broke, desperate for money and starts nude modelling for a friend. In the meanwhile, her literary agent gives her a project to write erotica for a collector who will pay her a fortune and she agrees.
Her first story is almost a reproduction of a story Lawrence had told her the first time they met. Unknown to her, Lawrence is the anonymous ‘collector’, and he rejects the work. Immensely self-respecting and wanting to justify the money she took, she starts on a quest for real stories and gets in touch with the sex worker that she had seen Lawrence with. Her journey to the deepest corners of a woman’s mind, where fantasies are born, begins. In her quest for stories, she witnesses how different people take pleasure in inter-racial hypnotic sex, hotwifing (a more nuanced form of cuckoldry), cuckoldry, exhibitionism, orgies, etc. She gets raped by a stalker who is a policeman, and the viewer is left confused as to whether she is enjoying the assault, or detesting it, or both. This is clarified only towards the end of the film. She also participates in a lesbian threesome with a friend and their partner, in an opium den.
Each of these stories progressively shows how she develops a language for sex and sensual desires, as requested by the ‘collector’. Her initial poetic expression is gradually minimised (at the behest of the ‘collector’ who encourages her to develop her own writing style) and there is a soft, supple, non-vulgar, almost serene tranquillity to the erotic language that she uses to describe people’s pleasures, their emotions after sex, their fantasies, and their sexuality.
While there are still some parts left in the movie, where her showdown and angry sex and reconciliation with Lawrence are shown, in all honesty, for me, the movie ended when I heard, “Locked inside all women is the same secret place where fantasies are born”.
Elena finally understands that her quest to find her own secret place, her Delta of Venus, was the quest for permanence, the desire to be forever linked to that hidden part of herself.
Lawrence may have given Elena a world and a voice. But it was she who chose to delve into the unknown world of sexuality. It was she who chose to see the beauty and the richness of pleasure within communities of sex workers, soldiers, the elite, all alike. She alone chose to discern as well as reconcile love, as we commonly seem to know it, with a life in which she is capable of many loves.
The movie is far from perfect, because there are problematic representations of sex work, of masculinity, of glamourised and eroticised non-consent. However, the movie is also perfect because at some level, it presents to you, the viewer, that locked place inside a woman. It binds you; it connects you; it makes you relate to all that there is, beyond countries, professions, genders, even human bodies. It binds you in the discovery of pleasure and sexuality through another’s frame.
Cover Image: IMDB