Joanna (1968) **

Mike Sarne (Myra Breckenridge, 1970) was one of those talents who ran away with himself, artistic notions indulged by the industry, until he was exposed as having little to say. Joanna is pretty empty of everything except style. And that wouldn’t be so bad if it was consistently stylish or showed a genuine flair for the visual image beyond a woman bathing in a lily pond or chasing an ambulance through a park.

And, of course, it’s never a good idea to park your inexperienced girlfriend upfront and center of your debut feature. Genevieve Waite, a model in the Twiggy fashion, had a thin, whiny baby voice, and lacked the skill to suggest any depth to the titular heroine.

The film stands up today as a shrine to misogyny, for the way in which, in the name of emancipation, women were exploited by men. Sexual freedom, bouncing along from one man to another, is the theme. “All women gained from emancipation is the privilege of being laid,” points out one (male) character. Freedom is expressed as lack of commitment. It’s kind of odd to hear young trendy men going on about commitment and expressing reservations about a flighty lifestyle, but it’s just as if the male authority figure had simply skipped a generation and was determined to keep women in their place.

Joanna, arriving from the countryside laden down with pots of home-made jam, flits through the Swinging London scene, exploring her artistic side through attending an art studio, occasionally working as a model, but more likely living off men, who are as likely to be married, and even then with another woman on the side.

She flits between artist Hendrik (Christian Dormer), nightclub owner Gordon (Calvin Lockhart) and wealthy dying toff Lord Peter Sanderson (Donald Sutherland) with a yacht in Morocco who surrounds himself with talented people because he lacks any talent himself. We don’t learn much about Joanna except her father, whom she fantasizes about cutting his throat, is a powerful enough magistrate that he can intervene when coppers are causing her boyfriend grief.

The other theme explored is racism. Gordon, a Sierra Leone native but a tax-paying British resident for eight years, is subjected to some racial abuse and later given a beating. That’s given more prominence than the miscegenation that would the following year (in 100 Rifles) attract so much controversy.

Lacking a strong narrative – mostly it’s people sitting around talking or getting into bed with each other – the film mostly hangs on a series of fantasies. Any time a new character appears, Joanna has the habit of spiriting them into a fantasy. Gordon’s sister is transformed into a maid in an English country house, Gordon becomes a Regency hero, the minute someone says sex can get you anything you desired even an elephant, lo and behold there’s Joanna sitting atop an elephant.

There’s a self-consciousness that this film can’t quite shake, the idea that somehow Sarne is holding a pillar up to society when in reality it is more a reflection of his own fantasies. The best scene comes at the end when the entire cast sings the theme song along a railway platform. The song, with no sense of irony, rhymes “top banana” with “Joanna.” And, of course, would you believe, this was all a film, director and cameras appearing at the end.

Whimsy is piled upon whimsy and that’s not enough to sustain the film. Waite offers very little except bounce, Donald Sutherland (The Split, 1968) – now coming up on 200 screen and television roles – is sorely miscast. Calvin Lockhart (The High Commissioner, 1968) brings more to the table, a polished performance that avoids the temptation to go too American. Sarne wrote the screenplay.

It’s not as bad as most films that get two stars from me but for the life of me I can’t see how it honestly earns three stars. You can sample it for free – or watch it all the way through – on Youtube.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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