A Woman in Flames (Film Chest, NR)

womaninflamesThis direct translation raises other questions, too, such as “does a woman really get flambéed in this film? If so, by whom, and why?”


Speaking German may not be the most in-demand skill these days, at least not in English-speaking countries, but there are times when it comes in handy. Consider the title of a 1983 German film recently brought out on DVD by Film Chest: Die Flambierte Frau, means literally “the flambéed woman,” which you have to admit is a lot more intriguing than the English-language title A Woman in Flames, particularly when you consider what it means to flambé: to douse food in a hot pan with alcohol, so that the alcohol bursts into flames. This direct translation raises other questions, too, such as “does a woman really get flambéed in this film? If so, by whom, and why?”

To get the answers to those questions, you will have to watch the film, an interesting mix of lifestyle porn and sexual semi-explicitness that remains one of Germany’s top 10 all-time grossing films. (I’m trusting the publicity material on that latter point.) The central character is Eva (Gudrun Landgrebe), a bored housewife who leaves her control freak of a husband (his first conversation with her involves the exact placement of table settings) and becomes a high-class prostitute. Why? Because she was a disaster at school and it’s the only way she can think of to maintain her upper-middle-class lifestyle and still remain independent.

Note for Americans: Prostitution is legal in Germany and has been for years, so at least Eva doesn’t have to worry about the cops interfering with her chosen method of making a living. Still, prostitution may not have been a usual subject of middle-class conversation in the early 1980s, and there’s definitely a voyeuristic aspect to A Woman in Flames that is no doubt part of its continuing appeal. From the explicit rundown of prices and prohibited activities provided by Eva’s friend-in-the-trade Yvonne (Gabriele Lafari), to the variety of sexual activities and venues portrayed (including S&M, bisexuality, and a trip to a gay bar that must be seen to be believed), it’s easy to see how this film could épater (shock) le bourgeoisie in a way many that many of the bourgeoisie would find quite gratifying.

Eva falls for Chris (Mathieu Carriere), who calls himself a gigolo but is, in fact, in exactly in the same business she is. He’s a nice guy and more than cute, so it’s no surprise that they move in together, each with their own home office (so to speak) in which to ply their trade. Chris’s use of a euphemistic label for his occupation should have been a tipoff to Eva, however, because he has fairly conventional plans for their mutual future that do not please her at all. No worries, though; Eva is more than able to handle the world on her own, so A Woman in Flames at least avoids coming off like a lurid cautionary tale.

Director Robert von Ackeren was well regarded in the 1980s, often mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Thirty-plus years later, Fassbinder’s star still shines brightly, von Ackeren’s not so much. Today, A Woman in Flames seems more like a period piece than an enduring masterpiece, but it’s certainly worth a watch, particularly if you have a taste for the styles and manners of Europe in the early 1980s. Or if, you know, your bourgeois self could use a little mild shocking.

The picture quality on the DVD is soft—about halfway between VHS quality and a really sharp image—so it’s sufficient to let you watch the film without being a really great presentation. There are no extras on the disc. | Sarah Boslaugh

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