There are certain films where you can easily point at them and say, “The film is about this or that” but Belladonna of Sadness is not one of those films. It is sequential art in its purest form. It’s dense, complex, and filled to the brim with symbolism. It can be an allegory for sexual empowerment or an analysis of the contradictions found in Western dogma. It’s not about just one thing. Like all worthwhile art, it forces the viewer to let the mind wander across a field of thoughts and emotions.
The story of Belladonna of Sadness focuses on a newlywed named Jeanne. When her husband, Jean, is unable to pay an unreasonably high marriage tax, the King takes Jeanne’s virginity instead. In Jeanne’s grief, she unintentionally summons Satan. Satan offers her unlimited power in exchange for her soul. She refuses. Instead, she offers her body in exchange for just enough power to help her and her new husband to get through their hardships. Satan agrees and states if she ever wanted more power, all she’d have to do was summon him again. Of course, the power isn’t enough. As time goes on, Jeanne offers more of herself, until she becomes a witch capable of wielding her own magic powers.
The animation in the film is very minimal, but this is by design as opposed to limitations of the medium. A majority of the film is presented through wide sweeping still shots. Each of these stills has beautiful line work with an excellent attention to detail that is gorgeously painted in water colors. Backgrounds comprise of mostly white space with the intention of giving said water colors more of a chance to pop and draw the viewer’s eye towards a certain object or character. The purpose of this isn’t just to create a pretty picture, but to convey a larger set of themes, ideas, and emotions through the use of color theory.
Let me dust off my Bachelor’s of Fine Arts and give a quick explanation on what color theory is. To put it simply, each color instinctively creates an emotion and/or idea when the viewer looks at it. The color blue makes one feel calm because of its association with the ocean; things like that. And Belladonna of Sadness is a playground for color theorists to examine and discuss at great length. A brief example of this can be seen throughout the film in Jeanne’s hair. While she appears to be a brunette, the color of her hair will shift between white, lavender, red, and green. With each color comes a different meaning. White appears when she’s in a state of bliss. Lavender when she’s filled with melancholy. Red for when she experiences an intense sexual encounter, and finally we have the color green, which we will be diving into much greater detail in a second. These colors expose Jeanne’s emotional state of being without the character actually having to express it through dialogue.
Of all of the colors that stand out in Belladonna, the most notable is green. At one point of the film, the narrator explains, “Green is the color of power.” Not only power, but “the power of the devil.” While Satan is your traditional red color, his effects on the world are in green. This idea comes into play throughout the entire film; green does not appear in Belladonna without some sort of deeper meaning behind it. For example, a majority of the exterior shots that take place in fields of grass remain white during the first and second act of the film. In reality, you would see long stretches of greenery in these types of shots, but you don’t in this film. That’s because the grass doesn’t mean anything during that time. It’s only when Jeanne becomes a witch who is in tuned with nature that we see the greenery return to the land. This presents the idea that this scrap of land Jeanne controls is infused with the power of Satan.
You see this idea of green being a symbol of the devil’s influence expressed at the very beginning of the film. After Jeanne’s first deal with the devil, she begins to weave and sell fabrics. And that fabric is green. This gives the implication that the devil has graced the fabric with his unholy powers to make it more desirable to the townsfolk, to the point that Jeanne earns more from her weaving skills than her husband working as a farmer.
Another example of this happens towards the end of the film. After becoming a witch, the town is hit by the Black Plague. With most of the townsfolk dead or dying, Jeanne uses her magic to cure the surviving villagers. When the villagers come to Jeanne, their skin is covered in black spots. After seeking Jeanne’s treatment, the black vanishes and smaller marks of green appear. The villagers have been cured of the sickness, but now the devil infects them. This leads towards the townsfolk becoming more rebellious towards the King and his church, who were content to watch their subjects suffer and die.
Another factor where green comes into play is how it depicts power in a social sense. An interesting design choice in the film is the King is completely devoid of this color. The King is black and gold, signifying death and misery hiding behind his riches. His Queen on the other hand is red and a very dark muted tone of green. While he might of been the King who barks insane orders at everyone, the Queen is the person who controls the real power. Even then, the Queen’s power over the people is very muted in comparison to Jeanne’s influence on the townsfolk when Jeanne becomes the town’s tax collector. During this time, Jeanne covers herself in a bright green cloak. Jeanne’s power outshines that of the Queen’s, and when the Queen challenges Jeanne’s power she does so by having her page slash her green cloak. As she loses more of her cloak, the town turns against her, each slash of her green cloak striping Jeanne of her power over them.
This also comes into play when Jeanne’s husband, Jean becomes tax collector. When the King gives the position to Jean, he does so by giving him a red hat. After receiving the hat, he dresses in black and falls in line with the King’s cronies. He’s just as bad as the King when it comes to collecting taxes and the townspeople have no respect for him. But with Jeanne, she wins over the people with her charms. They’re more willing to open their purse strings for her. Even though both Jean and Jeanne have the same job, Jeanne earns the respect of the people and that respect is depicted in the green cloak she wears.
Belladonna is far more than just an art student’s thesis given form. Belladonna explores many different themes throughout its narrative, most of which center around feminism. It’s feminism in the sense that women aren’t just beautiful, but they are as powerful as nature itself. Throughout the film, women are depicted as being more level headed than their male partners. Again, the tax collector issue is a prime example of this. When the King becomes unsatisfied with Jean’s performance, not only does he fire Jean, but cuts off his right hand. Jean responds to this by drowning his sorrows in alcohol, becoming a disgraced drunk. However, when the Queen becomes unsatisfied with Jeanne’s performance, she efficiently disgraces Jeanne, banishing her from the town, beaten and left for dead. Jeanne responds to this by finally trading her soul for power, becoming a witch. As you might of noticed, the men handled their situations in the quickest ways possible without having much foresight to their actions. The King may have removed Jean from the position, but in doing so created yet another cripple in his town he has no use for. The women on the other hand use cunning and tact to solve their problems. The Queen literally strips Jeanne of her power, and if it wasn’t for supernatural intervention, Jeanne would of died in the snow. Jean let himself get buried in his emotions, becoming a burden to everyone around him, while Jeanne used those same emotions to fuel her motivation to get back up and fight back.
Another interesting feminist aspect in Belladonna is how Jeanne is depicted in a Christ-like fashion. After becoming blessed with Satan’s gift of mastery over nature, Jeanne uses her powers to heal the sick and unite the people. She gathers a large following, preaching free love and peace towards all living things. Even when the King offers her political power over the land, Jeanne denies it because his tiny kingdom is nothing in comparison over her master’s domain over nature. Jeanne is even crucified to a burning cross at the end of the film. While Christ figures are popular in fiction, it very rare to see that Christ-like figure be a woman. In Belladonna, a woman is the messenger of peace and love. There’s no confusing her with the Mother Mary. She is the performing the miracles and giving the sermon on the mount. Her actions are the one’s that will change the world.
But feminism isn’t the only ideal Belladonna of Sadness explores. As you might of already assume by this point, there is a heavy amount of examination done between the two different sides of Christianity, heaven and hell. We’ve talked plenty on how Satan is seen in this film, the nice guy who wants to lend a hand at a high price. Offering real power in the here and now in exchange for servitude and madness. The Church, on the other hand, is a different story. In the film, the King has major influence over the Head Priest. The Head Priest is quiet, unfeeling, and quick to punish those who fall out of line. While he makes promises of salvation in the next world, he demands payment in the name of the King in this world. There is no ultimate good and ultimate evil in this movie, just different shades of gray. Both have their benefits, but they both come at a high price.
While we are talking about the devil, I should also mention that he is chalk full of symbolism. When Satan first appears, he is very small. When Jeanne asks him about his size, he states, “I am as big as you want me to be.” This is followed by Satan pulling off his traditional shtick, whispering comforting words, asking for very little, and so on. At the beginning, Jeanne doesn’t want much outside of her husband’s health. Refusing to hand over her soul so easily during their first meeting, Satan settles for the the simple pleasures instead. To put it bluntly, he wants a hand job. At this point, I should also mention Satan’s scalp resembles the head of a penis. When Jeanne finally gives in and sells her soul, Satan is the size of a giant, and when the two start having sex, he completely engulfs her until she disappears into a sea of visual madness that overwhelms the senses. This can be seen as an allegory for the emotional tolls sex can have on the inexperienced. It can start off innocent enough, but everything can get out of hand quickly and overwhelm those who aren’t ready. Basically, the more you ask for the more you have to give. If one asks for too much, it can turn a blissful experience into a nightmare that can ruin a relationship.
Taking Satan out of the equation, Jeanne experiences these heavy emotional themes through her relationship with Jean. Like stated previously, when Jean is unable to pay the marriage tax, the King forces himself onto Jeanne has compensation. Jeanne had been saving herself for marriage, but now she has to give her first time away against her will to this creepy old guy with bones sticking out of his head. After being raped by the King, she seeks Jean to comfort her. This is too much for Jean to deal with. His first response is to choke Jeanne. If this was supposed to be a mercy killing or Jean punishing Jeanne for sleeping with another man is unclear. I personally think he was going for the first option, but needless to say, adding more physical abuse on top of rape doesn’t exactly help regardless of one’s intentions. Jeanne needed somebody who was strong enough emotionally to help her cope, and her husband was not that person. She came on strong and he buckled, falling apart, unable (and possibly unwilling) to help her. They stay together, but it seems like the harder they try to move past this, the worst things end up for the couple.
There’s a lot more to Belladonna of Sadness than just good uses of color and meaningful sexual overtones, but at this point, you might be better off watching the film for yourself and drawing your own conclusions. It’s an unforgettable film that deserves to be discussed and dissected even further. I highly recommend checking out this one-of-a-kind experience.