My notes on Permissive, which is available on the BFI’s Flipside label. NB: spoilery.‘We’ve got to clear out before the roadie comes.’ ‘You must be joking. I gave the manager a free screw to get back here.’
One of the best things about British sex cinema is a wonderful ability to be exploitative and miserable with it – to bare flesh glumly and pass round drugs which give downers but no highs, playing to audiences of pervs in raincoats while delivering the moralistic, prurient content of a Daily Mail editorial. The Wardour Street mix of salaciousness and sneer is perfectly encapsulated in the double-edged title of this effort – though it would have been even more flavoursome if it had gone with the working title, Suzy Superscrew.
Lindsay Shonteff’s exposé of the groupie scene circa 1970 comes on like the missing link between Ken Loach’s Family Life and Pete Walker’s Cool It, Carol! Suzy (Maggie Stride), a frail girl with long hair and a slight Sissy Spacek look, comes down to London in a duffel coat (of course she doesn’t have a regional accent) and hooks up with her schoolfriend Fiona (Gay Singleton), who is part of the entourage of a hairy rock group (Forever More) and sort of exclusively balling bearded singer Lee (Alan Gorrie). Fiona gives Suzy some fabber clothes and semi-protects her from the feral harpies in maxi-dresses (typical sisterly comment: ‘if I had tits like yours, I wouldn’t be flashing ‘em about neither’) who are competing for her temporary status as alpha shag. At a loose end, Suzy pals around with a busker (Robert Daubigny) who has an ‘episode’ in a church but seems better after a spell at Holborn police station only to get run over in the street, driving Suzy back into the orbit of Forever More, and their odious tour manager Jimi (Gilbert Wynne). The sad sad story is predictable – Suzy becomes a ruthless slut-bitch and displaces Fiona with the zombielike git Lee. Superscrewed over by her friend, Fiona sits miserably in the park for a while as a whinily sad song plays, has a low-wattage All About Eve confrontation with Suzy (‘you wouldn’t be here in the first place if it wasn’t for me’) that turns into a pathetic cat-fight. A slightly bruised Suzy is carried into the next room by a busty lesbian who gropes and kisses her as she lies unresponsive and miserable. Coldly rejected by Lee, Fiona cuts her wrists in the bath as the group are leaving the hotel; Suzy nips back to fix her make-up, and sees her friend dazed, bloody but still alive – they exchange a look, and Suzy leaves without saying anything.
Shonteff – best known for horror (Devil Doll) and spy spoof (Licensed to Kill) – goes for grim: crowded hotel suites where there’s nowhere to sleep because every available space (including the toilet) is taken up by groping couples; post-coital chats (‘you weren’t much good last time’) in narrow single beds; folk-rock-scored wanderings around a bleak, still bomb-damaged London; flash-cuts which show how characters will soon die; ominous pronouncements like ‘the graveyards are full of indispensable people’; inexpressive, callous, barely-awake musicians and hard-eyed hangers-on (the band are real musos, the girls are mostly glamour models – including Madeleine and Mary Collinson, the Twins of Evil); too many people piled into a van to make it to an out-of-town gig; in noisy rooms, people exchange significant, menacing, predatory looks; suede jackets, scarves used as headbands and purple paisley see-through blouses; hotel tea services and ridiculously large joints. There’s a lot of sexual activity, but it’s all so joyless (and brief) that it’s hard to imagine even dedicated dirty movie devotees getting their jollies from it; in an almost arty (but also cheap) approach, Shonteff films crucial scenes – the car accident, the sex, gigs, fights – in jagged, fragmentary fashion which conveys what’s going on, but distances the viewer from it; the music is desperately unmemorable, and on the whiny side, but wholly appropriate.