Tag Archives: Helen Mirren

CAPSULE: CALIGULA (1979)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione

FEATURING: , , , Teresa Ann Savoy,

PLOT: Caligula becomes the Emperor of Rome and lots of depravity happens; any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely accidental.

Still from Caligula (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: On paper, Caligula sounds like a sure bet. There are many bad movies that get honored here, and we even have a tag called “.” Caligula could theoretically qualify for the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made by that standard. Except that “bad” doesn’t describe Caligula so much as stupid. Nothing more need be said about this movie but “stupid.” Rocks are too smart to watch Caligula.

COMMENTS: There is at least a hefty essay and maybe a book to be written about the story of how Caligula got made, although perhaps it would be more correct to say it got “executed.” The drama involved in the production is a thousand times more entertaining than anything that ended up on film. Pretty much everybody involved locked horns and stormed off the set to sue each other. Various creative forces within the production struggled to make it a historic Shakespearian opera, a cheap exploitation flick, a softcore porn epic, and a hardcore snuff porn transgression; the result was best summed up when one reviewer called it “a boondoggle of landmark proportions.”

Some cultural context is helpful: the 1970s were an era when movies like Deep Throat had brought big-screen porn into a relatively acceptable light, and filmmakers were getting more daring in testing the boundaries of taste. Caligula pisses on the very idea of taste, and if you dare to abuse your intellect by watching it, you will encounter several scenes where it literally does just that. Welcome to the Horny Roman Empire, with Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) romping with Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), which seems to be harmless enough erotica until you learn they’re brother and sister. His uncle Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole), summons him to discuss politics and witness his depraved orgies. Caligula assassinates Tiberius and assumes the throne, breaking all hell loose as he sinks into depravity. Caligula promotes Drusilla as his equal, convicts Marco (Guido Mannari) of treason in a kangaroo court and offs him, and marries Caesonia (Helen Mirren) because he can’t legally marry his sister. Drusilla dies, Caesonia gets pregnant, Caligula wars with the Roman senate and declares himself a god, Caligula shows off his horse, the new senator Chaerea plots to assassinate Caligula and succeeds, and the movie ends, merciful heavens be praised.

In the midst, background, foreground, and everyground of these shenanigans, naked people cavort in every depiction of hedonistic excess possible. It kind of plays out like a film with a bigger budget but fewer ideas and not a trace of a sense of humor. In fact, Malcolm McDowell’s presence in this film invites you to compare it to a signature scene of A Clockwork Orange; it’s exactly the kind of “ultraviolence” film the character Alex would be forced to watch during his brainwashing sessions. There’s rape, torture, bestiality, necrophilia, mutant people with four legs and butts on their bellies, silly over-the-top executions and mutilations, urination, defecation, and basically every perversion you could search for on the Internet. Most of this just flies by with no context or reason to exist. Sometimes the camera just gets bored and focuses on somebody’s crotch, while irrelevant actors screech their dialog in hopes of getting it’s attention. Nobody in this movie even gave a thin damn about historical accuracy. The sets are festooned with anachronisms such as a styrofoam hat shaped like a penis, worn by an extra just casually passing through the set while apparently waiting for a taxi.

When it comes to erotic arthouse films, Caligula fails by every definition. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover does a superior job of being a weird epic with erotic scenes, for just one example. There’s a dozen or so artsploitation films already in line on this site ahead of Caligula, and there’s only so many we need. In terms of history, just take into account that even the writings we have of the real life of Caligula (mostly Suetonius, writing 80 years after the emperor’s death) are suspected of fudging the facts in the interest of political propaganda. In terms of pure kinky titillation, go watch The Story of O or Secretary or Belle De Jour instead. Don’t look for steamy thrills in Caligula, because nobody, not even serial killers apprehended with a freezer full of body parts, is this depraved.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… as with a lot of bad would-be art, this cinematic oddity holds a truly bizarre fascination…”–Michale Dequina, The Movie Report (1999 revival)

194. THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)

“Painters hate having to explain what their work is about. They always say, it’s whatever you want it to be — because I think that’s their intention, to connect with each person’s subconscious, and not to try and dictate. For all of his intellectualism, I think Peter Greenaway directs from his real inner gut, and he seems to have a very direct channel in that. The only other director I can think of who’s close is David Lynch.”–Helen Mirren

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Gambon, Richard Bohringer, Alan Howard

PLOT: A brutish but successful criminal with expensive tastes has bought a French restaurant, where he holds court nightly drinking the finest wines and abusing staff and customers equally. A bookseller who dines there catches the eye of Albert’s mistreated Wife, and the two embark on an illicit affair. The Thief’s discovery of their affair sets off a chain of violent reprisals which ultimately draw in the establishment’s Cook.

Still from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
BACKGROUND:

  • The MPAA denied The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover an R-rating (under 17 not admitted without parent) because of its extreme content (including scat, violence, nudity, cannibalism, and some disgusting stuff, too). Rather than have the film released with an X rating (a designation associated with hardcore pornography in the public mind), Miramax released the film unrated in the U.S. This is frequently cited as one of the films that led to the creation of the adults-only NC-17 rating (under 17 not admitted, a rating which fared little better than X). Cook accepted a NC-17 rating for its DVD release.
  • The controversy did not hurt, and probably significantly boosted, Cook at the U.S. box office, where it grossed over $7 million, becoming the closest thing to a hit Greenaway has ever had.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We are going to skip over the shocking (and spoilerish) final image, and instead focus on the color transitions during the magnificent tracking shots: as Georgina walks from the sparkling white ladies’ room into the royal red of the restaurant’s main dining room, her dress changes color to match the decor.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although not as thoroughly weird as most of the rest of his oeuvre, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the director’s most beloved (?) movie, and in many ways his poplar masterpiece. While the surrealism here is as subtle as the scatology is explicit, there can be no doubt that Cook is an outrageous, brutish and lovely work of sumptuous unreality from an eccentric avant-gardist that demands a place of honor among the weirdest films ever made.


Original trailer for The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover

COMMENTS: He begins the movie by smearing dog feces on a quivering naked man who owes him money, then urinating on him. This is Continue reading 194. THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)

55. O LUCKY MAN! (1973)

“Lindsay… was never into realism.  He wanted it real, but not realistic.”–Malcolm McDowell

O Lucky Man! is a film about the real world.  I think that everything in it is recognizable to people who look around with open eyes and can see the kind of world we’re living in.  But of course it makes it’s comment through comedy and through satire, because I think the world today is too complex and too mad and too bad for one to be able to make a straight, serious comment.”–Lindsay Anderson

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Lindsay Anderson

FEATURING: Malcolm McDowell, , , Arthur Lowe, Alan Price, Lindsay Anderson

PLOT: Mick Travis is an eager, ambitious trainee at a coffee company who gets a big break when the firm’s top salesman in the Northeast territory goes missing under mysterious circumstances and he’s picked to replace him.   With his engaging smile and can-do attitude, his career begins promisingly, but soon a sting of unfortunate coincidences befall him.  A plague of strange events drive him across the 1970s English landscape, as he is mistaken for a spy, volunteers for medical experiments, falls in with a touring rock band, becomes the personal assistant of a ruthless capitalist, goes to prison, and works at a soup kitchen.

Still from O Lucky Man! (1973)

BACKGROUND:

  • McDowell is Mick Travis in this film.  He played a character of the same name in three of director Lindsay Anderson’s films, each completed in a different decade: If… (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973), and Britannia Hospital (1982).  Other than sharing the same name, there is no evidence that Mick Travis is intended to be the same character at different stages of life.
  • McDowell came up with the core idea for the script, drawing on his own pre-fame experiences as a coffee salesman.  McDowell worked on the script with screenwriter David Sherwin (If…).  In an interview, McDowell recalls that he was having trouble thinking of an ending and Anderson asked him how his real life adventures as a coffee salesman ended.  “That’s your ending,” Anderson told him.
  • This was McDowell’s next project after completing A Clockwork Orange in 1971, cementing his position as the most important weird actor of the early 1970s.
  • Director Anderson had tried to make documentary about singer-songwriter Alan Price before he began O Lucky Man!, but could not obtain funding to license the songs.  Anderson instead invited Price to write the songs for this movie and to appear as the leader of the touring band in the film.
  • Almost all of the actors in the film play multiple parts.  Arthur Lowe won a BAFTA Best Supporting Actor Award for his triple-role as Mr. Duff, Charlie Johnson and Dr. Munda (in blackface).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The final party scene, with the entire cast dancing to the theme song while balloons drop from the ceiling, although the shot of Dr. Millar’s medical experiments is unforgettable as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As if Mick Travis’ improbable class-trotting adventures across 1970s Britain weren’t strange enough, Lindsay Anderson sprinkles weirdness and non sequiturs throughout, including Kafkaesque interrogations, a half-man half-hog, and an unexpected breastfeeding scene. Any film in which a boarding-room neighbor inexplicably gives a young man a “golden” suit and sends him out into the world with the sage advice “try not to die like a dog,” is tipping to the weird end of the scale.

Short clip from O Lucky Man!

COMMENTS: The standard line on O Lucky Man! is that it is a satire on the capitalist Continue reading 55. O LUCKY MAN! (1973)