Due in part to the casual frankness of dime-store paperbacks and Playboy magazine, sex became a legitimate subject for movies by the '60s, though scattered filmmaking outposts handled the matter differently. The emerging European art cinema treated sex as part of the natural, seen-but-unremarked-upon background of adult life, while in Hollywood, a string of winking romantic comedies put sex front-and-center but coyly avoided anything even remotely explicit or honest. And in drive-ins and grindhouses, low-budget auteurs promised to expose on screen what others only talked about in whispers, although more often than not what they really offered was cheap titillation and dispiriting moralism.
Anna Biller's debut feature Viva consciously combines elements of all of the above, offering a painstaking recreation of the look and feel of campy retro sexploitation. Biller stars as a California housewife circa 1972, who changes her name to "Viva" and embarks on a journey through the sexual revolution after her husband moves out. Prostitution, nudist colonies, guerilla theater, furtive lesbian encounters, Hollywood orgies—Viva tries them all. But while Biller doesn't spare the sordidness or the skin, Viva veers between intellectualized pastiche and absurdly tongue-in-cheek—which means the movie lacks sexploitation's pervasive sense of shame. From the winking shots of housewives reading Decorating With Crochet to the multiple cheery musical numbers, Viva may be a smidgen too "fun" to be a true replica of its source material.
On the other hand, that lighter touch also makes Viva one of the rare skin flicks worth watching for a full two hours. (Although it definitely sags in places, no pun in-…well, okay, pun intended.) Biller is clearly positioning Viva as a comment on the moment in history when the political ideals of the '60s got bound up with the new freedoms of the '60s, and how once women realized that being coerced into drunken sex with strangers wasn't as much fun as they'd hoped, they lost some interest in "liberation" in general. Viva's characters nervously mock their own worldliness, as they grab a jug of scotch and a girlie mag and cackle, "Now I'm all set! Coffee and the morning paper!" And yet Biller obviously feels for these plywood people she's created. She surrounds them with rich color and eye-popping décor, and fills them with the awareness that as awkward as their sex games may be, they may one day miss what they stood for.