Anna Biller’s Viva tests patience on a pass / fail paradigm. You’ll either connect with its hardcore 1970s sexploitation aesthetic or quit within a few minutes. I came close to the latter multiple times throughout and, in all honesty, might have called it a night if I weren’t responsible for reviewing it. Still, as the next morning drags on, I’ve found myself ruminating on its twist on classic exploitation and the impressive focus of Biller’s singular vision. Biller wrote, directed, designed and stars in Viva, and the result is a strangely chaste film ripped straight from vintage fashion magazines and soft-core smut.
Barbie (Biller) is a bored suburban housewife during the ’70s whose idleness and absent husband, Rick (Chad England), lead her to explore the sexual revolution and all its facets — some of which are good but most of which are bad. It’s an era where free love, at least in Biller’s interpretation, meant free love for those who wanted it and something far less joyous for those who didn’t but found themselves stuck in the subculture. Biller’s embrace of camp and intentionally stilted performances create a strong cinematic artifice that will feel familiar to fans of films by, say, Russ Meyer, which allows her interpretation of the era and Bambi’s experience to hit much harder.
On the flip-side, though, the artifice that allows Biller’s thematic ideas to land also results in a film that is deeply difficult to sit through at times. The performances are so stilted and the camp so forced that very little actually feels genuine. Biller has one or two specific moves she makes with her eyes in every scene. These movements don’t convey internal emotion so much as they make it feel like Biller is creating dioramas from old glamour magazines and trying not to move too much. It’s gorgeous to look at but a chore to watch. Her later film, The Love Witch, is much more accomplished at melding her aesthetic ideas with a genre story that tackles some of the same feminist ideas to greater success.
Kino Lorber is re-releasing Viva on Blu-ray and provided me an advanced copy to view. As a fan of The Love Witch, I knew what I was getting into with Biller’s film but still found myself having a hard time with it as a story. However, fans of Biller and her work will find a lot to love picking up this new release, which certainly does the visuals justice. Those who want to see where The Love Witch came from will find Viva an interesting piece of the ongoing development of Biller’s work and ideas. Particularly great are her commentary and a short behind-the-scenes feature on the filming of one scene, in which Biller describes her creative process.