First, there can be no denying the huge difficulties with this film in an early 21st century context. Joanna contains scenes of casual violence against women, as well as ingrained racism; it has vastly hypocritical double standards on show and women are generally portrayed as infantilised sex objects. How to find some redeeming features then? What it does possess is an important, riveting (in a deliberately kooky and surreal fashion) very dated and kitsch experimentalism.
In the generous extras on this BFI release that demonstrate his very mixed career, director Michael Sarne describes the original pitch as offering ‘the female Alfie’. We are very definitely in the territory of film inspired by work such as Alfie and Georgie Girl. Joanna defines itself early on with the transition from black and white to colour (think Wizard of Oz) to represent the shock of the new contrasting with the drab, provincial world she abandons for Swinging London in the late ‘60s.
Genevieve Waite’s performance as the central figure is both tiresome and mesmerising. She adopts a monotonous, lisping little girl lost voice and attitude that she sustains throughout. It does communicate in an odd sort of way. The surrealist elements (her dream sequences interspersing aspects of domestic violence, father/daughter tensions, and sexual encounters) make her more of a fantasy character.
There lies the significance and the way in which the piece works. It’s pure ‘art’ film of the satirical and inventive unconventionality of the late ‘60s. Sarne’s comments in the on-stage interview at the BFI are an essential accompaniment for contextualising the work. He describes the ‘sarcasm’ of his outlook and the basis in reality for the narrative: his ‘Joanne’ was a real young woman who ‘hoisted’ goods from shops, including designer dresses, but lived on the margins and experienced a deeply troubled and promiscuous lifestyle. In the film he stylises her and creates the doll-like figure using Waite’s natural physical qualities. Waite, an actress/model who was later part of Warhol’s scene, went on to marry John Phillips and is mother to Tam and Bijou Phillips.
Donald Sutherland’s performance as Lord Peter Sanderson is an oddity. He is louche and tragic and occupies the role of prophetic soul who instructs Joanna, from his deathbed, on the importance of extracting as much out of each day as possible. Things are symbolically driven here, with cultural icons (Brando, Monroe, Dean) punctuating her experiences with friends and lovers, as huge prints emblazoned on walls of studios and bedrooms gazing down on her. And Monroe is the type upon which she is styled, yet with a more exaggerated childlike substance and less comedic charm.
Despite the enveloping of permissiveness, liberation, pro-choice and independence that surround Joanna and her set, a woman’s place is still very much the kitchen or the bedroom. It’s with this kind of visual aside that Sarne’s sarcasm works best. Along with petty crime and casual love affairs, Joanna is also depicted as the little housewife; with typically feminine clothing and carrying a tea tray at times. She waits upon and services her various boyfriends, and yet maintains an aloofness from it all and a yearning for, it turns out, the man of her dreams who will treat her right.
This film works out to be an idealistic romance; more along the lines of The Wizard of Oz with its coming of age and journey of self-discovery than Alfie. By contrast, there is a new hope at the end of Joanna with her expecting the birth of her child, who will be mixed race. She finds brief happiness in the person of Gordon (the beautiful Calvin Lockhart), a black nightclub owner, and her spirit of rebellion works to defy convention and find a real connection with him. His sister Beryl (Glenna Forster-Jones) has been Joanna’s best friend and her mentor throughout her initiation in to the swinging lifestyle.
But Joanna takes things a stage further and breaks more than just social boundaries with her relationship with Gordon. Sarne enjoys this activity so much that he continues the motif through to the end with, as he calls it, a ‘Brechtian’ fragmentation of the film-making act itself. Waite is seen interacting with the crew as she departs London for her return to provincial security and single parenthood.
This is a film that constantly wants to break out of its shell and shatter conventions. It is sometimes a thriller, sometimes a romance, sometimes a surrealist sex-romp. During Joanna’s studious phase, as an art student – at which she shows real promise, she gossips through a lecture delivered by a be-spectacled female professor. She would do well to have listened to it, Sarne is suggesting, because it is on the baroque. The professor describes the locked-in forms that adhere to convention in the baroque, but with a constant ongoing battle with ornamentation and demoncratisation of the fashion threatening to break boundaries. Seemingly docile, and yet always yearning to be liberated, she suggests that the baroque is about one word, which she writes on the blackboard: ‘Rebellion’.
Joanna suggests a faltering evolution in society and cinema, but an evolution nonetheless. Its qualities are contradictory and patchy – genuine outbursts of brilliance and clunky stereotyping coexist - but it represents transition and development. Silliness and surrealism are contrasted with the notes of seriousness. The prominent roles given to Lockhart and Forster-Jones were still unusual for British cinema at the time. It contributed to the normalising of interracial and intercultural relationships. If the sarcasm that Sarne insists is there in Joanna is lost on you then the other features on the disc might help to clarify it.
With the BFI interview comes the short films Road to Saint Tropez (Michael Sarne, 1966) and Frankie Dymon Jnr.’s Death May Be Your Santa Claus (1968); a generous package of late ‘60s rarities. There are also critical essays included in the accompanying booklet by Chris Campion and others. Altogether ‘a must’, as they say, for film students and enthusiasts.