VIVA (Anna Biller, 2007)
I went into the Fantasia screening of VIVA expecting a faithful recreation of/homage to early-seventies exploitation movies, along the lines of such recent indies as PERVERT! and SLAUGHTERHOUSE OF THE RISING SUN. VIVA is that exploitation tribute, for sure, but it’s a lot more: a musical, a campy, surreal comedy, and a cutting satire on sexual politics in general and the sexual revolution specifically. Sometimes it’s all of these things at the same time, leaving the viewer as bewildered as its protagonist, suburban housewife/call girl Barbi, played by writer/producer/director/star Anna Biller. But it’s all part of the plan, making VIVA one of the most original indies in a long time.
The film is set in suburbia, 1972, a world that is obsessively realized in the movie’s costumes and production design (also handled by Biller): it’s as authentic a recreation of that era’s movies as anyone will ever make. Barbi Smith is a devoted young housewife who always makes sure dinner is on the table for her businessman husband Rick (Chad England) and is always ready with his slippers when he comes home from work. She loves Rick, but she’s also bored, and has been reading issues of Viva and Playboy while she takes her many bathes. There’s a sexual revolution going on and Barbi wants in! Her sexy neighbor Sheila (Bridget Brno) feels the same way. When both of their husbands leave them, it’s time to break out the see-through blouses and have an adventure. They soon sign up to work at an escort service (“I've always wanted to be a prostitute. It sounds so romantic!” says Sheila), and assume new identities, with Sheila becoming Candi and Barbi taking the name Viva. Sheila soon hooks an elderly rich guy who gives her everything she wants, including a white horse. Barbi has a tougher time, having bummer encounters with one loser after another, getting more and more abuse heaped onto her as she runs a gauntlet of nudists, swingers, would-be “artists” and assorted weirdos.
Everything is played with an exaggerated, stylized tone, which adds to the campy humor. But as it goes on, Barbi’s trials become more painful to watch, as she (and the audience) begins to realize that despite the “free love” hype during the sexual revolution, things didn't suddenly become as equal for women as they were made out to be. Without realizing it, you actually start to care about Barbi, and even her asshole husband Rick; they go from being comic caricatures to real characters, without the movie ever dropping its hilariously deadpan, campy sensibilities. After all the laughs, musical numbers, and outrageous performances (Barry Morse as Sherman is at least tied with Skip E. Lowe’s Artie from BLACK SHAMPOO as the screen’s ultimate gay hairdresser), I walked out of VIVA thinking mostly about just how much heart it has. It’s a great feature debut from Biller, and I can’t wait for the “circus sex witch” follow-up she described in her Fantasia Q&A. – Rich Osmond