Color, 1969, 94 mins. 25 secs. / 94 mins. 16 secs.
Directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile
Starring Catherine Spaak, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gigi Proietit, Luigi Pistilli, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Tinti, Frank Wolff, Fabienne Dali, Venantino Venantini
Nucleus Films (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD),
M6 Video (France R2 PAL), Happinet (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan RA/R1 HD/NTSC), King Records (DVD) (Japan R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), First Run Features (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)
Many Italian sex comedies can be about as much fun as a root canal, but here's a very welcome exception. Produced at the height of groovy op art mania, The Libertine (La matriarca) is a bubbly, enchanting meditation on the foibles of the human libido as seen through the eyes of Mimi (Catherine Spaak at her loveliest), an unlikely and wealthy young widow who - thanks to the advice of her lecherous attorney - discovers her husband kept a swanky sex pad on the other side of town where he indulged in all manner of perverse sex play. Jealous and more than a little intrigued, Mimi picks up a copy of Psychopathia Sexualis and decides to dabble a bit in alternative lifestyles. After being mistaken for a hooker by a randy stranger (Black Emanuelle star Gabriele Tinti), tangling with an oddball dentist (Frank Wolff), and discovering the sexual side of living beetle necklaces, Mimi finally sets her sights on a sweet natured X-ray specialist (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Along the way she also learns the real cause of her random sneezing fits and discovers her own oddball perversion, which resolves itself in a most unusual and charming fashion.
Those expecting an orgy of bare flesh and dirty jokes may be caught off guard by The Libertine, which lures the viewer in with the promise of a walk on the wild side and winds up delivering something far more interesting and profound. By far the most extreme visuals belong to the late husband's stag film reels, which seem jarringly out of place with the rest of the film. In fact, almost all of Spaak's relatively restrained nudity was performed by a body double, though she does remain scantily clad enough to make one wonder why she bothered. Trintignant seems oddly cast at first, as he doesn't even enter the film until the third act and seems way too buttoned down, but fortunately he and Spaak prove to be able sparring partners for the delicious final scenes, worthy of a classic screwball comedy. Their expressions during the film's post-credits fadeout are simply priceless. This is also a chance to see a huge roster of recognizable European stars drifting through the story to indulge in the lighthearted kinky shenanigans, which put this as one of the sunnier entries in a cycle of domination and submission films from the era like The Slave (made by this film's director, Pasquale Festa Campanile, just after this one) and the masterpiece to rule them all, The Frightened Woman.
The Libertine first appeared on VHS from Audubon and then First Run in a drab, cropped, nearly colorless edition, derived from the U.S. print which trimmed down some early exposition from the Italian cut and added some extra S&M and frontal nudity to the aforementioned stag reels. Meanwhile a Japanese DVD of the Italian version (with optional Japanese subtitles) appeared as part of a Catherine Spaak box set(!). The First Run DVD conflates the best of both versions with a composite print (91m15s) containing a colorful widescreen (albeit not anamorphic) transfer of the Italian cut (with the English soundtrack and credits) and the alternate U.S. footage inserted to make the most complete version to date, albeit with the running time skewed by the presence of unadjusted PAL footage. The mono soundtrack is fine if somewhat limited; at least the bouncy and infernally hummable score by lounge master Armando Trovajoli comes through with clarity. Extras include an interesting 6m43s outtake reel (which contains the alternate Italian shots with some fascinating trimmed bits from the raw takes), the strangely edited but appealing U.S. trailer, step-frame liner notes (which can't be commented on here for reasons which will become obvious), and a couple of nice photo and poster galleries, not to mention the usual round of trailers for other Audubon titles. A French DVD later followed in 2018 (under the title L'amour à Cheval), looking fairly solid and featuring the Italian and French tracks (with optional French subtitles) as well as the French trailer and the outtake reel.
A Blu-ray of this film first appeared in 2014 from Japanese label Happinet, albeit only in Italian with Japanese subtitles. In 2020, U.K. label Nucleus Films gave the film its English-friendly Blu-ray debut as a stacked special edition featuring pretty much everything you could possibly want. The disc contains both the Italian version (94m25s), with Italian and English audio (the former sounding much better but the latter more in sync, with optional English subtitles) and the spicier Audubon version (which features a reworked dub track supervised by Radley Metzger), in English or Italian with optional English SDH or English translated subtitles. The two versions are presented as separate encodes with the Italian version getting a higher bit rate, occupying 25.1GB of the disc versus the Audubon's 14GB. However, in motion they're very similar with identical color timing and detail levels. The packaging notes the film has been "restored from the best available elements," and while this is hands down the best it's looked on video video by a wide margin, it still has issues in keeping with the somewhat tattered history of this film over the years and its current state. The detail level here is quite soft with some obvious filtering (especially the first reel) which appears to have been applied to mitigate damage, including attempts to spackle over some tears and warping on some frames that can still be partially seen if you're paying attention; also there's a visible image shift for a frame or two at each edit, which will take some getting used to especially on larger displays and projectors. Interestingly, as the film goes along it looks more natural with more film grain and minor debris in evidence, so who knows? Complicating matters is the fact that the film deploys varying types of filters and varying film stocks throughout (including some fairly aggressive diffusion on some shots of Spaak), which becomes even more apparent in HD. The colors look gorgeous here and really make the film a delightfully splashy experience, which makes the difficulty of finding much of Campanile's other work even more frustrating. The Italian version can also be played with a new audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, who really bores into Campanile (not just as a director) including his gravitation to comedy and the themes of gender and agency at play here, plus extensive discussion of Spaak's career up to this point (coming out of a sexually coquettish period) and the fantasy role playing that ties into the general zeitgeist of European cinema at the time.
As for video extras, you get two U.S. Audubon trailers (both reconstructed in HD), followed by "Futurism and Frivolity" (26m58s), a video essay by Rachael Nisbet noting how the protagonist's sexual awakening is mirrored by the choices in the production design, as well as the importance of some of its aesthetic contributors and recurring visual motifs. Then "Trovajoli: Postlude" (28m10s) is an informative Skype session with Lovely John covering the background of the Gershwin-loving composer and the pivotal tracks from his delicious score to this film. (Unfortunately he badly mangles Trovajoli's last name throughout the piece, so be prepared.) An expanded reel of outtakes an deleted scenes (16m14s) is presented here in much higher quality than ever before, including all of the lingering stag film footage and a very clear look at the face of Spaak's body double-- not to mention plenty of coverage of Philippe Leroy being absolutely ridiculous, all set to sumptuous highlights from the soundtrack album. A rundown of the film's U.K. censor cuts (2m27s) highlights the extensive and sometimes baffling demands made to get it in releasable form, including the removal of the beetle brooch scene. A TopFilm fotoromanzo (2m42s) presents black-and-white photo highlights in the usual comic book form of the era, followed by a very extensive image gallery (9m4s) with posters, stills, and other odds and ends from around the world including the U.S., U.K., Italy, France, Germany (as Huckepack), and Japan. Finally the disc closes out with the Italian, French, and English international trailers (the latter as The Aristotle Perversion), the English and French credit sequences, an interesting 4m41 Japanese video promo for the DVD release, and a 1m4s gallery of Audubon Films posters.
Nucleus Films (Blu-ray) (U.K.)
First Run (DVD) (U.S.)
M6 (DVD) (France)
Updated review on September 23, 2020.