Writer-director-pouter Anna Biller’s influences are as naked as her delightfully curvaceous body is in the riotous 1970s throwback Viva. Biller’s film is to the films of Radley Metzger and Russ Meyer what Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven was to Douglas Sirk, only perhaps a little bit cannier and a lot less dryly academic about its postmodern tweaks; if Haynes looked back at the 1950s by making his own Rock Hudson update a blue-blooded queer, Viva revisits the golden age of stag filmmaking by putting its likely audience (bored suburbanites with a 16mm projector in their shag-carpeted basement dens) in the starring roles.
Biller stars as Barbi, a sweet but meringue-brained California housewife to an impossibly blond hunk, both seemingly straight out of the pages of Playboy. Barbi prepares platters of Swedish meatballs, fruit salad, and cheese fondue between indulgent bubble baths. Her husband, Rick (Chad England), while square-jawed, blue-eyed, and perfectly tanned, spends too much time at the office or on month-long business trips (invariably to Aspen or the Indianapolis 500), sending Barbi into fits of twitchy boredom…down there. Her only outlet for her frustrations is her salacious neighbor friend, Sheila (Bridget Brno), and her swinging thespian husband, Mark (Jared Sanford), who put on quite a show about being sexually liberated, but do it from the fenced-in privacy of their backyard pool.
It doesn’t take but one complaint from the otherwise terminally compliant Barbi to get Rick turning around and walking out the door, leaving a crushed Barbi with no other alternative than to sample from the sexual bounty of the ‘70s. Thus, she becomes a heroine straight out of De Sade, only Scotchgarded, bouncing from one sexual indiscretion to the next until she winds up the star attraction at an orgy lifted straight out of Metzger’s Camille 2000 (even using identical music cues). While Biller certainly milks the garish interiors and woeful fashions of the day for all the humor they’re worth (lenser C. Thomas Lewis’s Brady Bunch cinematography is every bit the tour de force Edward Lachman’s Oscar-nominated work on Far from Heaven was, and Biller’s own production design is as attentive and overzealous as Vincent Peranio’s work for John Waters), her intentions are far more focused and vicious than your average episode of That ‘70s Show.
Poking fun at the 1970s is like shooting sardines in a can, what with the yin and yang of post-revolution hippies just reaching their nudist burn-out point and forever-square suburbanites pretending to expand their horizons by doing what their bachelor magazines tell them to do. Viva‘s intentionally flat performances and flatter double entendres (he, at an orgy: “I could eat her alive”; she: “Eat me alive!”) mercilessly satirize the Playboy mindset even as the film revels in the kitschiness of it all. It walks a fine line (and, at just over two hours, for a surprisingly long time), but the film’s kicker—in which Barbi is recruited to play a role in a show paying homage to the 1950s because, as the show’s director says, “people are bored to death with nudity”—confirms Biller’s self-awareness of the way even parody can be used to simultaneously illuminate and evade the social ills of today.