Private Parts – Paul Bartel – 1972

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Paul Bartel’s Private Parts is a solid little thriller. I can’t say the film is entirely successful, because I can’t help but think Bartel intended the film to be a bit funnier than it is, but hey, I guess, that’s as much on the audience as him. As it is, the film is a strange little thriller. Cheryl runs away from her friends. She finds her way to her aunt’s hotel, where her aunt treats her like a whore for wearing make up. Once she finds out Cheryl is her niece she allows her to stay for a few days while she gets on her feet.

The hotel is peppered with strange residents. There is a quiet photographer named George and a creepy priest who always seems super happy to see everyone, in a gross way. Before long we see a couple of gooey kills and we are left to wonder who’s doing the killing. This suspense rarely works, due to lack of character investment. The film starts like a slasher, and then heads into Hitchcock territory. There’s a type of slow burn as Cheryl meets and becomes enamored with George the photographer. Her aunt won’t let them meet, but they talk on the phone. Honestly, this part is slow, slow, slow, and it has everything to do with the likeability of the characters.

Cheryl, as played by Ayn Ruymen, is terribly dishonest and cruel little bitch. Sure, youth plays a large role in this, and we aren’t supposed to like her much, but still, she could be more likeable. She’s supposed to be this wayward youth, but she just comes off as someone the world could live without.

Her aunt is no better, but is at least complex. She is both a nurturer and a destroyer. She helps the world how she can and sees herself a respectable type of woman, but her dark secrets betray that moral attitude. She is actually a woman imposing her will on the world, worse, a woman hating woman. She is that woman fighting against feminine liberation, yet also represents a type of feminine control. Her role in the tale is what makes the whole thing work. She is not unlike what one might imagine Mrs. Bates to be like, and Psycho is clearly referenced in the film several times.

George is the wildest of all. Inside of his room, he has a transparent blow up sex doll. It is filled with water and wears a mask made from a photograph of Cheryl over its face. In the film’s most awesome and crazy scene, George draws blood from his arm with a syringe while he makes out with the doll and then injects the doll with his blood. I’m not going to lie, this shit is crazy and looks really cool, but you can’t believe what you are seeing. Why would someone do this?

In the end it is revealed that George is a woman raised by mean Aunt as a boy. This type of gender reversal has been seen in other films such a Sorceress and Sleepaway Camp. By having the character or the audience believe in the gender of a character, and then revealing the opposite to be true forces the viewer to re-evaluate the characters actions. George penetrated the sex doll with his syringe because he(she) didn’t have a penis with which to penetrate  it.

After the final few murders I was left feeling a bit seedy, not too thrilled, and only a little amazed at the films weirdness. Paul Bartel really wanted to play loose and fast with human life and in this film, it still feels linked to a recognizable reality. In later works, such as Death Race 2000 and Eating Raoul, his zest for bloodshed would be met by producer approval.

I recommend this film for gender studies students, fans of Paul Bartel, and people who think there aren’t enough blow up sex dolls in movies. 

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