Published in France in 1954, ''The Story of O" knocked a sizable dent in the buttoned-up sexuality of Western culture -- it was, in effect, the literary equivalent of ''The Kinsey Report." Written by the pseudonymous Pauline Réage, the novel tells of the consensual abuse of a young woman at the hands of her lover, Rene, and an older man named Sir Stephen, among many others. Blindfolds, whips, and various . . . devices are introduced, and the novel offers a cool (and for some, cold) testament to the personal liberation that can be found in submission and degradation.
If that sounds counterintuitive to you, don't read it, obviously. Unfortunately, even the leather brigade may not be well served byPola Rapaport's muddled documentary about the novel's creation. ''Writer of O" uncovers the story behind ''The Story of O," but because it doesn't have the heroic impact the filmmaker seems to have been looking for, she's forced to juggle, to diminishing returns. In the process, she raises more questions than she resolves.
A scandal in France -- where it was denounced as ''an appalling and condemnable ferment" -- and the object of immediate suppression in Great Britain and America, ''The Story of O" was widely assumed to have been written by a man, since no woman would fantasize about her own torture, right? Wrong. In 1994, a demure, elderly woman named Dominique Aury publicly admitted she was the author. She was in her late 80s, and time was running out. ''When you learn it was written by a little old lady," Aury told an interviewer, ''it loses some of its scandal."
Well, not really; the scandal is just tempered by the sadnesses of everyday life. In her prime, Aury (who was born Anne Desclos; even the ''real" name was a pseudonym) was a writer, editor, and critic who worked at Gallimard, the groundbreaking publisher of works by Albert Camus and other post-World War II giants. She was not in the inner circle, she says, but ''in the sphere of influence," the only woman on the company's reading committee for 25 years.
She was also the lover of Jean Paulhan, the French writer and man of letters who was her senior by 23 years. In fact, Aury wrote ''Story of O" for Paulhan as the married writer began to look beyond her for other conquests. ''I wrote it to please him," she said later. ''I was young and not very pretty." She also says that if they had lived in China, Aury would have been accepted as Paulhan's Number Two wife -- rather cold comfort, that. It seems clear that she found her life's meaning in a man who used her for better (at least as far as she was concerned) and for ill. She was a true submissive, but what did that mean to her life and her writing?
This gulf between a woman's public and private faces is an intensely rich subject that Rapaport glosses over, the better to deify Aury. Since a visit to the woman herself shortly before her 1998 death doesn't come up with much -- by then she's a sweet, dotty old woman unsure even of her own age -- the director is forced to rely on insightful interviews with publishers, journalists, and other authors. The writer Elisabeth Porquerol's blunt reminder that ''women are as immoral as men, period," is the most blessedly straightforward moment in the film.
But Rapaport also travels far into the dreaded Valley of the Dramatic Reenactment, re-creating scenes from the book as well as moments from Aury's life. The former do not play well. S&M on film very rarely looks anything but silly -- the turn-on is in the participants' heads, not ours -- and while the segments featuring the pliant Penelope Puymirat as O and the wan, mournful Cyril Corral as Rene are fairly explicit, they're erotically D.O.A. Rapaport's flat readings of lines like ''They showed her the riding crop, which was long, black, and delicate" only adds to the academic cold shower.
Re-creations of scenes from Aury's youth -- which include the real journalist Regine Deforges re-enacting her 1974 interview with Aury, still anonymous and here played by actress Catherine Mouchet -- are even more tortured in their contextual syntax. The only part of ''Writer of O" in which you get a sense of Dominique Aury as an artist and a woman is in the brief passage dealing with her 1969 essay ''Une Fille Amoureuse" (''A Girl in Love"), about the writing of ''O."
''Books were their only complete freedom," Aury wrote of her relationship with Paulhan (and we hear on the soundtrack), ''their common country, their true travels. . . . The girl was writing the way you speak to your lover in the dark . . . [writing at night] as Paris was slipping into silence." That's the eroticism of the written word, and it's the truest turn-on here.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.