PRIVATE VICES AND PUBLIC VIRTUES (Miklos Jancso', 1976) ***
A single still of naked revelers taken from this film, which I found in one of my father’s old magazines, had long intrigued me and, having been recently bowled over by Jancso'’s THE ROUND UP (1965), I leapt at the chance of acquiring the utterly barebones Italian DVD edition of it (despite knowing nothing of the quality of the disc itself). Actually, being an Italian production after all, I had wrongly assumed that (as was the case with the director’s other three films shot over there) it would eventually be shown at some point on late night Italian TV; however, in hindsight, its total invisibility for all these years isn’t that surprising. In fact, if I were pressed to pigeon-hole the movie, I’d say that had Walerian Borowczyk ever directed a screenplay co-written by Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, the end result might well have looked something like this. Ever since debuting at Cannes, the film has provoked either outrage or outright dismissals as “pornography with pretensions”; amusingly, in his enjoyable “Stracult” tome, Italian critic Marco Giusti proudly admits to having watched it several times on first release despite its having been confiscated twice by the prudish authorities!
Typically for Jancso', there is very little to relate plot-wise: as a matter of fact, this can be seen as simply an erotic fantasia on the infamous Mayerling affair in which the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Archduke Rudolph, carried out a suicide pact with his mistress. According to Jansco' and his regular Italian screenwriter Giovanna Gagliardo, however, the events were not so clear-cut. Although the film never strays from the Prince’s country estate, Jancso'’s realization of 19th Century Vienna is as visually sumptuous and technically elaborate as expected while the political subtexts as they relate to our modern age are equally important. Although this is the first film I’ve watched myself which dealt with this particular historical incident (there have been countless others over the years, with Anatole Litvak’s 1936, Max Ophuls’ 1940 and Terence Young’s 1968 versions being the best-known), it’s safe to assume that PRIVATE VICES AND PUBLIC VIRTUES is unlike any of them. For starters, most of the film’s running time is devoted to a marathon orgy to which the Archduke invites the younger generation of Austrian aristocrats to spite his father Emperor Franz-Joseph (a mask of whom is donned by several of the revelers). Apparently, a coup to overthrow the monarch had already failed and, consequently, the Archduke retired to his Mayerling estate to live a life of hedonistic abandon. Knowing full well that his family disapproved of his scandalous behavior, he further intends to shock the establishment by photographing the guests in flagrante and sending a copy out to his peers, thus exposing the veiled degeneracy of the ruling class. Ultimately, however, court officials present themselves at the gates of Mayerling to put a stop to the bacchanalian excesses…
The three main protagonists of the film are the Archduke, his stepbrother and stepsister who, forming an inseparable and incestuous ménage-a'-trois, are soon joined by an equally libertarian hermaphrodite when a circus troupe stops by the mansion. Having disposed of his boringly proper wife early on, the Archduke falls in love with this newest addition to his inner circle. Left alone after the guests have been dispersed, apprehended or executed (off-screen), the four lovers are ominously shrouded in white sheets like corpses during their final open-air rendezvous: an oppressively melancholy mood makes itself felt towards the end, aided immeasurably by Francesco De Masi’s lovely mournful score. The officials, ostensibly there to put a stop to the offending proceedings and arrest the Archduke, mostly stand around befuddled not knowing how to cope with the extraordinary situation – but their ultimate reaction is swift and abrupt, leading to an inspired slow-motion finale depicting the royal funeral procession.
Among the cast list, there were only three names that I recognized: the formidable Laura Betti (who as the loving nanny performs a handjob on her royal charge laying about in the hay!), Theresa Ann Savoy (she plays the crucial role of the hermaphrodite here and would later be equally central to Tinto Brass’ infamous CALIGULA ) and Ilona Staller (adopting the evocative stage name of Cicciolina, she later became a highly popular porn star and, later still, an Italian MP – but, ironically, she is here wasted in the thanklessly chaste bit of the Archduke’s wife!). Although there is much full-frontal nudity involved, the only time it really approaches hardcore territory is the afore-mentioned scene with Betti – unless one wants to count the brief instances of bestiality when some of the guests decide to get it on with a few runaway turkeys!! Typically for Jancso', his characters resort to much communal dancing and game-playing – which is here joined by the improbably effective singing of English childhood ditties (including “Baa-Baa-Black Sheep”)! The sparse original music, then, has been mingled with classical pieces – notably Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” – and, appropriately enough, a handful of military marches.
I suppose that, for the uninitiated, all of the above would seem pointlessly perverse and terminally tedious but, stylistically, the film was something of a new departure for Jancso': while the intermittently creative editing (with especially notable use of ellipses) and his trademark long sequence-shots are still in evidence, he reportedly utilized 343 shots here as opposed to the lowly two digit figures of earlier works. On the downside, the video presentation is a bit dodgy at first: an obviously unrestored print has been utilized for the transfer (albeit uncut, as proudly announced on the sleeve of the Italian R2 DVD) but is still acceptable enough for its velvety cinematography and extreme handsomeness to shine nonetheless; the layer change, however, is quite roughly handled (at least by the Pioneer model I watched it on).
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