She is Very Bossy
Editor’s note: Presented by Cinema Tropical, this special Tribute to Eva Norvind includes screenings of Didn’t Do It for Love at Deutsches Haus at New York University (NYU) on Tuesday, 12 June and Born Without/Nacido sin at Scandinavia House on 13 June.
“I sometimes wonder if I am in this film,” narrates Eva Norvind, also known as Ava Taurel. “I mean, if I am really in this film or what of me is in this film, if I who I consider to be me is going to be present in this film. I don’t know. I don’t really know.” As she speaks, you see her riding a bicycle, moving in and out of frame, the camera alternately too close and not quite keeping up. The image, at the start of Monika Treut’s documentary, Didn’t Do It For Love , sets up what’s coming, namely, a portrait of a performer who remains elusive.
Probably best known as “sexual pioneer,” Norvind here looks back on her career and also the personal relationships that might have shaped it. Born in Norway to Russian prince Paul Chegodayef Sakonsky (who renamed himself Paul Vernand, part of an effort to reject his family’s royalty) and Finnish sculptress Johanna Kajuanus, she doesn’t spend much time thinking about her childhood, though her brother Georg Kajanus, now a singer/songwriter, suggests that she was a handful even then. “She was very much always in charge of things,” he says, “Very bossy. She was very active with her friends, always pushing her relationships to the full.” Here the film cuts to home movie footage of little Ava pushing a wheelbarrow bearing another child, literally running across the frame, interrupting as well as illustrating.
You might pause here, to wonder what the kids were up to, or perhaps, how this image fits into a broader context then or now. It’s an abrupt, funny, and inexact version of Georg’s memory and as such, introduces the film’s challenges to standard documentary format: the past informs the present, but it provides fewer answers than questions.
The child was early on interested in sex, apparently. “She was always obsessed and interested in people,” Georg remembers, “She was very verbal about her sexuality, even in Norway and much to everyone’s dismay at times.” (His own performance for the film is striking: impeccably dressed, cigarette in hand and designer sunglasses on the table, he’s posed on a porch that overlooks a stunning lake.) Norvind’s mother offers another angle: Johanna recalls that her daughter was both adorable and had “a temper,” so “She gave herself two names.” Whether or not she could have understood the artistic, political, and philosophical dimensions of performance.
She turned as a teenager to beauty contests and then acting, immediately conscious of what was at stake. “All this fame went to my head,” she says, “My fame was built on image, on charisma, on whatever mainstream audience wanted.” In a word, sex. And a series of publicity photos shows that she rather oozed it, her blond hair tousled and her breasts prominent. She moved to Mexico to work where she considered singing (this point accompanied by footage of mariachi singers on the street, performers she admired but could never hope to emulate.
As her career takes off, theater director Juan-Jose Gurrola recalls in 1997, she seems a “cascade of blond hair and big tits that overwhelmed Mexico in a way.” Here she also began selling her favors to prominent men, politicians in particular. “My first having sex with a man for money was a very pleasurable experience,” Norvind says. Here the film provides another sort of illustration, a scene from a film featuring bosomy showgirls in gigantic headdresses, prancing around a banquet table and a single lucky-looking man in an expensive suit.
Such comedic editing choices make Treut’s film more complicated than many portrait documentaries, as it explores the fantasies that Norvind embodied and practiced. As she moves to New York and tilts more clearly into sex as art and business, establishing a bondage parlor, the film includes TV spots that show her in “full dominatrix regalia”, reporting on (and also advertising) the business. When a reporter asks about her clientele (“Who seeks such services?” and, “Isn’t this totally perverted?”), Norvind runs down the categories: “Number one are lawyers,” she notes coolly, perhaps because they need to be dominated. And oh yes, she charged them $400 an hour.
As Norvind tells her story, the film turns occasionally to her mother and father, not so much for confirmation of Norvind’s past or even their own memories per se, but as incarnations of her efforts to sort out her many contradictions. Norvind assesses that her devotion to Vernstad (an “aristocratic refugee,” she calls him) in relation to ongoing tensions with her mother. Brief bits of interviews with her mother emphasize the fragmentation Norvind describes. Pale and swathed in a striking white outfit, her mother notes that Vernstad was “not always faithful.” The point seems less to draw a cause and effect than to observe the daily performance of women in conventional lives. “I loved you,” her mother tells Norvind, “But I have never trusted you.” It’s a weird, perfect sort of moment, maybe confession, maybe more performance. And it distills their relationship even as it insists on what’s left unspoken.