"The other day I had a client to tie up and beat," Eva (Gudrun Landgrebe) tells her friend Yvonne (Gabriele Lafari). "I don't take masochists anymore," Yvonne replies. It's just a little shop talk between the girls in "A Woman in Flames," Robert van Ackeren's soft-core soap opera about a hooker with a heart of steel. Who needs this kind of tony trash? Those subtitles aren't fooling anyone.
Eva is a grad student short of cash and tired of life (she's even writing her dissertation on "Melancholy and Boredom"), so she turns to the demimonde, where she becomes a hit on the S & M circuit. "The worse I treat them, the more they pay," she says. She falls for a bisexual squire for hire, Chris (Mathieu Carriere), who quickly becomes jealous of her tricks. He wants to settle down, have a kid and open a restaurant, but the free-spirited Iron Maiden will have none of it.
The movie claims to be art (van Ackeren has been touted as the next Fassbinder), but "A Woman in Flames" is just pornography, with none of porn's utile crudity. Meandering through a smorgasbord of sex, it has porn's characteristic generosity in providing something for everyone: sadomasochism, bondage, me'nage a trois, homosexuality, voyeurism and so forth. Around the fifth time you watch Eva trussing up herself and her clients in leather harnesses, you feel like you're watching a documentary about the stableboys at Belmont Park.
And for all its kink, the center of "A Woman in Flames" is utterly conventional, a melodrama about a husband who's jealous of his wife's lovers and her career, and victimized by her inability to love. That the other man in this rondelet is his lover doesn't really change anything. And van Ackeren never has any fun with the fact that the careers involved are somewhat outre -- this has got to be the most humorless movie of the year.
Landgrebe has a statuesque charm in the altogether, but she never gets a handle on her character; twisting the flat Continental sexiness of her features into goggle-eyes and a toothy grin, she's a cross between Jeanne Moreau and Betty Boop. Carriere is just as easy on the eyes, but he doesn't have anything to do but look dour.
Van Ackeren has a stylish camera that can fall on a character as lightly as an autumn leaf, but it's wasted on the banality of his material. Somewhere inside this endless glub is a moral about how women can be just as cynical and hard-bitten about sex as men. Well, whoop-de-doo.
"A Woman in Flames," at the Inner Circle, is unrated, but contains violence, nudity and graphic sex.