'Viva': '60s Throwback Sex Comedy

Anna Biller Viva

Anna Biller has been labeled the next John Waters. This is not true. John Waters has his own distinctively trashy and marvelous style, which is far different from Biller's lush and extravagant filmmaking. But when it comes to cult following and underground notoriety, Biller is filling Waters' Comme des Garçons slip-ons.

Biller has been working in films since 1994 when she shot her first short film, the well-received Three Examples of Myself as Queen. She then went on to make A Visit from the Incubus and The Hypnotist, both in 2001. All three have been compiled on a DVD release titled “This is Anna Biller.” Her first feature film, Viva, is a throwback to the sexploitation films of the '70s and an example of how in some ways women's lib wasn't liberating at all. Viva accomplishes those tasks by taking the women's point of view during the sexual revolution.

Set in 1972 (Los Angeles) suburbia, Viva focuses on the travails of housewife Barbi (Biller), her career-driven husband Rick (Chad England), and her housewife-friend Sheila (played beautifully by Bridget Brno) who is married to television actor Mark (Jared Sanford). Having been recently fired from her secretarial job because she wouldn't put out, Barbi spends her days in the same way Sheila does: housecleaning, swimming, shopping, cooking elaborate meals, and pleasing their men – bringing drinks, slippers, sexing them up.

During the day, Barbi gets tired of her routine and loses herself in a hot bath with the adult magazine “Viva,” which opens her up to the sexual revolution currently taking place. After some disagreements with their husbands, Barbi (now using the pseudonym Viva) and Sheila separate from them to seek out sexual adventures. They go through modeling, golddigging, prostitution, orgies, nudist camps, and musical theatre in their exploration of women's liberation.

The ironic tone of the film implies that women were meant to be liberated, but in actuality were made to feel guilty when they didn't give in and shut up. Curiously, after seeing Viva at a movie theater, my friends and I overheard someone pan the entire film while also calling it sexist. My friend turned to me and said, “She didn't get it. The whole film is a punch line to a joke written in the '70s.”

While many picked up on the ironic tones in the social satire that is Viva, others might be inclined to see it as just pure B-movie camp without any relevance to today. The latter group, by the way, would be wrong.

After taking on the name Viva, Barbi goes through a series of adventures that she thinks will liberate her – including working as a prostitute in order to find the perfect (sensitive) guy. Barbi, however, refuses to have sex with the men she “dates”; except, that is, when they either force or drug her.

The rape scenes are an integral break during the over-the-top comical tone of the film as they force thoughts of reality into the audience. Thus, the uncomfortable notion that this is not your average B cult film comes to the surface. In fact, behind all the sexuality and lush costumes Viva offers a message that might be difficult for some people to both watch and process.

While the film's campiness and kitsch is sometimes overwhelming, there is definitely more to its tone than just some people's opinion of it as being “so bad it's good.” Viva is just good, so good. Its social commentary is geared against the hypocrisy of the sexual revolution / women's liberation that better served horny men than constrained women. In one moment in the film, Mark looks directly into the camera and acknowledges how good of a time it is for men and that they should cherish every minute of it because it won't last.

Biller's Viva achieves its retro '70s look through elaborate sets, colorful and skimpy costumes, artistic pubic-hair styles, and the bombastic intonation of the actors' voices. It should be noted that Biller is Viva's star, writer, director, co-producer, composer, editor, costume and set designer, and choreographer. The film has 34 different sets and Biller herself has 34 different costume changes – everything done by her designs and her hands. In an interview about the film's production she explained that it took “months and months making costumes, collecting objects from the Salvation Army, doing little pieces of macramé … it was all possible because of spending a couple of years doing one scene at a time, on weekends spread far apart.”

Her inspiration for Viva's look was taken from vintage Playboy magazines and the films of Radley Metzger (The Alley Cats, Camille 2000), Herschell Gordon Lewis (Suburban Roulette), and Luis Buñuel (Belle de jour). Biller created that très érotique environment by including heavy petting and sensuous dialogue, always dancing with the potential of sex. Indeed, with numerous scenes filled with innuendo, flirtation, and full-frontal nudity of both male and female performers, Viva is certainly an arousing experience. Anna Biller herself appears nude quite a bit, later stating that she was a little nervous baring all for the part but felt it necessary in order to be true to the nature of the film.

Viva comes together nicely with all of its eroticism, retro look, social commentary, unyielding camp, and laugh-out-loud wit – e.g., in one scene someone asks Barbi if she is an aspiring actress; she sighs and comments “Maybe someday.” The unforgettable cast of characters includes the flamboyant hairdresser with “magic dust” (a ménage à trois powder), the forceful (and sad) nudist hippie, and the man who likes to lick sugar off his fingers.

The brilliantly strung together scenes such as Sheila's bathtub-in-the-forest musical number (she sings to her new white horse) and the glamorous orgy party will definitely leave a lasting impression on any viewer whether they love or hate Viva. It is the type of film that will be quoted both at parties of snobby art students and lineups at Starbucks, while “You're not only a whore, you're a filthy lesbian!” will definitely be quoted during games of Six Degrees of Indie Film.

That is a good thing, because once the artistic style of Biller becomes a household Indie Film name, a studio will give her more money to go on to make “Love Witch,” which Biller describes thus: “It will involve a woman who's studying witchcraft, a hunky police officer, fairy princess and unicorn fantasies, sexual perversion, emotional pain, and a burlesque club in the 1960s.”

Biller's dedication to the film worlds she creates deserves to be acknowledged and admired. Her passion for the art is unmistakable and I cannot imagine how Viva could have been better. For lack of a better pun: she nailed it.

Viva (2008).
Dir. / Scr.: Anna Biller.
Cast: Anna Biller, Jared Sanford, Chad England, Bridget Brno, Marcus DeAnda, John Klemantaski, Paolo Davanzo, Barry Morse.

© Keith Waterfield

Photos: Karl Lohninger, Mariel Lohninger, Steve Dietl. © Anna Biller

'Viva': '60s Throwback Sex Comedy © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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1 Comment to 'Viva': '60s Throwback Sex Comedy

  1. lindsay

    I collect cult, sleaze, exploitation and campy b movies and had been hearing about “viva” for quite some time but just recently got it. i watched it and at first, thought it was absolutely atrocious but after viewing it a second time (in the same day), it has really grown on me. toward the end, when barbie is explaining to sheila how she actually became the viva character and how she loved it but it was just too much, had a real impact on me for some reason. also, the sets, clothes ect are AMAZING-it really does look like the 70's and you can tell alot of care went into creating that effect. i am glad that i have viva in my collection and look forward to more of anna biller's work.