Sunday, December 30, 2018

On Italian Sexploitation: La orca (a.k.a. Snatch) (1976), Oedipus orca (1977)


La orca
directed by Eriprando Visconti
starring Rena Niehaus, Michele Placido,
Flavio Bucci, Bruno Corazzari

Oedipus orca
directed by Eriprando Visconti
starring Rena Niehaus, Gabriele Ferzetti,
Carmen Scarpitta, Piero Faggioni


Eriprando Visconti's Oedipus orca is as eccentrically structured and as tastelessly embellished an Italo-sexploitation dumpster-dive as you could ever imagine. (Or hope for.) It sputters away from its initial concept and meanders down whichever narrative alleyways afford it the best excuses to get fleeting Euro B-flick flesh-morsel Rena Niehaus undressed and panting in baby-femme-fatale estrus. Like Marie-Poupée from the previous year, Don't Deliver Us from Evil director Joël Sería's similarly intriguing portrait of a malleable young girl filled out by male obsession then left a husk when that attention is withdrawn, Oedipus sports a finale so comically abrupt, after a highly arousing black widow-esque build-up entwining a girl's insatiability with her potentially fatal volatility, that it qualifies as a kind of masterpiece of bad movie endings. (We're left as frustrated as the man each girl leads on then leaves for dead.)


Visconti dances with an unsheathed hard-on, though, through the sado-masochistic minefield of female sexuality and sets off Blue Velvet/Jeanne Moreau-in-Mademoiselle explosions that leave you picking smoking bits of shrapnel from your middlebrow-dad sensibilities: he strips your princess and puts her in the bed of your best friend, he makes you watch as she masturbates to her own abasement, he hacks open her daddy issues with a slaughterhouse cleaver to show you the maggots wriggling within the gray matter; to paraphrase a David Bowie lyric, he opens strange doors that you'll never close again. Given that it was a hasty cash-in on the notoriety of 1976's kidnapped-schoolgirl potboiler La orca, Oedipus orca unsurprisingly lacks that film's plot-driven purpose. By its midway point, as Niehaus' recovering-victim-turned-wicked-Lolita sets out to ensnare a family friend with whom her mother once had a fling, and whom she believes may be her biological father, you might think Oedipus (shouldn't that be Electra?) had forgotten its own story and had gone scampering off in pursuit of cheaply objectionable freak-show spectacle. Well, it has. The trade-off, though, is that Visconti has the space here to wallow in psychosexual viscera — to align his more prurient and melodramatic impulses with a slow-boil unraveling of his heroine's pent-up malevolence for which the relatively cut-and-dried La orca had no time. For once, grindhouse's dubious tradition of quickie knock-offs enriches a film whose success it aims to xerox, lending some shading and a hint of moral corrective to the genre's stock violation of a ripe 'n' ready lass by examining — acknowledging — the ways in which that violation smashed train-like through her cozy mental dollhouse and left shards of its wood lodged in her psyche.


Known chiefly for her modeling before La orca, the West German-born Niehaus had appeared topless, as was the continental custom, on the December 1974 cover of Italian nudie rag Playmen; about the time of Oedipus orca's release, she'd likewise grace the Italian edition of Playboy (down to replicating the single-breast-unveiled pose). La orca, then, was made for the same two reasons that Visconti cobbled together its follow-up: her endlessly showcased, and rather relentlessly erect, nipples — peepholes into a young woman's state of mind, the tip of the hand by which the observant might read her entire deck. They're storytellers, even actors, in their own right: swelling to obscene near-distractions throughout the two films and changing colors like mood rings, not just whenever she's playing aroused (which is, of course, at intervals so frequent you could set your clock to them) but even when she's meant to be distressed or peeved. They've got minds of their own, these scene-stealers of hers — darkening to a pregnant woman's bronze in a kind of carnal aposematism that seems to warn of her witchy instability when she's relishing the memory of her ordeal in a clit-burnishing frenzy; jutting forth like bullets fired into her boyfriend's ego when she's pushing him away in a stab at cock-teasing out his inner simian. When, in Oedipus orca, her character is undressed by her mother for a bath, you fear for actress Carmen Scarpitta's eyes drawing so carelessly near to Niehaus' bare chest, for fear that Niehaus should suddenly lurch forward and leave the older actress resembling one of the horses from the climactic stable scene in Equus.


Oedipus even foregrounds their telltale qualities in a lift from a Balthus painting wherein Niehaus' Alice character (that's Ah-lee-chay, by the way) combs her little sister's hair after finding the tyke engrossed in naked self-assessment before a vanity mirror. As the brat blithely informs Alice that their father loves her more, her child's nipples — as incipient as her sense of tact — sit dormant upon her chest; indeed, she's thought nothing of such brutal kid honesty in the face of everything her sister's been through while their father dithered over whether to pay the ransom for her release. The topless Alice similarly betrays little from the neck up, but her left nipple stands irritated as if having chafed against the inside of a cheap brassiere all day — it's alive to the callousness it's picked up like some psychological antenna. She attempts to shield her breasts from view with a raised arm — a Mademoiselle stab at concealing the turbulence inside, like the repressed harridan of that Tony Richardson film masking her engorged teats with strips of tape, or like the hiding behind sunglasses of Rolling Thunder's Maj. Charles Rane and Sam Peckinpah's Bennie in his Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. We're left no doubt as to the brick she's just added to her emotional wall, yet just before Visconti cuts to the next scene, Alice drops that protective arm — her right nipple pushes even further into fetish-stoking, Amy-Robinson-in-Mean-Streets tumescence than her left. For the first time in the two films, she's truly naked: all bets are off, she's done quelling the perpetual scorned-princess snit that belches from within. Simple playground cruelty has triggered a seismic rupture, both in Alice's psyche and in the narrative itself, that's as irreparable and as predictive of the ugliness to come as the moment in Bergman's Persona when a stylized projector malfunction rends the frame in two.


Clearly, La orca wants us to revel in her forcibly-disrobed degradation as a pampered industrialist's daughter turned Machiavellian weaponizer of feminine wiles after she's snatched off the street and held for ransom by a trio of twitchy proles. When a drugged, comatose Alice is stripped by her kidnappers' young accomplice while chained to the dingy bed that serves as her prison cell, she's helpless against his compulsions as he palms the crests of her petite fille breasts drawn almost pubescently flat against her supine frame; as he traces the perimeter of those agitated knobs, pinching and kneading their rubbery resolve like he's trying to squeeze milk out of them; as his hand makes its hypnotized descent through a crown of blond-at-dusk muff for a vigorous on-camera clit massage straight out of a Jess Franco cheapie.

Visconti pushes the specificity of the act beyond the sound of her orgasm that resonates as stifled cries, beyond the sight of her perspiration like a coat of pheromonal glaze from her roiling inner stew of fear and ecstasy in helplessness. The scene is as grungy to your sense of smell as her room's sewer-green hovel walls are to your eyes — your nose twitches at that fetid locker-room mélange of pussy and ass crack, stewed in sweat and any manner of feminine discharge collected in those sodden panties of hers, that you're imagining from a girl who's been chained up inside an unventilated room without a bath for days on end. It's a queasily erotic centerpiece that outpaces for explicitness, for objectification of a willing actress, for its bulls-eye manipulation of ravishment as defining female fantasy, anything in Bernardo Bertolucci's X-rated 1972 publicity-magnet Last Tango in Paris. Here, though, as in the scene with Alice and her sister, the partially unsimulated provocations reveal what the characters cannot. Every one of the crudely lingered-upon details — the goosebumped geometry of Niehaus' tiny, radio-dial areolae; Alice's unconscious response via gyrating hips and a torso that's heaving and flexing like an accordion's bellows; his collapsing into masturbatory spasms turned -lingus on her pissy, unwashed cunni- — conveys a novel's worth about their blossoming mutual obsession and the ways that it's quite literally transforming them.


He's given a hesitant, rube-like reading by Michele Placido (a forename the character shares) — a kid so sure of the sins he'll commit, he does his penance in advance. He hovers at her bedside, head down virtually in grief, as if she were his sick old mother. In a bald evocation of the Catholic guilt — i.e. self-conflict — that every Italian mama's boy carries with him like rosary beads pulled tight about his nutsack, he shackles himself to muted, genuflective release while prioritizing her (would-be) pleasure. It's abnegation as contrition for his crimes; his Freudian nipple fixation a ritualistic pining for the nourishment of the mother that never was. Shaken by his instant sympathy for Alice, yet uncertain as to how he might abuse his power over her, he accepts it without complaint (at least, initially) when he's tasked with symbolic-son nursemaid duties: feeding her, walking her to the bathroom and wiping her twat with scraps of newspaper, babysitting her when the other kidnappers are away. He's so undecided a violator, he turns his back after exposing her from the waist down so that she might use the toilet with some semblance of dignity. Immediately after she's carried inside the kidnappers' boarded-up country hideout and shackled to her bondage bed, he's wiping vomit from her mouth; soon, he'll readjust the positioning of her cuffed wrists so as to alleviate her aching back. He'll dispense the expected bits of menace here and there — more to keep himself in line than anything else — but Alice need only peer into the troubled eyes behind his ski mask for reassurance that she'll be the one in control, that she's got her ticket out of there.


Even Michele's fantasies are tamed by his inherent mother/Madonna worship — shackled by the class schism he can't seem to imagine his way around. He dreams of himself as a fisherman at sea, who spies Alice nude upon a yacht that passes — an ocean between them, her rich-girl repose a mockery of his grubby, backbreaking existence. His inner will to class vengeance — to drag her down from her perch and into the muck, as she secretly craves — bubbles forth. Suddenly, he's steering the yacht and watching from a position of dominance as she writhes in bondage on his deck: the elusive killer whale of the film's title, the catch he's been longing for, the perfect non-consenting canvas for his lustful depredations. (Her name even sounds like a type of fish in Italian.) But he's as helpless as she is, paralyzed with indecision. Then, Moby Dick turns wounded figure of forgiveness: she rises with a beatific glow, bedecked in beads and jewels like a Catholic saint the old Italians might have named a feast after. She parts with a single weeping-Mary tear to match the single breast that's bared, but the effect is neither erotic nor blasphemous, it's one of seeing Jean Fouquet's painting of the Madonna and Child, with its abstract melancholy, come to life — it's the mother's breast as font of sustenance and renewal. So holy is her mere image — it's our first glimpse of Michele's eventually fatal pedestalizing tendency — that he drops to his knees and makes the sign of the cross. It's as if some Italian softcore producer had hired the Martin Scorsese of Mean Streets to spin a down-and-dirty moneymaker out of that film's anxious bursts of voyeurism and got instead the fever-dream meditations of a protagonist who's too conscience-stricken to get his rocks off.


Her dove-white, upper-class flesh, of course, is untainted by the sun that's mark-of-Cained her working-stiff — and pointedly swarthier — captors. (Particularly Flavio Bucci, as Paolo, the worked-to-the-bone lothario of the Alice-snatchers. With his longish jet-black hair and his just-got-off-a-shift-at-the-plant goombah's temperament, he's at times a dead ringer for Tony the barkeep in Mean Streets, played by the Romanian-Jewish David Proval.) Alice's porcelainlike nudity reflects back at Michele his own aspirations to escape the drudgery to which fate and blood have consigned him — its very whiteness speaks of ivory busts and fine china and other markers of status that never dot the homes of men like him. Upper-class versus working-class, as always, marks the dividing line — La orca's working-class characters are constantly identified or referred to by their region of origin, a casual social enforcement of that line. But in Visconti's vision of Italian society, it's Marxian class war via a battle of complexions: Northern Italy, with its Germanic admixture and, thus, reserved seat at the eternal pan-European banquet, having its means of (re)production — as in, its resentful, nanny-fed daughters of the bourgeoisie — seized by the overburdened, labor-selling peasants of the not-quite-white South.

It's those like Alice — who get their own snazzy Italodisco accompaniment as they emerge from their gated life under stately stone arches and breeze bralessly past a curious abundance of pro-Commie graffiti that they can afford to ignore because they've never had to consider why misguided souls would buy into it — versus callous-fingered factory cogs like our kidnappers: men with nagging side pieces whose little girls will go deaf unless Would-Be Stepdaddy coughs up money he doesn't have for their operations; men who toil away to keep the disposable entertainments for the Alices of the world up and running, who hustle pool games and peddle stolen Marlboros on the side and still come up short; men like our Michele, who occupies a rung so far down the regionally-based social ladder that determines pecking order among Italy's commoners (he's dismissed as a "good boy" and dispatched like a page by his fellow miscreants), that even the subtitles on the La orca DVD see fit to indicate that he speaks with a Calabrese accent, which is akin to watching a Southern character pop up in an American film as a caption reading "(redneck)" flashes beneath him.


Even the string-laden wistfulness-on-Quaaludes theme that opens La orca seems to speak to the class schism that Visconti's getting at: it filters Michele's tragic, small-timer's longing for a romance that could never be through what sounds like Muzak from the type of high-end ladies' clothing store Alice would probably frequent. Visconti ties this theme to Michele repeatedly — its opening chords revisit us as Michele gets his first full-on look at Alice, and it swells like some parody of Maurice Jarre during the antipasto for La orca's big finger-rape main course, in which he pads up to the blacked-out Alice's bed after his Mother Mary forgiveness fantasy, and undresses her like a kid sneaking a peek at his gifts the night before Christmas, only to hurriedly, gingerly re-wrap her in his deluded hope that no one will notice. Mommy Alice certainly "notices" — she likely isn't even asleep during her diddling, as he insists to her coy amusement later. She moans from within her sedative-induced haze as he clam-tweaks and pearl-dives his way into her subconscious, bypassing her defenses like a song you hear in a dream only to realize it was playing from the television while you were sleeping. When she next sees Michele, she's rigid and tentative as he approaches, fists drawn up in front of her. By the way she's spearing him with her pouty j'accuse of a glare — searching his eyes for some tell, for some hint of guilt — she knows that some button inside her has been pushed without her being able to stop it, that there's now some inexplicable pull she has toward this ski-masked peon that her usual force field of rich-bitch indifference would have pissed down upon from its penthouse balcony while giggling that he ever had the gall to queue up in the first place.


That's the real violation to Alice — the penetration of her mind — and she responds in kind, using the talent for manipulation and treacherous cunning provided her by nature in lieu of the physical strength that might overpower her captors. First: the breaking of his will as she gauges each of his reactions with maddening faux-nonchalance. She refuses the sleeping pills Michele feeds her, spitting them onto the floor. Frustrated, he slaps a claw-hold on her face like he's fucking Blackjack Mulligan taking down Baron Von Raschke in a steel cage match but it's he who submits, retreating with pills in hand. He excites and rather mesmerizes her with scorned-wife hysterics: socking her, then yanking her by the hair after she mocks his concern over a screaming fit she's thrown; confronting her with letters to boys that he's found in her purse while demanding to know how many male orbiters she keeps on rotation. She coolly reveals that she's wearing the shirt of a Spanish male "friend" (a sure sign they've fucked), thus goading Michele via the primal affront of seeing one's women conquered by another tribe; he mounts her on the spot. Then comes survival by seduction: he's not like the brutes he's found himself mixed up with, she tells him while palming bathwater over her tits in the cleansing-ritual-as-bad-girl's-redemption show she puts on for him. As she dries off, she affirms that she's under new ownership: it's Michele's shirt she now drapes over her body — a trophy marking the ostensible victory of his competitive mating strategy.


This Schopenhauerian meditation might seem at first to be a departure from Visconti's proletariat-strikes-back posturing. But he's managed to fuse Marx's Das Kapital with his sexual concerns in total cinematic harmony (the silver screen being the only place such an ungodly mash-up could ever make sense): Michele's roaming hands pay grateful tribute to the wonder of her form as if she were a rare sculpture he'd gotten the chance to boost for more money than he'd ever dreamed possible; Alice the industrialist's daughter is as piqued at his snatching her down from her rarefied sphere of existence as all women are at any man who presumes to make claims on their time and their sexuality without sufficient social capital to pay for them. Women, as Visconti is properly asserting, are the ice-hearted sexual capitalists of the human marketplace; men, then, with their romantic notions of being loved for who they are (as opposed to what they can provide), with what Schopenhauer skewered as their "old French ideas of gallantry and absurd veneration," are its exploited class, reduced to the profitability of their labor as the cost of love rises ever higher. That's what much of the furor over rape boils down to — it's a flouting of the sexual marketplace in which a man cuts through all the pomp and circumstance a woman uses to negotiate transactions and inflate her self-worth, helping himself to her sole asset while providing zero value to her in return. In Alice's case, her ticket to the best provider she can snag has depreciated from the touch of a man who could never afford her — it's like expecting a Porsche to attract top dollar once word gets around that a homeless man broke into it and soiled himself on its backseat.


Her tactics work: Michele is soon grousing to his cohort that he's stuck there with all the grunt work while the other two come and go as they please. He's doing Alice's laundry, he's bringing her cigarettes and opera on the radio to recreate as much of the catered life for her as he can while, each time that she's alone, her face gives away what's really going on inside of her. She's restless as he prattles on about his favorite soccer team — a plebe's passion personified. He inquires as to the meaning of the book in her purse — Stefano D'Arrigo's Horcynus Orca, a mythical epic considered one of the most impenetrable novels ever written — and impatience hardens her explanation as she's wondering how much longer she can keep up the façade. It's the widening chink in her armor Visconti's concerned with, however. She lashes out at Michele about being caged up like a beast; he insists in response that the only thing keeping her there is that her father's taking his sweet time paying the ransom, which she'd picked up on earlier while eavesdropping on an argument between the kidnappers. Now, it's Michele's turn to press down on her bruises: doesn't her father love her? does he even have the money? Alice copes with the greatest rejection a woman can ever know by painting her father as a cuckold: she boasts to Michele that she's actually the daughter of a famous writer — something she says her mother confided in her, which her apparent stepfather may or may not be aware of.


Oedipus orca sprouts like some vile weed from that chink, that crack in her psyche turned festering wound over the questions posed by Michele — questions which, asked again and again throughout the sequel, meet with no response but the cosmic taunt of ambiguities and contradictions: he loves me, as attested to by her father's outpouring of emotion as she's brought home by the police, by his obsequiousness in bringing her gifts and stroking her hair; he loves me not, as whispered in her ear by his insistence on parading her in front of reporters minutes after she's home, by the transparent guilt assuagement of his foisting a welcome-home trinket upon her, by his lack of even a comforting lie in response to her outburst about his having left her to rot and possibly die in captivity. If La orca's opening theme spoke to the tragic longing of a kid guileless enough to dream beyond his station in life, then Oedipus announces straight off that we're tumbling headlong into the abyss: it kicks off with a blast of burbling, dissonant, multi-tracked synths like some demonic force welling up from just under the surface of the everyday life that we're rocketing past in the police car that's rushing Alice back to her parents — it's as if composer James Dashow were auditioning for a Throbbing Gristle B-side. (Fittingly, New York indie darlings Ben and Joshua Safdie would resurrect Dashow's atonal horror frenzy for a homeless-junkie makeout session shot in nauseating close-up at the start of their pointless 2014 addict drama Heaven Knows What.)

La orca had its sops to 42nd Street — at one point, Visconti's camera pushes into Niehaus' crotch as it's massaged and you half-expect him to take us right up into her — but Oedipus is, by far, the purer exploitation offering. Yet, while La orca would be scrubbed and dubbed, then belatedly dumped onto a waning U.S. grindhouse circuit under the title of Snatch (precisely what was missing from its recut, no doubt), Oedipus has scarcely seen the light of day outside of Europe. To date, it's never received a proper American release and, even within Italy, it seemed for years to have been Maladolescenza'd out of existence by a post-Seventies West anxious to memory-hole its "revolution"-emboldened haute-couture-ing of eleven year-old Eva Ionesco pussy and countless other gleeful assaults against taste. Little in those days escaped American distributors hungry for imported sleaze to slice and dice for their homegrown degenerates; even a respectably salacious gutter dive like Peter Skerl's 1976 Bestialità, with its dubious pioneering of onscreen dog-fucking and its gloriously age-inappropriate seductions by a husband-and-wife pair of deflated Eurotrash, appeared Stateside on the heels of a certain Al Pacino hit as — wait for it — Dog Lay Afternoon. The difference, though, is that Oedipus tears away the veil of middle-class inviolability that its predecessor merely pricked; it refuses its audience the escape hatch offered by zombies, jungle cannibals, schoolgirl sex romps or clumsily-staged inter-species rutting — scenarios so far past any conceivable normal experience that they give you permission not to take them seriously.


Defiantly plotless, designed for maximum disorientation, alienating us from its own heroine by presenting her as the least sympathetic victim ever, even daring us at several points to look away from the screen: Oedipus is the exploitation film as all-out sensibility assault that must have given Catherine Breillat and Michael Haneke some pointers; it's almost admirable in its resolve to be the most perverse anti-sequel ever conceived. Oedipus sports intrafamilial disrobings (sister to sister; mother to daughter; daughter, beckoningly, to the father whose all-consuming love she demands) as if they were some quirk of the Italian bourgeoisie. Oedipus teases at bunny-rabbit evisceration then ass-rapes the baby Cannibal Holocaust in its crib with an extended-unto-the-point-of-hostility slaughterhouse tutorial that takes us from bolt-gunned, throat-slashed, flayed-while-still-alive cattle twitching dumbly in their own blood and offal to hunks of meat hanging from hooks while a drone on the soundtrack, halfway between the power-electronics genre and the space-age backing to sixth-generation L.A. witch Louise Huebner's 1969 spoken-word instructional Seduction Through Witchcraft, conjures post-industrial hell. Oedipus stinks of fevered young quim afire from borderline rape — halfway through the film, you're liable to crack a window — while slurping at the foxy-incest nectar syphilis-dripped from Gianluigi Calderone's mesmerizing 1974 Ornella-Muti-seduces-her-daddy melodrama Appassionata. (Amusingly, Muti's daddy in Appassionata — Gabriele Ferzetti, iconic to Western lovers as the crippled railroad baron Morton in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West — is also Niehaus' daddy in Oedipus. The guy seems to have spent half the Seventies fighting off the hottest young gash in Italian cinema.)


Oedipus makes deadly sirens of its star's lithe body, of her carnival-attraction milk spouts: they lure you into every gratuitous bit of exposed flesh over lounge sax and drippy synth noodlings that you came for, then Visconti's blindsiding you with casual grotesqueries like that full-frontaling of a little moppet glaring piggy-eyed through some cosmic mirror at her vengeful-Jezebel future self. Visconti turns this surface artlesssness into tonal bumper cars, lurching impatiently from one lurid, audience-riling spectacle to the next with little apparent connective tissue, save the malignancy of his man-eating succubus: Alice riding away with a kiss-off from the men whose affections she's openly juggling slams inelegantly into a bull expiring on the floor of an abbatoir; Alice waiting moist in a man's bed like the specter of his secret sexual predilection come to torment him on Judgment Day morphs without warning into a cascade of shattered glass and a missing eye. Not five minutes into the film, Visconti porn-cuts from Alice's father, pensive over his failure to act, to a topless Alice standing face to face with her mother in the bathroom: the moment hangs suspended for a beat before the scene proper begins, before you fully register the sound of the running bathwater. Visconti milks the tension of your mind scrambling to find a context for what you're confronted with — from the outset, you're boxed into a tentative, almost defensive way of reacting; he's warning you that there won't be any handy genre map with which to navigate his sudden detours and hairpin turns.


Visconti's visualization of Alice's trauma hinges on something in her present triggering a Proustian return to the violations of the first film: he directs Niehaus to stare off in an unsettled trance as the score oozes menace and he intercuts one of the five thousand or so La orca flashbacks he uses to pad Oedipus' underdeveloped running time out to maturity. As her father enters her room, bearing a visual signifier of Michele — a tray with food and a rose from her boyfriend — Visconti brings the man himself back to life with the tray of food he'd brought the captive Alice while she bitched about its quality, then taunted him over their lack of organization as criminals and mocked him for remaining at the hideout long after the other two kidnappers had most likely given him up. Her father's stab at showing concern — fixated on the appearance of order above all else — is shown up for its flimsiness next to Michele's sincerity. It prompts her possessed-Regan outburst about her father's impotence in the face of danger — as if seized by some inner Pazuzu-like entity that knows exactly what his weaknesses are, she rubs it in his face that other men had to do the job of rescuing his own daughter for him. Alice takes a stroll with her boyfriend Umberto (the "friend" whose shirt she'd worn in the first film); as they slip into a clothing store, a pair of looky-loos on the street watches them through the store window, sizing her up as they regurgitate tabloid reportage of her abduction. Umberto shields her from their gaze with the fitting room curtain and tries to initiate a make-out session, but her mind travels back to Michele in his ski mask, wiping her over the toilet in that rotting shack — not even the innocent are spared emasculation next to her idol of a real man.


As Alice is grilled by journalists, Michele's death is mentioned. A police detective steps in to maintain the fiction that Michele was taken out after having shot first at the cops, but Alice relives the climax of La orca, wherein she put a bullet in his gut herself. Soon, she's haunted to sleeplessness by his virtual ghost, her D'Arrigo novel on the floor next to her bed like some sexual talisman that she touches to re-inflame whatever it was that Michele stirred up inside her. She crosses her marked wrists above her head in a reenactment of them being cuffed, then jumps up as if her bed with its instant callback to her confinement were radiating some malefic power whose reach she could escape. She pads upstairs to stretch herself across a wooden ironing board, then finally on the floor itself, as if she'd been reading about medieval monks who slept on slabs of stone to drive out impure thoughts. It only takes her back to having thrashed about on the floor to get a response out of Michele; her God's punishment is that, this time, the conniption is real. Self-imprisoned behind the vertical bars of the staircase railing — Visconti's visual motif that speaks to her as a wild animal yearning to be caged — she writhes and nearly trembles through what looks, and certainly must feel to her, like symptoms of trauma. But we know its causes are rather internal, rather endemic to her feminine make-up: it's the awakening of a much kinkier, much more pathological beast.


Plenty of Sixties pulp showed the way — Virginie de Solenn as the proto-Alice raising kidnapper cock in José Bénazéraf's Godardian exercise in micro-budgeted French tawdriness Sexus; Samantha Eggar as Terence Stamp's newest possession in The Collector (both 1965); Pamela Franklin abducted by a conflicted Marlon Brando in Hubert Cornfield's The Night of the Following Day (1969) — but 'napped-little-missy yarns positively abounded in the Seventies of snatched publishing heiress Patty Hearst and Commie terrorist outfits like Italy's Red Brigades and Deutschland's Baader-Meinhof Gang (a.k.a. Red Army Faction). 1970's Weekend of Terror (with its hijacked nuns); 1971's The Grissom Gang; Last House on the Left, Wes Craven's 1972 Kentucky public-access remake of Bergman's The Virgin Spring; The Candy Snatchers and Richard C. Sarafian's Lolly-Madonna XXX from 1973; Abduction, with its obvious Patty Hearst stand-in, and Fernando Di Leo's Kidnap Syndicate, both 1975; the kick-off to Brian De Palma's 1976 Vertigo-wank Obsession: these films were as tailored for ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy as they were for our cunts-in-distress fetish which ripened as a logical civilizational response to feminist agitating against the very men who worked to build and sustain everything that made Western women the safest and most catered-to creatures in existence — a fetish which La orca was marketed to in open declaration that made the promo art for its predecessors look positively understated. (Just check Niehaus' bondage-mag pose on the poster: teasingly naked while handcuffed to Alice's bed, a defiant glare from under hair that's been tousled by struggle as she waits for us to do with her as we please.) La orca, in fact, reads like a craftily shameless melding of Hearst's 1974 abduction at the hands of self-styled freedom-fighter wackos The "Symbionese Liberation Army" with the Red Brigades' 1975 imprisonment of vermouth manufacturer Vittorio Gancia in an abandoned farmhouse.


Oedipus, though, has a rather different genre in mind. In its refusal of even the small mercy of closure, in its recognition of unbridled female sexuality as an all-devouring plague upon stability and order, but most especially in its escalation of Alice's rabid-cat unhingement, and in Niehaus' full-on commitment to all the ugliness her part requires, Oedipus is arguably the most physiologically tactile Italian "horror" film of its era. Other films have sketched the darkness of the bosomy ones as stemming from psychology but Visconti seems to agree with the esoteric theory which holds the uncanny resemblance of the female reproductive system to the head of Baphomet as proof of woman's demonic nature — Oedipus manifests feminine darkness via the fruits of womanhood itself. It marks the cruelty of Alice's kid sis as blooming in tandem with her physique: both functions of her coming to nubility. It documents those priapic baby-nourishers of Alice's, roused by the onset of an adult female's inclinations — emotional manipulation, sexual masochism, rebellion against her own security, a ravenousness for chaos — in a discovery as unsettling and as Ligeti's-Requiem-worthy for this disaffected schoolgirl as the appearance of the monolith was for the apes in Kubrick's 2001. It maps Alice's dysfunction via the directions she's pushed in by a moist pussy: toward compulsive Pavlovian masturbating to relive Michele's touch in the room where he invaded her consciousness, toward revenge-against-Daddy sex with the teen-seducing profligate who fucked her own mother; away from the touch of a boyfriend who appears to only want to comfort her, except when she's able to use that touch to stoke another man's jealousy.

As Visconti emphasizes the invadability of women's bodies — designed to be penetrated by outside forces which then influence their emotions and behavior — Niehaus plays Alice like a girl in the early inning of a post-Exorcist demonic-possession-as-sexual-awakening movie: uncertain as to what this strange force, this ungodly thing, is that's taken residence inside her and made it alive to vibrations it's never picked up before. Alice on the floor of the family laundry room, shivering through a visitation from shock-cut memories that seem as if they're churning up from her gut — call it Michele's revenge — makes it beyond plain that her soul is infected. It's as if Visconti prepared her for the scene by showing her Dagmar Hedrich convulsing on the floor in the middle of a party, as the blonde orphan visited by dark forces, in Magdalena, vom Teufel besessen, German softcore-nudie helmer Walter Boos' 1974 riff on The Exorcist that, in true deliver-the-goods sexploitation fashion, provided all the birthday-suited sacrilege from its possessed (but firmly adult) damsel that William Friedkin likely wanted from the pubescent Linda Blair.


Alice has Umberto drive her out to the farmhouse where she was held, prodding him to bust in the front door so they can wander through it as if it were a haunted house on Halloween — so she can relive the thrill of what happened to her. Such is her regard for him that she declines to explain why they're there but, of course, there is no "why" — she's in the grip of a soul virus that commands her to take communion with her dark lord, to offer herself in full submission to its guiding hand, to total self-relinquishment. Flushed with excitement by Michele's spiritual presence, she tears off her clothes so Umberto can mount her on the very bed to which Michele shackled her, only to sacrifice their intimacy on this new satanic altar by pushing him away. Seized by a compulsion she initially fights, she slips into an altered state of consciousness: hand stuck down the crotch of her panties as she stands masturbating against the wall through a mental flashback to Michele on top of her, through Visconti's dirty old man of a camera scanning down the length of her so that no anatomical detail escapes our voyeuristic scrutiny — her head tilted back as if to hold eye contact with some unseen force that towers over her, engaging her in its silent command. (One might even imagine it's Visconti himself, similar to how he was depicted in an Oedipus publicity spread from Playmen's October 1976 issue: the swarthy Svengali hypnotizing Niehaus' topless Trilby, so intensely close to what he's pulling out of her that he's practically mounting her.)


She then moves as if in a sleepwalker's trance — as if called — to the spot on the floor where Michele lay dying, still rubbing her clit as she advances toward the chalk outline drawn around his corpse. Kneeling at its feet and leaning forward to caress the bloodstain there as if it were Michele's face, she lies prostrate inside the outline — the crude facsimile of his final contorted pose — as if stretching her body across Michele's to take him inside of her once more. In her expression of raw necrophilic impulse — the black-mass flip side to some repressed church girl and her naughty Christ fantasies, as in the literal come-to-Jesus moment of Charlotte Alexandra fucking herself to sleep with a pair of zucchini over the Stations of the Cross in Walerian Borowczyk's 1973 Immoral Tales — Niehaus' intensity vaults past the strictly cinematic. She acts out what might be the closest analogue in disco-era cinema to the boricua-in-heat aural coitus flicking into each ear of your headphones like a hooker's tongue during the Belgium-based Chakachas' 1971 spic-rhythmed porno-rapture "Jungle Fever," or the symphonic voodoo exorcism of Donna Summer moaning, gibbering, babbling, exhaling, groaning through the ecstasy of a batter-rammed cervix, and intoning to us in the airy high register of some childlike phantasm, throughout the bulk of "Love to Love You Baby," her Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg-inspired 1975 ode to the delirium of a well-drilled female. If it's Exorcist knock-offs Visconti's channeling, then he's crafted one far bleaker than even Friedkin and William Peter Blatty's original: not only will his demon dolly never be delivered from possession, but her suffocation of the everyday with tiny shocks that accumulate and rise around it in a sinister haze is redolent less of an out-and-out nightmare that you can shake off upon waking, and more of a vaguely disturbing dream that sticks with you for days — a dream that corrupts familiar faces or elements from your life with all the doubts and nagging suspicions about them that it's dredged up from your subconscious.


As Alice's spiritual sister in Magdalena went from virginal lamb to tease from hell, so too does Alice provoke men with the promise of a surrender she may or may not deliver. She entices Umberto to feed her (à la Michele), then licks the sauce from his fingers; yet, in the very next scene, she's rebuffing him while retreating to her novel-as-Michele-identified-talisman, with Niehaus' lone Playboy-cover tit sticking out from under Alice's overalls as a look-but-don't-touch taunt, an incitement to taking her by force. On one of those bourgeois family getaways we're always seeing in European films, Alice meets the family friend — globe-trotter, world-famous photographer and writer — with whom her mother confesses to having once had a fling, and to whom Alice finds herself drawn despite her suspicion that he may have fathered her. She see-saws between testing his paternal instincts and auditioning to be his next underage conquest, between sobbing in his arms and recoiling from them. At one point, she pulls him into her for a makeout session surrounded by fresh bull carcasses a literal two seconds after having shoved him away.

When he creeps up to the room where she's riding Umberto and he watches on with a sulkiness that ponders aloud how this young girl could spellbind even a jet-setter like himself, she raises the skirt of her dress to remind him of the source of that power: her blond crotch grinding softly against her boyfriend's, their loins locked in hypnotic friction. With your cock in your hand, it's a finalist for greatest beaver shot in non-porno cinema, but the point is her candor. Like the climactic gown lifting in David Cronenberg's 1979 The Brood, with Samantha Eggar as the rage-crazed mother to murderous mutant dwarves who sprout from sacs along her lower abdomen and strike against anyone she feels has wronged her, Alice's taking him to her dark place, the pretty little portal to that inner demon god that sucks men in then conquers their spirits, the place from which — per Visconti's darkness-from-womanhood thesis — all her hatred and petty reprisals against the world emanate. It's a pulling back of the curtain that women only allow in victor's gloating, when they're utterly assured of their upper hand over a man and, thus, no longer see a need to mask with sweetness their hewing to raw, unromantic feminine impulse.


Of course, as you note Oedipus' easy assumption of familial disconnect amongst the higher-ups, as you're then recalling that "Lotta Comunista" graffito and that spray-painted hammer-and-sickle conspicuously arranged within the frame as Alice sashays past, it becomes hard to resist a smirk. Good God, you're thinking. Not another rich kid affecting callow "rebellion" against his own privilege by flirting with the adolescent passions of power-to-the-proletariat soapboxing, by pandering to the normal joes in the cheap seats with the assurance of lovelessness among the chattering class. Visconti's background only bolsters such sentiments. Born into Milanese nobility in 1932 as Eriprando Visconti di Modrone, Count of Vico Modrone, the nephew of Death in Venice director Luchino Visconti, he was dissuaded by his family from what they apparently saw — despite Luchino's success — as the plebeian pursuit of filmmaking. He followed his dream nonetheless, working as an actor, as an apprentice to directors Luciano Emmer and Renato Castellani, as an assistant director for his uncle's segment in the 1953 anthology film We the Women, and as a screenwriter (collaborating with Francesco Maselli on his 1955 Allied-invasion-of-Italy drama The Abandoned, a.k.a. Gli sbandati). He'd make his directorial bow with 1962's A Milanese Story (Una storia milanese) and go on to helm 1969's proto-nunsploitation Euro-smash The Lady of Monza (La monaca di Monza), which featured Hardy Krüger and former Miss Great Britain Anne Heywood as a real-life seventeenth-century woman of the habit whose claims to historical infamy were her covert affair with a local count whose daughter she'd bear, and her complicity in the murder of a fellow nun who stood to expose them. Visconti would, of course, never achieve a fraction of his uncle's renown — a rather dismissive 1995 obituary in Variety blamed this on the "uneven quality of his films" and on what it claims Visconti "freely admitted" to as an "inferiority complex caused by working in the shadow of his uncle’s international success." I'd concede the clear lack of, say, Leopard-ian sheen to the younger Visconti's work while arguing that Eriprando's concerns as a filmmaker were far less marketable to the status-seeking of the middlebrow arthouse set that flocked to films like his uncle's as a matter of course and made dinner-party chatter out of dissecting their themes and motifs.


Whatever his inspiration, Visconti's embedded deft strokes of irony within his class commentary and bourgeois family rot: Alice and her friend discussing their boy-toys and all the accoutrements of the good life moments before the carful of kidnappers lurches to a halt in front of them; Alice's body loaded into the company van driven by one of the kidnappers as just another shipment of product these men will deliver for payment; Alice confirming to Michele, who's only ever worked a fishing barge, that she sunbathes nude on her father's yacht as if it were everyday experience. Visconti lobs wry satirical charges at both sides of the fence: Alice insisting to Michele that her father must love her since they always play tennis together; a thug whose idea of romance is to promise to take his goomar to a pizzeria before humping her on the living room couch.

Alice swaggers out to where her mother's tending her pet roses in the garden and plants herself within a circular flower bed below her mother's eyeline as if to mimic a demon beaming up from hell — I swear to Christ, Niehaus at one point contorts her facial features into an eerie rictus resembling the fanged, smiling goblin-thing on the cover of Uriah Heep's 1982 Abominog album. She asks her mother why she loses herself in her daily gardening as if the tension in the air since her return weren't abundantly obvious; she hums obnoxiously and even sticks her tongue out, prompting her mother to chide her for her spitefully affected impishness. Alice sits forward while taunting her mother, legs parted not merely to flaunt her greatest weapon — that shield from scrutiny, that freedom-from-accountability pass — but to hold it up to her mother as a mirror while daring the woman who taught her every trick in the book to call her on it. We'd gotten a strong implication during an earlier confrontation between her parents that her father is, in fact, her stepfather, and that they've agreed to move past the infidelity that spawned Alice. He'd reminded her mother that he's always treated Alice just as well as her sister and that he'd do anything for the family; Mama thanked him for his commitment to preserving her social status by dropping to her knees and blowing him. Now, from inside her black-magic circle for casting spells of disarray and division, Alice slips into pure self-serving theater of her own: clutching the bars of her self-imposed animal's cage and shrieking about having closed her eyes in anguish as the cops gunned Michele down in front of her.


Michele's certainly no angel — just before La orca's erotic centerpiece is a scene of him tending to Alice in the bathroom, as if the humiliation in her near-wince and in her uncomfortably darting eyes (some of Niehaus' best acting here) had spurred him to go all the way with what he really wanted to do. Yet, we know from the second we meet him — as he registers shock that his partners would snatch a female — that he's doomed. Alice grills Michele as to whether he'd be able to kill her if the money for her release never comes through — he assures her that she can trust him not to since they're "friends," after all. He takes her hand as he's saying this, his voice dripping with earnestness, and she rewards him with sex. Now that he's assured her of his lack of killer instinct to match hers, though, she pulls back that curtain: needling him with his gullibility for having bought the idea that the other kidnappers would ever pay him his fair share of the ransom. She offers him his last chance to prove that he isn't merely a pawn waiting to be moved about someone else's chessboard: let's get out of here right now, she tells him. Say you were blackmailed into helping the other two and that you decided to be a hero and spirit me away all on your own, she tells him. Run a hustle, she implores him — your best hustle ever, for nothing less than your own survival, and I might be yours at last.

Michele steps outside to think over what she's said, taking in the expanse of countryside before him as it seems to dawn on him that an entire world exists beyond this stinky hovel with no food and a moody hostage, that nothing's damned him to live out his Calabrese origins as a small-timer flailing against a system that'd crush him without hesitation or effort. Visconti probably means to imply here that Michele's every bit the hostage to this harebrained capitalist caper that Alice is — I told you never to trust a filmmaker with a Marxist bent — but, in the moment, it plays as thematically appropriate. Michele finally assents to Alice's plan but, alas, it's too late: we hear the police commissioner blaring his name through a bullhorn from outside, we're peering down at him scurrying rat-like about the confines of his walled cage. Michele stuffs the kidnappers' pistol under Alice's mattress for fear that he'll be blasted away if the cops find him armed; in doing so, he makes the same fatal mistake made by Felix Pappalardi, Cream producer and bassist for the Leslie West-fronted Seventies hard rock outfit Mountain, who wound up shot to death in 1983 by his own wife: he entrusts a gun to the woman he loves.


Even the choices likely forced upon Visconti due to low budget work in his favor. Niehaus' lips match her dialogue in the two films but she's dubbed by different voice actresses: the throaty Louise Huebner purr she's given in parts of La orca speaks to her bewitchment of Michele but, in Oedipus, she's given a brattier, much younger-sounding tone against Alice's extremely adult descent into paraphilia and remorseless chaos-making. Her Benjamin Button regression to girlhood is what Visconti's putting across and it suits his thesis as well as it squares with the true-to-life experience of any real man: the little girl is the woman. Rather than melt away under the heat of physical maturity, she remains ever present, ever alive within all wives, all daughters, all cock-puppets and significant others, a hardy kernel of capriciousness and wanton boundary-testing from her genesis that any woman can pull from and use as a cudgel with which to batter the world into submission — to hold its men emotional hostage — at will.

Does Alice commit the only true "rape" in the two films — penetrating Michele's gut with a bullet though he'd made it clear she wasn't in any danger, though she wasn't beaten or otherwise mistreated by any of her captors, though the roughest thing that she'd endured was being forced to write a letter to her parents as proof that she was alive? Does she let her mask slip and lash out at Michele with all the disgust at his station in life that she'd previously muffled for the sake of survival? Does she blubber to the police commissioner in as Oscar-worthy a performance as the one she'd laid on Michele, convincing him that Michele had charged at her with intent to kill, and inspiring this officer of the law to lie for her benefit, to promise to testify that it wasn't Alice who fired upon Michele but he and his men as they burst through the door — and all while Michele lies gasping through his final moments to hear how she'll defame him and distort his memory when he's gone? As one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart assured us with the very title of his great 1790 opera, Così fan tutte, so do they all — so do they all.

©2018 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

 
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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .