9 LIVES OF A WET PUSSY (1976)

Taking an unusual but wholly committed route to achieving his big screen ambitions, nascent filmmaker Abel Ferrara assumed the pseudonym of Jimmy Boy L and assembled a rag tag group of friends, lovers, and associates to create 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, his debut feature film from 1976. While making an independent film with an assorted crew of non-professionals and passionate fellow travelers wasn’t outside the norm, drafting them into making a hardcore pornographic film was a decidedly bold move, most especially since the vast majority of the folks involved had never made a porn film before, including the people that were to be in front of the camera.

Filmed under its original title of White Women with the hopes of eventually changing it to Nothing Sacred, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy is a dark, strange, and impressionistic piece of adult cinema. Fitting nicely along Abel Ferrara’s other works centering around loss, regret, and small redemptions, it’s a story told from opium dreams, letters, and stories within stories. All of this ephemera contains the memories and presences of old flames that may or may not be fictional characters of the mind, helped along with a little magic, and set in a New York City which is as darkly dangerous as it is lush and bucolic. It’s the story of Gypsy (Dominique Santos), a contemporary white witch who longs for her ex-lover, Pauline (Pauline LaMonde). Through her various letters to Gypsy, Pauline describes a life of ribald, wanton pleasure which both entices and frustrates Gypsy, causing her to take more concerted steps to achieve a spiritual and physical reconciliation.

9 Lives of a Wet Pussy unfolds like a dark fairy tale in the skin of a bodice ripper. To kick things off, an evocatively lit sex scene with a French stable boy (in an actual stable, no less) unfurls at a glacial pace. As the scene comes to an end, we realize that this is a tale told to Gypsy through a letter which we come to find is one of many, all of which detail Pauline’s robust sexual life. Three camera setups counted off by a very noble establishing shot make up the whole of this scene which moves slowly to match the kind of agony felt by Gypsy at being told about how well Pauline likes having sex with a man.

As is the artistic wont of Abel Ferrara, the highbrow sex scene found in the opening moments clashes marvelously with the four minute gas station bathroom romp that comes almost immediately afterwards. This scene, another tale spun in a letter to Gypsy, finds Pauline sinking her claws into a hot gas station attendant (Tony Richards, the only pro on the entire roster) and hanging on for dear life as she’s suspended upside down and fucked into tomorrow which not only works in terms of her character but also registers as one of the most authentic things I’ve ever seen committed to celluloid.

It’s probably a fine time to mention that the sound design by John Paul McIntyre is very deliberate and helps tell what little actual story there is. The gas station dalliance is actually expanded to include shots of a naked LaMonde writhing away on a lit surface, the rock score gradually replaced by a droning, electronic piece. This eventually gives way to the sights and sounds of Gypsy masturbating to orgasm before returning, just for the briefest of seconds, to the bathroom where the rock music sputters out as LaMonde rises from her spent conquest and exits the room. Only here is it clear that, through the sound design, Ferrara has conveyed the sense of desperation in Gypsy who has had to place Pauline into an isolated headspace that belongs only to Gypsy before she herself can achieve sexual satisfaction.

As stated above, there was but one professional sex performer in 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy which is all the more amazing in the case of Pauline LaMonde. While not a pro, she was incredibly game and in many of her scenes, she achieves a kind of unguarded, ecstatic peak that matches some of the best of the most enthusiastic of porn stars (and, not for nothing, she has to have unsimulated sex with the lion’s share of the cast). Given her intimate relationship with Ferrara at the time (specifically, they were a couple), her performance allows Ferrara to achieve a piece of a rarified, erotic real estate that’s generally monopolized by Jess Franco. While Pauline LaMonde isn’t quite as natural a fit as Lina Romay in the ménage a trois that also includes the camera and director, she seems incredibly comfortable in her scenes, regardless of the pairing. Far from coming across like the dolled-upmarketed product of a sleazy suitcase pimp, LaMonde radiates a dazzling sensuality that is all of her own and is given complete freedom in her scenes. Running with it with uninhibited abandon, at no time does she look like she’s about to ask for a refund.

The completely unplanned moment when Ferrara himself had to stunt-cock for an actor who couldn’t rise to the occasion when the time came to roll the cameras also created an opportunity that’s unique for the film. When LaMonde gets her moment with Ferrara (ridiculously done-up with cheap hair powder to age him into looking like LaMonde’s character’s father), there does seem to be a whole other visible connection on display between the two of them that is in stark contrast to the forbidden, clandestine fling in the gas station bathroom. As divergent types of the unvarnished and ecstatic inside look are employed by LaMonde by these moments and with her intimate scenes with the character of Nacala (identified in the film as the Nigerian Princess and portrayed by Joy Silver), 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy serves as a nice catalogue of the differing embodiments of sexual ecstasy. LaMonde sells each moment as if she were a veteran but, this amounted to her one and only film credit in either straight or hardcore fare.

9 Lives of a Wet Pussy isn’t completely impervious against the occasional ugly side of late 70’s hardcore conventions as it does contain a disquieting scene of sexual assault against Nacala. However, Ferrara plays it smart by keeping it in the context of a traumatic memory that gets abruptly reclaimed by Nacala during an extended sex scene between her and LaMonde that, despite its three part breakdown and curious transitions, unfolds as if it is happening in real time. Ferrara’s epic focus on their physical encounter almost suggests that theirs is the relationship that bothers Gypsy the most. For Gypsy, Pauline’s letters about her myriad sexual encounters are really just fodder for her mental spank bank, but this is the one relationship Gypsy can’t masturbate away. What is shared between Pauline and Nacala (perhaps in reaction to the trauma of the latter’s assault) is so genuine and real that the clasping of their hands that occurs while Pauline performs oral sex on Nacala turns out the be the most erotic move in the whole session without even knowing it or even drawing attention to itself.

And far from being a simple prurient device, the relationship between Nacala and Pauline (and, by extension, Pauline and Gypsy) fits in very well with Ferrara’s penchant for including characters who are explicitly LBGTQ or who actively pursue their identities of sexual fluidity. For at its core, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy is primarily about the broken relationship between two women and semi-examines a whole other relationship between two women which is handled with a great deal of tender care and is wholly erotic precisely because it feels natural.

On a technical level, this is an impressive piece of filmmaking regardless of its parent genre. And that stands to reason since so many of the folks involved continued to work with Ferrara as he moved out of pornography immediately after this film. Scripted by Ferrara’s childhood pal, Nicodemo Oliverio (aka Nicholas St. John, also playing the chauffeur to Pauline and her husband), 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy is no more based off Les Femmes Blanches by Francois DuLeathan (both author and book are non-existent) than Last House on the Left or Fargo are based off of true events. Ferrara regular Joe Delia contributes an incredible score that is both moody and spirited (featuring E Street Band drummer and Conan O’Brian bandleader Max Weinberg on skins) and Delia’s cinematographer brother, Frank (credited as Francis X. Wolfe), gives the film a more polished and classy look than what Ferrara would get three years later from Ken Kelsch on The Driller Killer.

Saddled with the longer 9 Lives of a Wet Pussycat title on all of the film’s print materials, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy is the kind of raw filmmaking that is a true testament to the spirit of John Cassavetes and it is also why Ferrara can arguably be considered that storied filmmaker’s true spiritual heir. The amount of risk in any cinematic endeavor is commendable. The amount of risk on the screen in an average porn is even more impressive as it gives absolutely nobody a place to hide while they reveal the most intimate details with an audience of strangers. Here, Ferrara dares to aim for something a little more and puts a lot of folks who absolutely did not do that sort of thing for a living into some very vulnerable positions which pushes the risk factor off the charts entirely. In pursuit of bigger, more respectable projects, the film has a real “Hey gang, let’s put on a show” vibe but also one in which Mickey Rooney told his friends that putting on a show meant they’d have to have sex with a few strangers on film.

9 Lives of a Wet Pussy is 100% Abel Ferrara; gutter poetry blasted into the audience’s face with the power of a singular form of rocked-out energy that looks to bulldoze whatever gets in its way. Maybe it works better as a Ferrara film than it does as a random selection of smut one might be tempted to choose for a date night, but it works nonetheless. And at the very least, Ferrara should be commended for not displaying contempt for pornography. As executed, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy is a striking and complex piece of work; a story told in movements reduced down to their most basic, erotic, and carnal. That it was made by people not normally associated with pornography may have helped it forge a unique path between art film and fuck film and, depending on your vantage point, this may have been an unfortunate fool’s errand. Ferrara may still be a little slow to defend the film but after spending a calendar year immersed in an almost countless number of hardcore selections from the golden age of pornography, I can say that there just aren’t many films out there like 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy. For some people, this may be a blessing. I kind of think it’s a shame.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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