Joanna Review

Thirty minutes in, it's tough to know exactly what Joanna is about. Halfway through the 1968 film's 113 minutes, it's still difficult to figure out where things are heading. Even during the closing musical number and credits that follow, Michael Sarne's studio-financed oddity barely reveals much about itself. It's clearly in love with bright, vibrantly colored clothing, likely owing to Sarne's background as a fashion photographer. The film also has absolutely zero concern for narrative coherence. It likes to position its eponymous heroine (played by Genevieve Waite) as a bed-hopping free spirit new to London but Joanna does this mostly through implication. Her sleeping around is more told to the viewer than witnessed, even in preliminary stages. When she springs out of a lover's bed following the apparently unexpected appearance of the man's wife and children we finally get some idea of how serious Joanna's habit has become.

Fret not, however, as Sarne holds no intention of condemning his protagonist. Or shedding light on her thought processes, for that matter. Young and promiscuous is largely the extent of Joanna's character development. As played by Waite she's petite and bubbly with a cute but vacant personality. Joanna exerts herself so subtly as to perhaps simply flicker like a lightning bug from one interaction to the next. She's an art school student except she doesn't much go to class.

There are four other characters of interest who meander around the frame from time to time. One is Joanna's pal Beryl (Glenna Forster-Jones), first seen naked and covered in a sheet in the bed of Hendrik (Christian Doermer), and another is Beryl's brother Gordon (Calvin Lockhart), who dominates much of the final half hour of the movie. He begins a serious relationship with Joanna that is threatened by some underworld dealings involving the club he runs. Gordon is a real snappy dresser, a great-looking guy and a magnet for violence. A loony Donald Sutherland finishes up the foursome, playing a terminally ill lord.

What next? Indeed. This is one of the least focused, non-avant garde films from the sixties you're likely to come across, and the fact it was somehow financed by 20th Century Fox makes for a real headscratcher. Actually, it wasn't just financed by Fox but became a hit of sorts and led to Sarne being hired to direct the studio's adaptation of Myra Breckinridge, which makes even less sense than this film. If your question is why, the answer is twofold and involves In Like Flint and The Sound of Music. The former was a hit playing as the second part of a show also including Sarne's short film "Road to Saint Tropez" and the latter was such an enormous success as to allow for risks like the $1 million budget given to Joanna. Hooray for corporate sharing of the wealth.

To appreciate Joanna apparently involves less consideration to what occurs on screen than how it occurs. I'm skeptical, to be honest, as this seems to stray far from the more emphatic use of narrative and characterization that makes me love cinema. Different audiences enjoy different things but a film like Joanna strikes me more as one loved primarily not by viewers at all but instead by, if anyone, the filmmaker. This is slightly troubling for a number of reasons, none of which are allowed to be further explored in the typical parameters of a review such as this.

In contrast, feel free to consider the included booklet essay which begins by hailing Joanna as "[e]xhibiting the glamour of a Hollywood period piece, the grit of a British kitchen sink drama and the flash of the French nouvelle vauge." The piece further latches onto Sarne's intentions of making something in the vein of a Fellini picture. I don't see it and I struggle to consider Joanna as successfully bringing to mind any of these things. Its strengths, to me, are more dependent on the time capsule aspect. The film breaches the idea of having a female protagonist who unabashedly sleeps around, though there's little indication as to her reasoning or insight into whether she enjoys it (creating an impasse of sorts about whether it's empowering or just weak-willed). It's also, well, colorful to the eye and has songs, including a key one by Scott Walker. But trying to establish a comparison with Fellini seems rather insulting to the Italian. That's the kind of movie Joanna is - one where every piece of faint praise seems to potentially have a bigger gripe attached.

The Disc(s)

Licensed from Fox, the BFI's Dual Format release of Joanna is region-locked to the UK and, thus, Region B Blu-ray players. Both DVD and Blu-ray are dual-layered, with the former in the PAL format. The transparent case also includes a nifty booklet with a Roy Lichtenstein-designed cover that came from the film's original promotional materials. The release is spine number 016 in the BFI's Flipside strand.

The original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 has been respected for this transfer. A surprising amount of damage remains in the print here. The included booklet states that "[t]he film was scanned in 2K and graded in High Definition from the original 35mm interpositive at Fox Studios." I'm sure the BFI worked its magic as well as possible but that doesn't change the fact that scratches, dirt, debris and various marks are still visible during viewing. The scratches that run from top to bottom of the frame probably have the biggest impact and pop up on several occasions. That helpful section in the booklet concerning the transfer also admits that "some picture and audio issues remain" and further goes on that as a result of "the nature of the film's production, as well as the state of the original materials, Joanna occasionally suffers from density fluctuations and periodic reductions in sharpness due to the extensive use of opticals." On the (quite literally) bright side, colors look like candy and especially stand out while viewing.

Going back once again to the information included in the booklet, audio is stated to have been "transferred from the original magnetic tracks." The English mono (PCM on the BD and Dolby Digital for the DVD) generally presents no worry. There are frequent sounds integrated into the soundtrack on purpose, such as an instance of a "Sieg Heil!" and several cash register bells, that prove more distracting than witty but they nonetheless are easily audible in the mix. "The soundtrack exhibits occasional drifts in synch due to the fact that a large portion of the audio was recorded in post-production," the booklet explains. This is indeed noticeable at times but a minor inconvenience at worst. Dialogue registers as clear and the impression overall for the audio is a solid one. Optional subtitles are provided in English for the hearing impaired, and are white in color.

One last note on the technical background, courtesy again of the booklet, emphasizes that the "majority of the picture and audio issues are as per the original release" of the film.

Two short films are contained on both discs (in HD on the Blu-ray) while a July 2009 interview (14:47) with director Michael Sarne, conducted at BFI Southbank after a screening of the film, is contained only on the DVD. In it, Sarne remembers his fortuitous luck in being able to make Joanna, which he'd based on an actual person with whom he'd earlier crossed paths. More reminiscing follows, and Sarne talks freely and often.

Sarne's directing debut was a short called "Road to Saint Tropez" (30:34) that plays like a cracked travelogue, with narrator but also with a narrative of sorts playing out on the screen. It's from 1966 and stars the one and only Udo Kier, in his screen debut, alongside Melissa Stribling (wife of director Basil Dearden) and Gabriella Licudi. No dialogue of importance is heard from this trio but their actions are indirectly commented on by the narrator, Fenella Fielding. It tries terribly hard to be clever and intermittently succeeds, certainly looking nice in the process. The color film was shot in 2.35:1 in the south of France. It's not subtitled here and has quite a lot of scratches in the print, most strongly as the film begins and ends. Great to be able to see this on the disc, with the BFI mentioning that only two existing prints of the film are thought to exist.

The other short, "Death May Be Your Santa Claus" (37:23), is pretty out there, as is its title song by the band The Second Hand. One's probably about as easy to explain as the other. It was the only film by director Frankie Dymon Junior, who later appeared in Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, known also as One Plus One. A deeply shocking and violent scene in the 1968 short seems to come out of nowhere and is presumably the cause of this release's "18" certificate. It's also in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, without subtitles.

The cover of the beautifully designed 28-page booklet for Joanna is, as mentioned above, by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and hopefully it doesn't sound too insulting to assert that it's my favorite aspect of the entire release. Another image, this one in black and white, by Lichtenstein appears on the inside front cover. A defense/appreciation of the film by Chris Campion begins the written material and goes for five pages. It's followed by a short review for Joanna from January of 1969. A biography of director Michael Sarne runs three pages, with another three devoted to his short "Road to Saint Tropez." The piece on "Death May Be Your Santa Claus" spends a good portion of its four pages on director Frankie Dymon Junior and his political interests. That invaluable "About the transfer" section is joined by credits and stills in filling out the remainder of the booklet.

6 out of 10
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