Friday, September 25, 2015

Maladolescenza (Spielen wir Liebe) (1977)

Games Without Frontiers

written and directed by Pier Giuseppe Murgia
starring Lara Wendel, Eva Ionesco,
Martin Loeb


I must confess: careful considerations of aesthetic merit and my personal fascination with fringe cinema aside, my initial reaction to this notorious-beyond-notorious, banned-in-several-countries-and-still-considered-kiddie-porn-in-some treatise on S&M as the Yin and Yang of the mating dance wasn't exactly the reaction you'd have expected from a lapsed-Catholic libertine such as myself — a libertine who still harbors the belief that "respectable" cinema can incorporate explicit, and even unsimulated, sex into compelling essays on the human experience without qualifying as degenerate pornography; a libertine who holds that there's nothing inherently objectionable about the various instances of under-eighteen nudity that dot the history of Western cinema, and who openly laughs at the schoolmarmish harrumphing of misandrists who insist that a man's natural attraction to, say, a comely and sexually mature sixteen year-old girl would mark him as some sort of "child molester." Though I wasn't offended by anything Maladolescenza had to show me, my reaction was something akin to mild shock — shock that a film like this had ever seen release beyond being projected on the wall at some private party attended by jaded, decadent jet-setters. It was the reaction of a man whose immediate instinct would be to ward off unsavory assumptions about his character, should anyone burst into the room and catch me watching this thing. It's a reaction that speaks to a wholly legitimate, and increasingly warranted, concern over the sexualization of children that we've seen more and more of in the years since "free your mind, maaaan" and The Sexual Revolution™ took hold — a sexualization which represents the inevitable fallout from several decades of leftist soapboxing in favor of eradicating boundaries and taboos without any consideration of the long-term consequences of all that "freedom," and with little understanding of why society might have erected said boundaries in the first place.


After all, Maladolescenza ("Adolescent Malice" in the King's, "We Love Playing" in Der Kaiser's) illustrates its thesis via a sort of stunt casting effect: it puts a baby-faced trio of grade-schoolers through a series of thoroughly adult, and incredibly kinky, Lord of the Flies-inspired scenarios as a means of positing that twisted psychological games and the female predilection for aloof jerkboys who hopscotch back and forth between lovers'-lane solicitousness and the casual sadism of a budding Richard Ramirez are so unshakably central to our very nature that they're evident in even our interactions with each other as children. Conceptually, it's not far off from where Alan Parker was when his old-style gangster musical Bugsy Malone gave us tykes with tommy guns and fourteen year-old Jodie Foster as a parody of va-va-voom in a slinky moll's dress. Maladolescenza, though, takes a hard left from there into ethically indefensible Euro-sleaze art-porn via the rather arrantly detailed nudity of its mostly preteen actors in what I tend to doubt were fully simulated sex scenes. (This being Europe in the wild 'n' woolly Seventies and all.) Note that I said "arrantly detailed" — the underage nudity on display here, then, isn't of the "socially acceptable" variety, as in a scene of a parent giving his child a bath. It isn't the kind of child nudity one could justify as being necessary to a film's plot, as when David Cronenberg, in The Brood, gave us a father documenting the bruises on his daughter's naked body — bruises which point toward a climactic revelation about her mother. To my mind, it isn't even of a piece with the endless examples of European cinema's use of child nudity in furtherance of an objective, brazenly unsentimental — yet artful — portrait of childhood and all the burgeoning of sexual awareness that goes with it.


No, what director Pier Giuseppe Murgia feasts our eyes upon here are blatant, calculated eroticizations of pre-mature physical forms, as in his prelude to a sex scene featuring pedophile-pinup doll Eva Ionesco — who, by the time of Maladolescenza, had already appeared in Italian Playboy, had supposedly done a nude scene for the 1976 French softcore flick Spermula (it was cut out), and had been posing for her photographer mother in topless, lace-gloves-and-lipstick-type glamour shots since the age of five. (If Roxy Music made music for children, she'd have graced one of their album covers.) Rather than portray carnal exploration the way a precocious young girl might actually approach it, Murgia has her gyrate on all fours in the "doggystyle" position atop a satiny white duvet that suggests a mimicking of adult romance rituals — she tosses her mane of blond hair about, moves her little hips and ass around as if he'd prepared her for the role by showing her a bunch of Seka movies; and the kicker is that it isn't done for the delight of the young boy she's about to bed down with, it's done for ours. Her naked-as-the-proverbial-jaybird, way-underage patootie is pointed at us as she bends over, not at her "lover"; and, though Murgia keeps her audition for Roman Polanski's remake of Behind the Green Door confined to the distance of a wide shot, his camera nonetheless leaves no detail about her pint-sized anatomy to our imaginations: the surprising hairiness for an eleven year-old, a rather dilated-looking asshole that suggests a familiarity with acts unthinkable for a girl still figuring out training bras and pre-algebra. Likewise, Murgia spares us no anatomical acquaintance with the fledgling Miss Ionesco's co-stars — be it the head-on medium shot of Lara Wendel's still-developing anti-breasts as Martin Loeb's burgeoning dom Fabrizio seduces her character Laura inside a cave; be it the glimpse of Wendel's muff that Murgia makes sure to capture as Laura pulls up her panties after urinating by a river; be it the outline of her illegal clam through tighty-whiteys as Wendel assumes the endless parted-thigh, damsel-in-distress positions of fetishized female endangerment that he's choreographed her through; or be it the curious fact of Murgia's having chosen to open the film with Fabrizio sleeping naked, his not-yet-a-manhood on open display.


And my initial reaction to all this — however puritanically American it may seem to snail-eaters and Autobahn-riders — was that there's nothing so earth-rattling or aesthetically unprecedented in Murgia's "revelations" about human nature or the cruelty of which children are capable that it would warrant Maladolescenza having been so meticulously designed as a junior-high theater-class prelude to David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and directed to make an audience of adults view children in such an unabashedly titillating fashion. Despite the half-hearted justification of the film as a "coming of age" piece, there's no way it was put together with an audience of kiddies in mind; its easy familiarity with sexual sadism, a male's Vertigo-like obsession with the image of the perfect female, and the give-and-take between fetishistic control freaks and their all-too-willing subjects is far too dependent upon being viewed and understood from within a knowing adult framework for it to work any other way — it's a fourth-year lecture in advanced psycho-sexual dynamics, not an introductory course. Rarely does Murgia even attempt to excuse his erotic scenarios and doctor's examinations of his actors' bodily development as being from the point-of-view of someone within the narrative. When we see Fabrizio naked at the start of the film, he's all alone (save for his trusty German Shepherd — and not even a pretentious Euro-perv is ridiculous enough to give us a dog's-eye view of things); when Fabrizio undresses Laura inside the cave and indulges his apparent jones for cunnilingus (he'll do it with Ionesco's character Silvia, as well), they're the only two present — thus, our perspective in these scenes is that of our own, of adult spectators encouraged by Murgia's X-rated staging to call to mind vivid recollections of our own sex lives, or of countless similar sex scenes using adult actors, and then plug in the bodies of eleven year-olds where that West Hollywood bartender girl you once doggy-styled in a women's restroom or your favorite spank fodder from an unrated Jess Franco film should be.


Murgia does toss in shots of Fabrizio watching from up high as Laura pisses near the river, or as she and Silvia engage in a fascinatingly near-sapphic bit of Persona-lite roleplay wherein Laura willingly attends to Silvia's preening before a mirror, brushing Silvia's blond mane like a servant girl under a spell, before the angle of Murgia's camera makes it appear as though Laura's own reflection has taken the place of Silvia's. But — Fabrizio's earlier eyeballing of Laura's panties aside — his appearance at the tail ends of these scenes feels like an afterthought, a fuck-it-why-not stab at adding voyeurism to the film's exhaustive list of kinks for completion's sake. The details dwelt upon by Murgia's choice of camera placement couldn't possibly represent Fabrizio's view from the distances he's at, anyway — such casual lapses in technique are echoed by the film's habitual nosedives into abject tastelessness, such as the kiddie bondage tutorial wherein Fabrizio ties Laura to the base of a tree and watches with the dispassion of a sociopath as a huge snake crawls all over her; between the ultra-gratuitous visibility of Wendel's panties beneath a conspicuously unbuttoned skirt and the incipient Euro-cuck impulse of having funkalicious Seventies porn music kick in at the exact moment the big, black, phallic snake slithers into frame, you're either laughing your ass off or wondering how in the hell the makers of this film ever escaped jail time. (Or, if you're like me: both of the above, plus wondering how many Jewish moneymen and distributors were likely behind this soft push of kiddie-fiddler chic via the brazen pornification of European children, regardless of however many Italian names the credits boast.)


All told, there's obviously no rational post-Seventies defense for this stuff any more than there is for the genuine bit of animal snuff (another Euro art-flick mainstay) that has Fabrizio and Silvia shooting Laura's pet bird full of arrows while she pouts over their wanton cruelty. Murgia treats us to the sight of the bird's eyeball bulging out as the final arrow pierces its tiny skull and all it adds up to is another moment of envelope-pushing checked off of the film's laundry list of transgressions from a "more innocent" era (as they tell us): an era when record shops kept the sleeves to Zep's Houses of the Holy and Blind Faith's debut on open display, an era when The Scorpions could plaster schoolgirl twat on the front of their Virgin Killer album and not see their careers ended; an era when a Coppertone suntan lotion commercial full of little-girl ass crack and a Rolling Stones lyric about seducing a fifteen year-old (thirteen, if you listen to the live version) were barely noticed bricks in the pop-cultural wall; an era when the fact that rock stars like Jimmy Page routinely availed themselves of sub-eighteen groupie flesh was the stuff of casual jokes and, thus, common knowledge; an era in which William Friedkin could use button-nosed Linda Blair as his crotch-stabbing instrument of sacrilege in The Exorcist, making it both his uneasy metaphor for a little girl's emergent sexuality and an across-the-board box-office smash; a pre-Disneyification-of-New-York era in which one could walk through Times Square and legally purchase child porn imported by major companies like Color Climax; an era in which "erotic" snaps of Eva Ionesco's naked young form could gain her a spread in a men's magazine and a walk-on in a Roman Polanski film while catapulting her mother to art-world notoriety. (Ionesco would go on to direct a film inspired by this phase of her life: My Little Princess, from 2011, with Isabelle Huppert as the mother.) Taken with a full accounting of the era in which it was created, then, Maladolescenza stands as either par for the shag-carpet-and-8-track-tape-era course or the point at which the allegedly naïve and innocent spirit of naked children as avatars of purity and unspoiled potential started curdling over into the lurid gaze of the trenchcoated old man hanging around school playgrounds even though he hadn't a son or a daughter to pick up.


When it comes to these divisive cinematic raspberries in the church lady's face of social mores, though, I go split-personality. There's my pragmatic side, which finds itself highly immune to the puerile shit-stirring and shallow épater-la-bourgeoisie grandstanding of self-styled guerrillas-with-cameras; and there's my voyeuristic, nothing-sacred-in-the-name-of-art side that cries "feed me!" in anticipation of the most ostensibly shocking, yet galvanizing, images I can find: Klan riders galloping to the rescue of civilization in Birth of a Nation's invention of the action-film climax, the breath-taking aestheticism of German unity in Triumph des Willens, live animals hacked open for your money's worth in Cannibal Holocaust. Maladolescenza sits squarely on the fence between these two impulses, a big hairy child-molester ball draped over each side. My good-citizen, planning-on-having-children-someday brain registers the supreme immorality of Murgia having endowed Ionesco with a specifically tailored miniature-blonde-vixen appeal — her ritualistic application of lipstick and eyeshadow, the baby sex-kitten dresses in which he outfits her, the exceedingly grown-up certainty of her pleasure in taunting Laura or her sexual confidence in pushing Fabrizio's head down toward her little crotch as if she'd done it with a hundred previous boy-toys just like him. (All the while, she resembles a porcelain angel figurine you might have seen on some old lady's dresser during the Victorian era: the same naughty-by-contrast look her mother devised for her photo shoots.) The effect is that of seeing a pair of middle school girls in "booty shorts," eyeliner and T-shirts so impossibly tight that they reveal the outlines of their training bras (not an uncommon sight in our age of spineless, largely matriarchal parenting): you register the visual signifiers of mature female sexuality and you feel the involuntary spark that attempts to set your arousal mechanisms whirring and humming before your brain recoils and reminds you that you shouldn't be having that reaction to a pair of juveniles, that this is the very reason why society traditionally frowned upon young girls being allowed to wear makeup or dress like whores in training.


And it's immediately — defensively — countered with an acknowledgment that my initial reaction, however sensible, was also the Pavlovian twitch of a self-policing seal trained to arf! disapprovingly at anyone prying the lid off of whatever sexual terrain modern society's deemed a no-go zone; to ignore, if not outright demonize, the notion that one's sexuality doesn't simply wait until one's eighteenth birthday to materialize out of nowhere. It's a reaction I reached for like a pair of comfy old slippers — and this, despite my own childhood memories of bedroom dry-hump quickies with the little redhead from across the street while we pretended to be watching Diff'rent Strokes; this, despite my memories of darting home from middle school to spend the hour I had until Mom got home Wild Bunch-gunning my pubescent DNA into wadded-up paper towels to the Ginger Lynn VHS tape that a buddy had loaned me from his dad's "secret" stash; this, despite my memories of engaging in bouts of show-me-yours-I'll-show-you-mine with the redhead that began with mutual puzzlement and worked their way up to tentative groping while we giggled our way through feigned disgust. (Little-boy me actually thought the redhead's looked weird; my only visual guideposts to female nether regions at that point were the triangular Buckwheat 'fros that late-night cable had shown me.)

Unless you're completely amoral, a film like Maladolescenza will absolutely put to the fire your sensibility as someone who prides himself on never feeling put off by a mere film; you'll search for ways to write it off as something that should never have seen the light of day. And these are unarguably healthy instincts — there's hardly anything that needs shepherding and guidance more than the sexual curiosity of children, lest it be soiled by portly middle-aged dating-market rejects who excel at convincing themselves that a nine year-old girl's greatest fantasy is to be slobbered on by a Viagra-stiffened Wilford Brimley look-alike; lest it be abused and perverted by those who'd place gratification of the real "love that dare not speak its name" above the molding of a child who still stands at the fork of his or her personal development and could go either way: well-adjusted adult or fucked-up freak paying rent to shrinks for couch space; future keeper of civilization's flame or one of its extinguishers. Still, my anything-goes side fights valiantly against such common sense. Why, it asks, should we indiscriminately balk at artistic depictions of the inherent sexual curiosities of children, other than to placate our socially-enforced sense of what's "right" and "wrong"? Obviously, this film has gained notoriety as appealing to the prurient interests of the Humbert Humbert set but, then, Brian de Palma's Scarface has been adopted, lock stock and barrel, as a how-to manual for success in the drug game by the gibbering, genocide-and-materialism-promoting women-in-disguise of the hip-hop crowd; Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese's crystal-ball fever dream of beta-male explosion, inspired John Hinckley, Jr.'s obsession with a teenage Jodie Foster and his subsequent attempt on Ronald Reagan's life; A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers have likewise been accused of stoking copycat violence by aboriginal-IQ, shoulda-been-a-load-in-their-mother's-mouth types who look at the movies and see a guidebook of Really Fun Activities You Should Totally Try in Real Life! — should these films be banned as well?


It isn't a particularly skillfully made film but, to the justification of its contentious existence, Maladolescenza is at least semi-legitimate in laying bare the roots of the fundamental push-pull of male-female interaction. It's like a psychosexual re-fashioning of Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small — a world where, in keeping with the template from William Golding, little ones' darkest impulses are given free reign to shine a light upon the ways of us grown-ups as events devolve into naked savagery, where there's no overarching moral authority but that which is established by the whims of the strongest and most dominant. Fabrizio leads Laura through the woods as they play his favorite game, King of the Forest: he, of course, is the "King" and Laura — so she thinks — is his "Queen." But Fabrizio constantly tests her loyalty to him through an increasingly cruel series of games: siccing his German Shepherd on her, tricking her so that she falls into a hole that he's covered with leaves, watching her squirm and shriek during the aforementioned bit with the snake, running hot and cold on her with words of devotion followed by dismissive taunts. In Laura's feeble pining for Fabrizio's approval — for the validation of a male she deems master of her environment — we see the female's impulse to melt before the alpha male, to qualify herself to him for the purpose of pulling his strength and resourcefulness down around her like a warm blanket, as a means of her own survival. It's why she yields her body to him after he gets her inside the cave and pretends that he doesn't know the way out so that they can spend the night there: Fabrizio's offered her the shield of his protection in a scary place and, in return, she attempts to secure future protection by giving up the greatest commodity a girl could ever offer: her virginity backed with the assumption of fidelity. Fabrizio is no provider type, though — he only ups the mind games afterward, and the film becomes a nifty demonstration of what happens when a girl fumbles with the fine china of her precious innocence (which is inevitable when it's left in her hands); it makes crystal clear the certainty that a girl whose heart is shattered by a cad early on will only be ruined for the lifetime's worth of second-placers who queue up in his wake.


Fabrizio displays the preternatural jerkboy game of a born heartbreaker — he keeps Laura dangling from a string with such expertise, one wants to send him out to school all those hopeless doughboys who shell out money for pick-up artist seminars and furiously scroll through "game" websites for the slightest clue as to how to entice a woman into awareness of their existence. But even the mighty must fall — Fabrizio goes from spider to fly as Silvia comes into the picture and rains her penchant for sadism and mental games down onto their little picnic of comparative innocence. She and Fabrizio band together to bedevil Laura, to literally and figuratively sling arrows at her, to belittle her, to taunt and tease and ostracize her until she breaks for no reason other than the sheer fun of it, and because Silvia must embody the female's inherent cruelty and sense of competition in regard to other women that German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer elucidated in his timeless clarification of distaff nature, On Women:
"...while a man will, as a rule, address others, even those inferior to himself, with a certain feeling of consideration and humanity, it is unbearable to see how proudly and disdainfully a lady of rank will, for the most part, behave towards one who is in a lower rank (not employed in her service) when she speaks to her. This may be because differences of rank are much more precarious with women than with [men], and consequently more quickly change their line of conduct and elevate them, or because while a hundred things must be weighed in [men's] case, there is only one to be weighed in theirs, namely, with which man they have found favour; and again, because of the one-sided nature of their vocation they stand in closer relationship to each other than men do; and so it is they try to render prominent the differences of rank."
The rank referred to by Schopenhauer is, in this case, the warm glow conferred upon Silvia by Fabrizio's clear preference for her over Laura; the status of better-than given to her by her ability to cast spells over boys that other girls can't manage. Murgia's direction of Lara Wendel seems to indicate that this treatment awakens something in Laura, some inner Dorothy Vallens-like masochist, especially as she stumbles upon them in flagrante delicto: instead of turning away from Silvia's verbal jabs and from the sight of Fabrizio giving to a much prettier girl what she'd thought was hers alone, Laura meekly relents to Fabrizio tugging at the dog collar he's placed around her by sitting down next to them as they carry on and then biting her lip as if she can barely contain what the erotic charge of voyeurism is doing to her. Jump ahead ten years and she's the black-eyed punching bag who just can't bring herself to leave her boyfriend, the girl who advertises her yen for anal, the dedicated mudshark, the fat girl who'll let guys do anything to her in bed and who takes a debauched pride in her tolerance for debasement: any number of desperate concessions made by lower-value women who'll do whatever they can to elevate their rank nearer to that of the pretty young things who've always taken instant validation for granted.


Echoing the ending of Lord of the Flies, in which Golding has the boys regress to sobbing helplessness in the face of adult authority, Murgia's children revert back to their true ages after a second night in the cave, as Silvia collapses into little-girl hysterics about needing to return home to her parents and Fabrizio stabs her to death in response to the threat that his favorite new toy might be forever taken away from him. The thing about Lord of the Flies, though, is that Golding calibrated his narrative to spring organically from the limitations of his protagonists' youth — the boys' mistaking the dead parachutist for a mythical beast, their hewing to a middle-schooler's sense of caste; it's not simply an adult slice of soft-porn retrofitted onto childhood as an excuse to get youngsters naked and have them do dirty, transgressive things. It's why Lord of the Flies works and Maladolescenza — once you've gotten over the kick of tracking this thing down and seeing what all the fuss was about — remains little more than leftoid envelope-pushing from a time when too large a slice of the population dismissed the red flags raised by aestheticization of naked kiddie flesh as repression's final cry as we flushed it down a cultural shit-bowl sold to us as an ivory throne; an outmoded impulse from our obsolete, black-and-white past.

The great liberal conceit, of course, is to free the oppressed, to loosen the shackles clamped around various groups' quality of life or personal expression. Yet, one may be tempted to ask when confronted with the liberties taken by a film like Maladolescenza: exactly how was little Eva Ionesco "liberated" by having been posed like a fuck-doll by her own mother or coached to shake her ass and spread her legs here for an audience of grown men? Exactly whose benefit is being considered via today's slow, soft push of sympathy for pedophiles — the only fruit ultimately borne by Silvia under that plush white comforter or by the sixth-grader who once beckoned the enlightened to give Blind Faith a spin?

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

 
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