Starring: Bo Derek, George Kennedy, Andrea Occhipinti, Ana Obregón, Olivia d'Abo, Greg Bensen
One imagines that there are only two reasons that somebody might feel possessed to watch John Derek's 1984 flop "Bolero": For an affirmation of its infamy and critical slaughter, or for an eyeful of Derek's wife Bo in all of her barenaked glory. The former motivation was fresh in my mind when I sat down last night to experience the sexual awakening of Bo's virginal 1920s heiress Ayre, who when graduating from college, embarks on a quest to become de-flowered by an Arab sheik.
Although "Bolero" sounds as absurd as it plays out on screen, this wasn't that much of a low-budget affair, Derek managing to garner $7 million from MGM for the project. As if that wasn't enough, he also managed to convince Charade's George Kennedy to star as Ayre's cheerful butler, and musical legend Elmer Bernstein to conduct music that barely improves upon Arab porn soundtracks. Someone at the organisation, somewhere, must have been questioning the idea of Bo Derek riding naked, bareback atop a horse. The fact that it also markets itself as "An Adventure in Extasy", and eventually celebrates the fact that it's spelling the word 'ecstasy' wrongly, should surely have sounded a few alarm bells.
Part of the problem with assessing "Bolero" is that it's difficult to guage whether it knows how trashy it is. Derek intersperses his enterprise with an amalgam of pretense, representing sex as slapstick as much (if not more) than he does sensual. As Ravel's Bolero booms out of the screen in non-diegetic splendour, Bo Derek's voice comes through, complaining that her lover is sat on her leg. An earlier scene with a Sheik features some of the worst acting I have ever seen by a supporting player (clue: his name is last in the above cast overview), as Bo is lathered in honey and devoured by her hungry suitor. Derek cuts from shots of Bo's sticky midriff to silent movie-style subtitles that are rather comical in their over-elaboration of events, and the tryst soon turns into a complete washout.
It would be as absurd as "Bolero" itself to suggest that it's always unintentionally funny, especially as it becomes somewhat of a paean to women, and their use of sex to obtain what they want from relationships. As much as Bo's body feels an alluring, exploitative tool to draw in the male gaze, the entire film is about regulating masculinity. Ayre meets Angel — a ripped Spaniard Bullfighter with a traditionally-feminine name — and splits up his relationship, leading him to suffer an accident that renders him impotent, before finally taking over his job and all-but-raping him in the film's climax. "Bolero" is mental, but it isn't without a certain focus.
Believe this: 1984's Razzie 'Worst Actress' winner Bo Derek acquits herself well, even if the inflections of her performance can't count for much by themselves. The evident interest from a gender-political standpoint only marginally atones for the film's inept direction, one-note collection of characters, and its lazy approach to characterisation. While Russ Meyer saluted women in control, his pussycats killed. Derek's feline doesn't have the backup to create serious wounds, and, even with erotic overtones, this Bolero just ain't rousing enough.