The camera pans along the legs of a reclining figure. Sheathed in shimmery black spandex, the gender is unclear, even as the shot moves along to a taut bubble butt that's almost shockingly pert in its athletic androgyny. You seriously want your hands on it. Our eyes follow raptly along the body, to the torso, and soon we see the head on this body belongs to Prince, who is blithely lounging, with full awareness of his Brigitte Bardot moment of cinematic ass worship.
This is Under the Cherry Moon, ‘a film by Prince,’ from 1986, not Godard’s 1963 LeMépris. Yet strangely, there are plenty of parallels. Both are set at glorious French seaside resorts, have plots revolving around greed, and feature the cutest asses you’ve ever seen.
One of the things I most appreciate about the movie Prince directed and starred in is how it reveals his auteur dreams. Who would have even thought Prince could sit through a film with subtitles? Or sit still at all? In the film, he does seem to be a busy guy, chasing tail (specifically tail attached to moolah), pausing only to bathe and the occasional reclining moment where we can see the irresistible appeal of his 27-year old booty. OMG.
It’s so strange to realize the film is 30 years old. It screened at the Castro the week that Prince would have turned 58. The film is mythic in my mind, an oddity that expressed a lot of what made him such an iconic figure for me—a dissonance between sophisticated musical genius and truly wacky visual aesthetics. (A friend reminded me of my take on Graffiti Bridge, Prince's 1990 film-- that it looked like they filmed the whole thing at Headlines, the Hot Topic of its era.) Under the Cherry Moon is no masterpiece–the acting is choppy, the narrative puerile— but it is gloriously quirky and revealing of the artist’s psyche at the time. You might call it a playful narcissism, with Prince preening in ways that are irritating and lovable. At least that’s what came through at this viewing.
Lately, I’ve been listening to Parade, the fantastic album that accompanied it as a semi-soundtrack. The music is sublime in a way that the film is so not. The two seem to have very little to do with each other. But that doesn’t discount what the film is as an artifact, a work unto itself.
During the modestly attended screening, I grinned with the onscreen pleasure that Prince certainly had cavorting in Nice, controlling the camera—the silvery French New Wave black and white cinematography lensed, and secretly co-directed by Michael Ballhaus, a Fassbinder collaborator (who must have been pulled in after Prince fired the original director, Mary Lambert)— and being sexy and silly. He hot rods through the beach boulevards in a vintage convertible Buick with a fittingly personalized license plate: LOVE. An American in Nice. There were moments where I laughed with Prince—particularly at the wacky way the song Kiss enters the narrative in the back of the convertible— but at times I choked back tears, overcome with the sadness of his passing.
The film is full of strange relationships and innuendos, with Prince as the constant object of desire. It starts with him being kept by a sexy wealthy matron, a lady in white. In the second scene, we all desire him: He's in the bathtub, wearing that wide bolero hat and not much more. He looks fucking amazing, taut and lean as he remained the rest of his life, and full of bravado. He’s so aware of his erotic charge, and deploys it with brazen displays of his flesh. Jerome Benton is literally his partner in crime, a man whose darker skin pumps up some racial subtexts—these are people of color, musicians, in snooty white Euro environs, a scenario that has some Josephine Baker overtones. Jerome caters to Prince as he bathes, tossing flower petals into the tub. This feels like a carnal bromance, and it gets even more homo as Prince slips on a rug and falls, naked, into the arms of Jerome, who gets a little lispy. Swoon.
Their relationship has a lot more heat than Prince falling for the bratty heiress Mary (a name Jerome intones like a kaween). It was Kristin Scott Thomas’s first movie role. She and Prince spar like junior high school crushes, more dorky than sexy. The dialog here is at adolescent odds with the 1980s Euro trash stylings of the Nice party scenes, populated by lots of teased hair and unisex eye shadow. Mary enters her massive 21st birthday with an intent to shock, appearing in her birthday suit. That's the level of wit that the film plays with. Thomas plays her erratically—one could only imagine how her director coached her— but in that scene, she is so full of precocious life. The film sporadically exudes that spirit.
I wondered how Kristin recalls making this movie, and how she even got there. The audition? Her relationship with her director/co-star? But it was Prince’s show, his vision, and above all, his godly physical presence preserved in cinematic splendor. It's so wonderful that it exists, a time capsule of his willingness to shake that ass, for a vision. For you.