I think it was Lacan who asked the question: if we’re always thinking about sex when we’re doing other things – eating bananas, driving fast cars, learning French – what are we thinking about when we’re actually having sex? When Sylvia Kristel’s streetwalker Diana has sex in Walerian Borowczyk’s 1976 film The Streetwalker (La marge), it’s so obvious as to almost be ludicrous. She stares at the money that she has clutched in her hand with such intensity as to leave no doubt, even as her John, Sigimond (the iconic Joe Dallesandro) thrusts intently away. Sex is a transaction, a way of earning money. Sigimond is a rich vineyard owner with a young family visiting Paris for business. He is a romantic. He is not lonely and Borowczyk shows his home life to be sexually satisfying, idyllic even. He’s prone to mutter mid-coital silliness such as ‘You are the gift and the giver’. And so his dalliance and experimentation while away on his ‘business trip’ has nothing to do with filling a vacuum. He just wants to have some sex. When he is having sex – to answer Lacan’s question and in opposition to Diana – he is thinking about the sex he is having. The film will trace his increasing distraction and the tragic price to be paid for such guileless romance, even as Diana becomes more aware of sex as something other than a way of earning money, which in itself proves a painful reawakening.
Released two years after Kristel achieved notoriety and worldwide fame as Emmanuelle, the film stands as a testament to her genuine ability as an actress, and it is cited by the actress as her favourite role. Her fragility – the gnawing anxiety that she is already being superseded by younger models of her former self – and her growing yearning for something other than monetary gain is played out in a brilliant and nuanced performance. With the shifting of porn into the mainstream via the internet and the proliferation of sexposition in TV drama, the film doesn’t even seem particularly pornographic today, but on release it was received as another attempt to gain art-house respectability for sex films. Kristel’s fame possibly damaged the film as it was remarketed in some regions as Emmanuelle ’77. However, despite the movie star beauty of the prostitutes, Borowczyk never celebrates sex unambiguously, juxtaposing it with the banal. A beautifully shot strip show takes place as a crate of booze is delivered to the bar by a working stiff – sign here, keep a copy – and Diana will retire to the same backroom for a quick delivery of her own. The prostitutes are bitchy and Diana herself is dishonest and angry. Her pimp is a lazy dressing-gown-clad psychopath who does target practice with his pistol in his hotel room. But it is not just the sex that has to contend with the banal, but tragedy too when Sigimond reads a terrible letter from home while gazing over the most unromantic Parisian view of a huge building site.
With a score from some giants of 1970s music, a stunning extended use of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ and some fantastic cinematography by long-time collaborator Bernard Daillencourt, the film is a beautiful melancholic meditation on sex in a dirty, dirty world.
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