Author's Note: I wrote this movie review in 2008. It originally appeared in the online magazine Lucrezia, which is now defunct. - Erin O'Riordan
Satyr, directed by Michael Zen in 1997, opens with the following definitions:
“sa-tyr, n. 1. in Mythology, a woodland deity represented as a man with goat’s legs, ears, and horns.
2. the very essence of raw sexual desire.”
Read these two definitions carefully, and it will appear that a word has been left out of the second one. If a satyr is a man, then shouldn’t he embody the very essence of raw male sexual desire? The female equivalent of satyr, we are told by Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, is the nymph, a creature that is as beautiful as the satyr is ugly. In modern English, nymph connotes a young, innocent woman who may be sexually alluring, but isn’t consciously aware of it. It is a passive kind of sexuality (in contrast to its use in the word nymphomania, a Victorian word for scarily aggressive female sexuality). This is the paradox of Satyr, a provocative and troubling film: is it reinforcing traditional sex role stereotypes, or subverting them?
Pablo Picasso understood the particular essence of the satyr myth. “The Satyr or Faun – half man, half goat, and with a goatish disposition, lustful whenever opportunity presents itself – figures in many of Picasso’s works, often as a substitute for the artist himself,” writes the author of the Spaightwood Galleries catalog of Picasso prints. Look at many of Picasso’s paintings or ceramic works depicting satyrs, and you will notice the aroused man-beast chasing after a nymph or a mortal woman, who flees in terror. Indeed, among the Classical satyrs is the god Pan, from whose name derives the word “panic.” Of course these women panicked at being pursued by satyrs; they were the unwilling victims of unbridled male sexual aggression. In other words, they were threatened with rape.
For this reason, the concept of “satyr” will be problematic for some women (and men) who watch this film. For some, it may represent a justification or glorification of sexual assault.
|Fangspiel (Faun and Nymph) by Franz von Stuck. Public domain image.|
Director Michael Zen and screenwriter Ravin Touchstone have tried to subvert the satyr myth by opening it to include women as well as men. Dr. Isabelle Jade, played by Asia Carrera, is herself a satyr, and certainly not a helpless, passive nymph. Dr. Jade has discovered a way to turn human beings into half-human, half-animals (sort of a porn equivalent of the “mad scientist” in H. G. Wells’ classic novel The Island of Dr. Moreau). She sees herself as an amoral superwoman. In the character’s own words, “We’re more than human, less than gods. We rut like animals. No feelings, no emotions.”
But even as this film gives one woman the ultimate power and control, other women play more traditionally feminine roles. This is true of Dr. Jade’s servant Sophie (played by Missy), a satyr who acts like a nymph. She is constantly being “put in her place,” denying her instincts and suppressing her knowledge to serve others. In one scene, Dr. Jade carries out a sadistic sexual punishment for Sophie after Sophie has spoken up out of turn. Sophie must wear an anal plug which sprouts hair resembling the mane of a horse. Thus, she calls to mind both the half-horse centaurs of Classical mythology, and “pony play” erotica (familiar to readers of A. N. Roquelaure; you can also find an extensive list of related websites at http://www.ponyplaylinks.com/).
Sophie’s response to this “punishment” is one of pleasure rather than pain, however. She seems to enjoy playing the bottom in her BDSM relationship with Dr. Jade. The question of whether Sophie is the victim of an assault or a willing participant in a controlled, pleasurable activity is left to the viewer.
Sophie is not the only female character to experience sexual domination, however. The film’s heroine is Fawn Deering, played by Jenna Jameson. Fawn is a naive college student who seeks out Dr. Jade while researching a paper on “animal mythology and human sexuality.” One of Dr. Jade’s two male companions, Adam (Brad Armstrong), is attracted to Fawn. He invites her to a party, a bacchanal. (“Bacchanal” has come to mean a drunken party, but it originally referred to the worship of Bacchus, or Dionysus, the Roman/Greek god of wine and king of all satyrs.) Reluctantly, Fawn agrees to come. She almost seems to be drawn there, irresistibly, against her will.
At the bacchanal, Adam offers Fawn a drink which, he assures her, is not alcohol. She drinks it and loses her memory and her inhibitions. Within moments, she is agreeing to a threesome with Adam and with Dr. Jade’s other man, Daniel (Mickey G.). In the morning, Fawn feels ill, thinks she has gotten drunk the night before, and vaguely remembers having sex with Adam, but not Daniel. This scene reads just like an account of a woman who was given a drug such as Rohypnol or GHB and raped. Although she seemed to enjoy the experience at the time, Fawn is unhappy with the after-effects the next morning. Adam encourages her to think of the after-effects as “what happens to everyone when they fall in love.”
|Asia Carrera. Creative Commons image by Tabercil. Cropped.|
|Jenna Jameson. Public domain image by PETA.|
Thus far, the depiction of emotionless, animal-like sexuality that Satyr presents is not an encouraging one. It suggests that unless you are the alpha female, your sexuality will be used and possibly abused. Males, meanwhile, seem to be immune from any punishments or consequences. There is, however, room in this film for genuine caring and honesty to triumph over Dr. Jade’s dark vision of the sexual landscape. In the end, Satyr redeems itself.
The ending, however, may not be enough for some viewers to overcome the negatives it implies. Some may also be troubled by the ethnic stereotyping – Asia Carrera is costumed to resemble the “Dragon Ladies” played by Anna May Wong in the films of the 1930s, to go along with her ruthless personality.
Other viewers, however, may find that Satyr simply allows its male and female characters to express a full range of sexual choices, including dominance and submission. Its characters’ openness to the animal nature of human sexuality could be seen as liberating. The characters are so close to the animal world, in fact, that they refuse to eat meat. When Fawn asks for bacon and eggs at breakfast, she is instead served a fig. Figs are a recurring motif in Satyr. When we are introduced to Sophie, for example, she is pulling open and sucking at the pulp of a fresh fig while masturbating. The fig’s insides bear a resemblance to the vagina; thus it has a long association as a symbol for womanhood. The fig tree as nourisher and sustainer has long been a symbol for the mother-goddess as well.
|Anna May Wong, photographed by Carl Van Vechten. Public domain image.|
Disturbing on some levels, enlightening on others, Satyr is a complex and intriguing work of adult sexual entertainment. DVD Avenue subscribers can find it under the Straight adult film category and judge for themselves.
(Note: the DVD Avenue website for renting DVDs is no longer in business.)
Berkinow, Louise. “Women, Race and Movies.” The American Women’s Almanac: An Inspiring and Irreverent Women’s History. NewYork: Berkeley Books, 1997.
“Dragon Lady (Stereotype).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_Lady_%28stereotype%29. Accessed July 22, 2008.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. NewYork: The New American Library (Mentor Books).
“Pablo Picasso: Satyrs and Fauns.” http://spaightwoodgalleries.com/Pages/Picasso_Satyrs.html. Accessed July 22, 2008.