Mata Hari (1985)

Director: Curtis Harrington
Starring: Sylvia Kristel, Christopher Cazenove, Oliver Tobias, Gaye Brown, Gottfried John, Anthony Newlands
Music: Wilfred Josephs

I am sure that this won’t be the worst Mata Hari movie ever made, but by the same token, it is rather limp affair. Strangely, the film-makers couldn’t decide if they wanted to make a faithful version of Mata Hari’s tale or go for a dashing, labyrinthine spy story. The end result has a few facts that seem misplaced, and it doesn’t quite take flight as a fully-fledged spy movie. It’s a muddle really. But the opening titles should have been a warning for what was to come.

The titles roll and the film opens in Java in 1909. In front of some over grown ruins, Mata Hari is dancing topless with the natives. Anybody who has the tiniest bit of interest in Mata Hari, will tell you that she never took of her top in any of her dances. Apparently she was quite embarrassed by the size (or lack thereof) of her breasts and often wore padding to enlarge her bust. The titles end, the dance ends, and so does Mata Hari’s life in the mystic East.

We move forward to Paris in 1914. Two friends are engaged in a duel. A bit of light-hearted competition. The two are Captain George Ladoux (Oliver Tobias), a French Officer, and Captain Karl Von Whyling (Christopher Cazenove), a German officer. Later that evening at a party, they both witness the exotic dancer Mata Hari. And both men, in their way, fall in love. Soon after, Von Whyling is called back to Berlin.

Co-incidentally Mata Hari is also soon to be going to Berlin to perform. On the train, she notices a young gentleman dining alone. She joins him for a meal, and soon after they are on their way back to his cabin. In no time Mata Hari has her gear off. During their sexual encounter, as they are in the throes of ecstasy, a shadowy figure partially opens the door. A blowpipe sends a poison dart into the young gentleman’s neck and he dies.

Mata Hari is soon arrested for the man’s murder, as the poison used on the dart was from the East Indies. Mata Hari obviously has a history in that part of the world, and to make matters worse, it appears that the man was a German agent. German intelligence is sent to interrogate her. It won’t shock viewers to know that the man sent to question her is Karl Von Whyling. He frees her and tells her to get away. She refuses to leave and goes out to dinner with Von Whyling instead. As they dine, their meal in interrupted by a Wolff (Gottfried John) and a woman who goes by the title of Fraulein Doktor (Gaye Brown). They are both high ranking intelligence officers and they don’t believe her story. Fraulein Doktor believes George Ladoux, who is now head of the Deuxienne Bureau, sent her to Berlin.

When we next see Mata Hari she is having a very creepy lesbian affair with Fraulein Doktor. Nothing is openly stated, but this is meant to imply that Mata Hari is now working for the German’s. Or at least, that they want the French to think she is working for the German’s. It’s all very complicated and contrived. And, sorry to say, the plot doesn’t get any easier to follow.

WAR IS DECLARED. We now skip forward to 1915. We are in Paris at the Follies Bergére and Mata Hari has just performed. Backstage, Ladoux pays a call on her. She says that she has been tricked by the Germans, including Von Whyling, into spying for them. Ladoux takes pity on her and does not arrest her. In fact he makes love to her.

The next morning as she leaves, she is picked up by Von Whyling, who is posing as a driver. He claims that it is Ladoux who is laying the trap for him. Naturally Mata Hari then makes love to Von Whyling. She chooses to believe him and take his side. She wants to stay with him.

They set up a love nest in a little village outside Paris. Mata Hari waits, while Von Whyling clandestinely arranges an arms deal. Days pass. She continues to wait. Then one day Ladoux turns up. He escorts her to a battlefield. He explains that they had intercepted a German message. It said that a French General was going to attack the German line at this location. The German’s were waiting and consequently the French troops were slaughtered. The message also claimed that Mata Hari was the sole source of the information the German’s received.

Despite her innocence, Mata Hari has little option but to offer her services to the French. Of course, she is to spy on Von Whyling, who is supposed to be in Madrid. Mata Hari is sent to Madrid. But Von Whyling is not in Madrid. Another German officer, Von Krohn (Malcolm Terris) is. As you’ve have come to expect from Mata Hari by now, she makes love to Von Krohn and goes through all his belongings as he sleeps. She sends the information back to Ladoux via a contact named Noriega.

The system seems to be working well. But then Noriega is killed. Then even Von Krohn is killed – by the German’s, for his incompetence. And waiting in Mata Hari’s room is Fraulein Doktor. And upon threat of death, Mata Hari is once again spying for Germany.

Mata Hari new target is a hedonist called Baron Joubert (Anthony Newlands). She arranges an invitation to one of his parties and finds herself in a topless swordfight with another woman. For the voyeurs, it’s a fairly interesting set piece – dare I say it – the highlight of the film. But it really is an incongruous plot point. It really does seem another opportunity for Miss Kristel to get her gear off. And if that isn’t silly enough, next Mata Hari is drugged. This drug makes her participate in a three-way lesbian act, while Joubert and his masked party guests watch on deliriously.

There’s a few more plot twists and turn and double crosses along the way, but as you can read above, it is all very convoluted. And ultimately it is a story with a downbeat ending. I am sure I am not giving anything away when I say that Mata Hari gets executed by firing squad. So to enjoy a film with such a ‘bummer’ at the end, you have to at least enjoy the journey along the way. But with all the clumsy twists, one after the other, belief in, or even respect for the characters is a tough ask. All the characters betray each other, and as such are not likeable in any way. And poor old Mata Hari seems to be the pawn in the middle (or should that be porn – sorry couldn’t help myself). The actions of Ladoux and Von Whyling are particularly hard to fathom. It seems like a vicious game between two brothers that has gotten seriously out of hand. To add insult to injury, as an epilogue, the two men meet three years after Mata Hari’s death and express their sorrow for the events that transpired. Quite frankly, it’s crap.

This film may not be quite as bad as I make out, but I can’t really think whom the audience for this film would be. It’s not a good history lesson. On the porn scale it’s pretty tame (although I have heard that there are more explicit versions of the movie out there). There is hardly any action. And the story, well the previous paragraph tells you what I think about that. So if you are a person who likes convoluted stories, with unpleasant characters, and cold emotionless sex then maybe this is the spy film for you. But otherwise, may I suggest you have a cold shower and an early night.

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