Monday, October 20, 2014

The Art of Love (1983)

The 80’s were an interesting and slightly trying time for Walerian Borowczyk. While the controversial direction taken by Borowczyk in the 70’s with films like Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975) resulted in Borowczyk’s fall from the good graces of critics, the films were nonetheless profitable. By the 80’s however Borowczyk didn’t have the easiest time of getting financial backing for projects, perhaps in part due to changing markets but the types of films Borowczyk had in mind weren’t an easy sell to producers looking for straightforward “erotic” films, a label which Borowczyk loathed. Borowczyk started the 80’s off with Lulu (1980), based on the Lulu plays of Frank Wedekind which featured a cameo by Udo Kier as Jack the Ripper which in some ways foreshadowed Borowczyk’s next film Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981) which starred Kier. Perhaps due to its ancient Rome setting, Borowczyk probably didn’t have quite such a hard time getting his follow up to Dr. Jekyll and His Women, 1983’s The Art of Love off the ground, and perhaps not coincidentally with Italian funds, what with ancient Roman themed films still being quite popular due to the notoriety of Caligula (1979). The Art of Love however is no mere Caligula cash-in. In pure Borowczyk fashion its a curious film that couldn’t have come from any other filmmaker and one that over the years has been slightly overlooked.

Claudia (Marina Pierro), the wife of high ranking military officer Macarius begins an affair with the considerably younger Cornelius while her husband is away on a military expedition. Cornelius is a student of the poet Ovid who teaches his pupils “the art of love”, or rather seduction and one of his students even manages to seduce Macarius’ mother Clio. Not long after his return Macarius learns of Claudia’s infidelity as well as his mothers indiscretions, the consequences of which will prove be dire for all involved.

Its fitting that The Art of Love (Ars amandi) was an Italian production because the film shares several similarities with Borowczyk’s previous Italian film Behind Convent Walls (1978) with both films featuring a very loose, episodic narrative structure. The film however isn’t as nonsensical as the films structure makes it appear to be and the way Borowczyk eventually brings the film full circle is both clever and unexpected, but not before things descend into complete bedlam in classic Boro fashion. The film is loaded with Borowczyk’s trademark quirks including his unique treatment of the erotic content which culminates in one of the most bizarre and surreal segments in Borowczyk’s oeuvre featuring Pierro and a hollowed out bull which not only recalls Borowczyk’s own The Beast but is also reminiscent of the infamous horse scene in José Ramón Larraz’s The Coming of Sin (1978). Although not as overt as some of Borowczyk’s other films in its jabs at the establishment, Borowczyk’s anti-authoritarian attitude makes some select appearances and of course Borowczyk also makes time for some absurdist humor based around the antics of a troublemaking bird. Visually the film is also similar to Behind Convent Walls with its handheld camera work, soft focus photography and Borowczyk’s masterful use of light which just beams off of various objects throughout the film especially Pierro. More often than not Borowczyk frames Pierro, who is in especially fine form here, as if she were an angel surrounded by a halo of light, the effects of which are astonishing.

To further emphasize the issues Borowczyk had with producers, during the filming for The Art of Love Borowczyk was forced to endure many instances of producer interference, the results of which are featured in the film in the form of spliced in footage from Joe D’Amato’s Caligula: The Untold Story (1982). Around the time of The Art of Love Borowczyk had several ambitious ideas for film projects although none of them ever came to be and it would be another three years before Borowczyk would make another feature which would end up being Emmanuelle V (1987). Although the film does have its fans the film is seen by many as an artistic low point for Borowczyk even though at this point its fairly well known that the majority of the films principle photography was done by the AD. Borowczyk rebounded though in a big way with the staggeringly brilliant and still criminally under seen Love Rites (1988) which would eventually wind up being his last feature film. As for The Art of Love, its unlikely that the film will ever be held in the same high regard as films like Goto, Island of Love (1968) or Immoral Tales. Nevertheless its one of Borowczyk’s most visually astounding films featuring yet another fantastic turn from Pierro and despite the obviously spliced in footage, the film remains for a most part a quintessentially Borowczyk experience.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fear City (1984)

Setting aside his 1993 adaptation of The Body Snatchers simply titled Body Snatchers, Abel Ferrara has never done a “traditional” genre film. Although its title may have had viewers expecting wall to wall blood and gore and a British video box who’s front cover was enough to land the film on the infamous video nasties list, Ferrara’s debut (non-adult) feature The Driller Killer (1979) was far more psychological than most elitist snobs would give it credit for. Ferrara followed up The Driller Killer with Ms. 45 (1981), a film which is miles beyond others in the rape/revenge genre thanks to the brilliant lead performance from Zoë Lund (who would later go on to write one of Ferrara’s masterpieces Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Ferrara’s unique visual approach perfectly blending the films sleazy aesthetic with stylish direction. The of course there’s his brilliant take on vampires The Addiction (1995), a film which is in a league of its own when it comes to vampires and to this day there still isn’t any other film remotely like it. Fear City was Ferrara’s third major film and his follow up to Ms. 45, and its defiantly a genre film, one that refuses to sit comfortably in one genre or another. Part slasher, part cop thriller, part mob movie, part drama and even featuring some martial arts/action film elements, Fear City is one of Ferrara’s most entertaining films.  

All across New York City an unknown assailant known as “The New York Knifer” has been attacking the city’s stripper population. Coincidently, all the victims belong to an agency co-operated by troubled ex-boxer Matt Rossi (Tom Berenger) that hires out dancers to various clubs throughout the city. With more girls turning up dead, Rossi begins to feel pressure from not only the mob boss who controls the agency, but also from Al Wheeler (Billy Dee Williams), the head detective on the case who’s had it out for Rossi for years and is convinced he’s involved somehow. With both sides of the law on his back, Rossi decides to take matters into his own hands and is determined to catch the killer himself while confronting some personal demons of his own in the process.

Considerably pulpier than both The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, Fear City is nonetheless a quintessential Ferrara film in the way it offers a nice amount of dramatic substance and psychology to go along with all the stripper slicing. Considering the wide variety of genres and subgenres the film dabbles in on the surface the film might seem all over the place tonally speaking but Ferrara balances everything out nicely so not one aspect of the film cancels out another. As much as the film is about the killer, its also equally somewhat of a character study of Rossi which also includes a well executed romantic subplot involving Rossi’s ex-girlfriend Loretta playing by Melanie Griffith in an early big role. Its Berenger who really makes the drama of the film work so well as he brings so much more to the role of Rossi than just the stereotypical “sensitive tough guy”. Ferrara’s clever way of working Rossi’s boxing past into the main storyline was not only a great way to bring more depth to the character but it also gave the nameless killer a creditable opponent. The killer by the way also happens to be an expert in martial arts which leads to one really innovative subway attack sequence as well as an unquestionably 80’s training montage. Naturally Ferrara presents everything in his trademark meeting of the middle of 42nd St. grime and high style which at this point he had perfected after having really found his directorial calling card with Ms. 45.

According to Ferrara the idea for Fear City actually predated The Driller Killer with screenwriter Nicholas St. John writing the first script for the film in 1975. The original idea for the film was more psychological from the killers standpoint and by the time the film actually got made in 1984 the finished product was drastically different from that first script. The film does deal somewhat with the killers motivations although its obviously not the main focus of the film. Still its pretty fascinating to know how long Ferrara had the idea for the film and how much of that original vision remained in the final film. Ferrara has also stated that at the time the first script for the film was written he and St. John actually lived behind an agency like the one depicted in the film which played a big hand in the inspiration for the story. Fear City is also important as it was Ferrara’s first Hollywood production with a good sized budget behind it. Ferrara would go on to describe the film as “taking the payday” which sounds a bit dismissive although its hardly a film to be ashamed of with its original melding of genres and flawless cast. Fear City is again one of Ferrara’s most entertaining films, and a considering the films that came before and after it, its placement in Ferrara’s filmography makes complete sense.