Friday, July 24, 2015

What the Swedish Butler Saw (1975)

The year 1975 saw the release of two movies based upon the anonymously authored Edwardian erotic novel The Way of a Man with a Maid.  One - The Naughty Victorians - was a relatively faithful, hardcore pornographic version of the novel.  By contrast, What the Swedish Butler Saw is a farcical sex comedy which, despite being filmed in Sweden and Denmark, is in much the same mould as contemporaneous British pictures of the same genre, such as the Confessions and Adventures series.  Indeed, it even features Diana Dors and the lovely Sue Longhurst, stalwarts of British sex movies in the seventies, in the cast.  However, instead of Robin Askwith or Barry Evans, we have Danish erotic comedy superstar Ole Soltoft as Jack, although the performance and characterisation is much the same. 

On the face of it, The Way of a Man With a Maid wouldn't seem to be an obvious candidate for adaptation into a softcore sex romp.   The 1908 novel is a first person account (by a narrator named 'Jack') of one man's systematic subjugation, humiliation and rape of several women.  Over several episodes, Jack lures a series of women into his home made S&M dungeon, where he ties them up an subjects them to various types of bondage, before raping them.  Of course, not only does the act of rape awaken their repressed sexuality, it leaves them entirely subservient to Jack and willing participants in his subsequent, carefully planned and highly elaborate abductions and rapes.  His first victim is a young woman named Alice, who once jilted his attentions.  She then lures her maid Fanny into the dungeon (which Jack refers to as 'The Snuggery') for the same treatment.  The two women then help Jack subjugate Alice's friend Connie.  Finally, Lady Betty and her daughter Molly are lured to the dungeon where they are subjected to all manner of sexual humiliation and degradation and forced to perform various incestuous acts.  By this time, Jack has to do very little, other than watch the spectacle as his earlier victims - now his willing accomplices - do all the work.

In order to turn this into a comedy suitable for seventies audiences, What the Swedish Butler Saw turns Jack from the confident sexual predator of the book into a nervous, semi-incompetent, comedy character.  Furthermore, it focuses entirely upon the novel's first episode, prefacing it with a brief account of Jack's childhood of sexual repression at the hands of his parents.  Following their deaths, he stumbles across his father's hypocrisy, discovering that he had been a regular at Diana Dors' high class brothel, at which establishment Jack then receives his sexual education.  Jilted by Sue Longhurst's primly virginal Alice, Dors advises him that he needs to awaken her sexuality, by force if necessary.  Eventually luring her into his 'rape room' - which he has constructed with the aid of his deaf comical butler - he subjects her to some fairly tame bondage shenanigans, all played for laughs and involving some bizarre home made sex machines, which wouldn't have looked out of place in a slightly saucier Carry On film.  In a major departure from the source material, Alice eventually takes the initiative, turning the tables on Jack and consenting to have sex with him as his attentions have, indeed, awakened her repressed sexuality.  (Interestingly, the other adaptation of the novel -The Naughty Victorians - also felt it necessary to alter the ending, to show Jack's victims turning the tables on him at the film's climax).  The final scenes see Jack effectively trapped into marriage with Alice, before the film ends with Jack and Alice sharing their marital bed with his butler and Alice's maid (who have also engaged in a series of 'comic' escapades throughout the film).

In order to pad all of this out to feature length, various 'comic' sub-plots are added to the narrative, such as all the business with the butler's deafness and Jack's erotic photography business.  Most bizarre of these sub-plots involves Jack the Ripper, who is secretly living in Jack's house and emerges periodically from hidden doors, or observes the bondage action via a pair of eye-holes cut in a painting.  Despite his occasional appearances, nobody other than the audience ever see him - not even the policemen who, acting on a tip off, arrive to search the house, interrupting Jack's bondage session with Alice.  This provides another bit of farce with the now naked and still restrained Alice opts to pretend to be a statue rather than endure embarrassment of the policemen realising that she is a real naked woman.  The Ripper is last seen fleeing the house at the film's climax, unable to put up with that four in a bed romp.  The Ripper scenes are utterly mystifying - quite irrelevant to the plot and not at all amusing.  It's fascinating that film makers who felt it necessary to dilute a tale of erotic sadomasochism by cutting out the subjugation, degradation and rape of the heroine, presumably because they felt that the enlightened audiences of the seventies wouldn't be receptive to scenes of sexual brutality against women should think that a notorious serial killer of women was a suitable subject for comedy.

The film's attempt to turn a paean to the joys of the subjugation women into a sex comedy celebrating the power of bondage to liberate women's sexuality, enabling them to become, not sex slaves, but instead sexually confident dominant partners in a relationship, doesn't really work.  Despite her ultimate emergence as some kind of sexual predator herself, it is clear that the lengthy sequence in which Alice is naked and restrained, subjected to various forms of mechanical stimulation, are presented entirely for the titillation of male audiences.  Her 'liberation' makes her no less of a sex object than the character's literary equivalent.  Moreover, the attempts to present Jack as some kind of Robin Askwith-style ingĂ©nue sits uneasily with his bondage obsession and determination to subjugate women.  The fact is that in none of the Confessions films does Timmy Lea find it necessary to tie up a woman in order to get her to have sex with him.  Indeed, whilst the Timmy Lea character often seems intimidated by women, it is clear that he does actually like them and recognises them as human beings - I was never entirely convinced that Jack did really like women, instead seeing them purely as sex objects. 

Originally shot in 3-D and released under a plethora of English-language titles (the version I saw had a title card reading My Favourite Butler), the film remains a curiosity: an attempt to transform a piece of 'classic' misogyny into a softcore sex farce, it really doesn't work well on either the sex or farce fronts.  Nevertheless, it provides a mildly entertaining diversion, with Diana Dors and Sue Longhurst delivering decent performances in spite of the weak material.



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