A Lizard in a Woman's Skin

Color, 1975, 103m.
Directed by Miklós Jancsó
Starring Lajos Balázsovits, Pamela Villoresi, Franco Branciaroli, Teresa Ann Savoy, Laura Betti, Ivica Pajer
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Quinto Piano (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Private Vices, Public VirtuesPrivate Vices, Public VirtuesThe very fine line between art films and erotica (if such a line even exists) has rarely been blurred as ecstatically as this delirious, fleshy, underrated masterpiece that nearly torpedoed the career of its world-class Hungarian director, Miklós Jancsó. Respected at the time for such films as The Round-Up, The Red and the White, and the staggering Electra, My Love, Jancsó crossed several lines with this film thanks to its almost nonstop parade of unabashed nudity and biting social and political commentary. It's also a gorgeous film from start to finish, the kind of sensory experience that feels like the exuberant offspring of Tinto Brass, Walerian Borowczyk, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Based more or less on the Mayerling incident of 1889 involving the deaths of Austria's Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, which caused political ramifications that eventually led to World War I. Several versions of the story had been filmed including two major productions as Mayerling in 1936 and 1968 (by Anatole Litvak and Terence Young), but this one takes an entirely different approach as it paints a portrait of the libertine, free-spirited Prince Rudolf (Balázsovits) on his country estate against the orders of his father. Afternoons are spent outside, usually Private Vices, Public Virtueswith naked game playing involving him and his many guests (don't miss the strip dance marathon), while evenings turn into an orgiastic bacchanal under the disapproving eyes of his guards and advisors. He enjoys a particularly close relationship with his stepsister, Sofia (Villoresi), and his best friend, the Duke (The Key's Branciaroli). Into the mix comes Mary (Caligula and Salon Kitty's Private Vices, Public VirtuesSavoy), who has a little secret of her own and becomes a pivotal force in pushing the Rudolf into an increasingly constricting private space destined to end in tragedy.

Essentially a raised middle finger to authority even more flagrant than Jancsó's more restrained prior films, this film shocked audiences at Cannes and remains one of the top record holders for bare flesh and sexual content in a non-pornographic context. (Even Peter Greenaway can't touch this one.) The period detail is exquisite throughout, with elaborate costumes, meal spreads, and fireworks displays making it a feast for the eye as well.

Adding to the fun is the always welcome Laura Betti (1900, Bay of Blood), who helps enliven the opening act of the film as the royal nanny before dropping out of the story, and a bouncy pastoral score by the great Francesco De Masi. Jancsó was comfortable shooting in Italy by this point and he handles the multinational cast well, leading to a narrative conclusion that's a bit different than what we've found in past versions. The approach fits snugly with the outlook of Italian films at the time, presenting youth as a sometimes reckless and selfish but ultimately more positive and admirable presence than their corrupt elders; just check some of the films Umberto Lenzi was making around the same time (Oasis of Fear in particular) and it all clicks together Private Vices, Public Virtuesperfectly.

Never released in North American theaters, this film was prepped in both English and Italian-language versions, both shown on the festival circuit but rarely seen elsewhere apart from a small Private Vices, Public VirtuesEuropean theatrical run. Gray market copies have been around for a while in both variants, while an Italian DVD (no English-friendly options) was the only legit release for several years. The Blu-ray edition from Mondo Macabro (sold in an exclusive slipcover edition through its site with a liner notes booklet by Max Weinstein and Joe Yanick exclusive to this pressing, while a standard retail version is slated for October) is a welcome feast for the senses that should hopefully win the film many new fans, marking the first opportunity to see this film in pristine quality in decades. The film has been transferred from the original negative (though the English-language opening titles are culled from a flickering, grainy print), and the image quality is sterling throughout with rich, deep blacks and an eye-popping array of healthy, warm colors. The DTS-HD MA mono English and Italian audio options (with optional English subtitles, almost identical to the English dub dialogue) both sound very clean and dynamic; you can't go wrong with either one.

On the extras front, Michael Brooke (a familiar name from many prestigious European Blu-ray releases) turns up here for a valuable 16-minute appraisal of the Private Vices, Public Virtuesdirector's substantial career and his path out of his native country, from acclaimed Hungarian world classics to his time in Italy with this film and The Pacifist with Monica Vitti. In the 31-minute "The Last Revolution," screenwriter/assistant Private Vices, Public Virtuesdirector Giovanna Gagliardo recalls (in Italian with English subtitles) her time on the production shot in Slovenia with producer Edmondo Amati, the director's idea of "unmasking history" with an alternate take on the suicide narrative, and freedom of expression that invigorated the project from the treatment stage to shooting. She also goes in depth about the improvisation process and how it affected the actors, who difference languages (French, Hungarian, Italian) required her to do constant nightly rewrites. Villaoresi contributes the third and final piece with "The Praise of Lightness," chatting about the feminist rebellion in the air at the time, her own take on the challenge of playing a "sister deeply in love with her brother," and how the relaxed attitude to the human body was like being "dipped in the fountain of life." The English theatrical trailer and Mondo Macabro promo reel are also included in this brave, audacious release that deserves to pop up on several of this year's Top 10 lists.

Reviewed on August 18, 2016.