Viva (2007)

Will screen on August 27th at the Los Feliz 3 theater in Los Angeles, California as part of the American Cinematheque’s new ETHERIA screening series. More information about the screening can be found on the American Cinematheque’s official website.

Your mileage with “Viva” may vary depending on how much you’re willing to play along with the film’s very subtle satire. About twenty minutes in to the movie is when I finally caught on to the gag, as “Viva” is as much a satire of sixties sexual dynamics as it is a tribute to the aesthetic of the sixties and seventies. “Viva” is a film in the tradition of Andy Warhol, and Russ Meyer, and exploitation gems like “Maid in Sweden” and “Score” where people open up (literally and figuratively) to sex and sexual exploration.

Barbi is a beautiful but blasé suburban housewife whose handsome mate, Rick, is more interested in his career than in quenching his wife’s sensual thirsts. When up-and-coming actor Mark and his open-minded wife, Sheila, move in next door, Barbi discovers they’re more than willing to help her find the thrills she’s been missing. After being abandoned by Rick, Barbi changes her name to Viva and teams up with Sheila to join the front lines of the sexual revolution, enjoying the wild ’70s, including nudist camps, the hippie scene, orgies, bisexuality, threesomes, sadism, drugs, bohemia, and a lot of lavish musical numbers.

Anna Biller is one of the best directors working today. She’s a clear cut visualist who manages to invoke a tapestry of bold colors with every single frame of her film. She was well celebrated with “The Love Witch” but predates it with “Viva.” Her film is an unabashed celebration of the era that dabbles in every kind of tawdry sexual situation and kink, and knows how to measure itself well. Biller is very good about not turning his film in to hardcore pornography, allowing herself to convey oodles of sexuality and skin shots, while not devolving in to drawn out scenes of hardcore sex. Biller is clearly a fan of the erotic films where sex is mostly hinted, as she teases at the audience, but never meanders from the narrative once.

Biller is incredibly beautiful and spends a good amount of screen time showing off her body and inherent draw, while also using her body as a mere access point to her excellent staging. Biller almost never misses a beat, painting every single scene in psychedelic patterns, raucous synthesizer music, and so much more. It’s really hard to pick a particular scene that stands out, but even in the more subtle, low-key moments, Biller puts her camera skills on complete display. “Viva” is a movie that has to be absorbed as much as it is experienced. Along with Biller’s direction, C. Thomas Lewis’ cinematography is vibrant.

Even if you’re not completely keen on the exploitation sub-genre (that almost always featured a bored gorgeous woman going on a sexual adventure), “Viva” still works with its tongue in cheek high camp, intentionally wooden performances, and its bare bones plot that merely follows Barbie and Sheila from one sexual exploit to the other. The cast commit well to their respective roles, including Bridget Brno as Sheila, and Jared Sanford. The caveat of “Viva” is that it could have trimmed twenty minutes from its run time as the climax tends to drone on a bit. Biller overstays her welcome by the ninety minute mark, sadly. In either case, “Viva” is a fun, goofy, and erotic cult gem; it’s one that conveys the visual brilliance of Anna Biller. I can’t wait until she returns behind the camera.