Color, 1969, 99m.
Directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile
Starring Rosanna Schiaffino, Haydée Politoff, Romolo Valli, Daniela Surina, Gabriele Tinti, Aldo Giuffrè
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
A title referenced far more often than actually seen, this wonderful slice of late '60s Italian decadence is best known to soundtrack buffs under its original title, Scacco alla regina (or "Check to the Queen"). The shimmering score by the great Piero Piccioni has become something of a lounge legend, second only perhaps to his work on the same year's Camille 2000 (with which this film would make a great double feature). The controversial S&M-themed source novel by Ghiotto Renato was first published in English as The Slave, the basis for the name found on the home video premiere from Mondo Macabro, and it's still surprising that the film has been so frustratingly hard to see until this release.
Sweet young jet setter Silvia (Politoff) has a bit of a problem. She's just landed in Rome and can't stop indulging in kinky fantasies, which can be triggered by anything around her. Fortunately her very butch childhood friend Dina (Surina) has the ideal solution: a job working for a capricious actress and model named Margaret (Schiaffino). As it turns out, Margaret is quite the dominating mistress and takes a shine to Silvia, who agrees to be her personal paid slave. That includes everything from picking up magazines from the floor and wearing uncomfortable high-heeled shoes to more outrageous requests, such as getting slathered in plaster to serve as a nude living statue for dinner parties. Still fond of posing for glamorous photo spreads and having occasional film shoots in her home, Margaret openly flaunts her money (which she claims could buy fleets of prostitutes for an entire regiment) and shows off her lavish accessories, which range from a mechanical white horse in her bedroom (which of course prompts a fantasy with a bridle in Silvia's mouth) to her own personal boy toy (Lisa and the Devil's Tinti). Also on hand is the equally sadistic Enrico (The Leopard's Valli), whose ideas even manage to cross Margaret's twisted threshold. Though Margaret claims to find lesbians "disgusting," she still seems to find any excuse to tear off Silvia's top, even goading her into sharing a bubble bath while wearing a metal slave collar. However, one simple gesture changes their relationship forever, leading to a personal reckoning in public that will force Silvia to confront the extent of her own desires.
Originally a screenwriter for filmmakers like Luchino Visconti as well as an accomplished novelist, director Pasquale Festa Campanile made this immediately after his slick, mildly kinky sex comedy, The Libertine, which was distributed in the U.S. by Radley Metzger's Audubon Films. Exactly why Audubon didn't snap this one up is anyone's guess except that the style and subject matter were perhaps a bit too close to one they did pick up the same year, The Frightened Woman. The film was apparently never dubbed into English, which is now just as well since it was originally shot in Italian anyway; unfortunately it largely faded into oblivion after its Italian run, tantalizing prospective fans only through amazing photographs and that aforementioned classic soundtrack album. Seen today, the film is a wildly entertaining slice of pop art complete with filtered dream sequences, arty photo shoots, "artistic" nudity galore, and perverse plot twists engineered by our controlling anti-heroine. Campanile largely shifted over to comedies after this (most successfully with When Women Had Tails and its sequel), though he did manage to dip his toes in the sleaze pool again with the excellent Hitch Hike and the underrated erotic drama, The Girl from Trieste.
While the limited cast performs well here, it's primarily a show for the two female stars as they navigate through varying levels of control. Tabloid fixture Schiaffino is wonderfully effective both as an aggressive, selfish presence and as a stunning showcase for a parade of wild outfits and hairstyles. Discovered by Eric Rohmer for his film La collectionneuse, Politoff is fearless in a role many actresses would have fled from screaming at the time and ably presents her character's complicated sexual and control issues through her expressive eyes and body language. Particularly effective are the closing scenes which lay out a surprisingly nuanced, open-ended state of affairs a bit out of the norm for the period.
As mentioned above, this film has never had a release on DVD and could be seen only through a fuzzy bootleg edition in Italian. Surprisingly, this was chosen by Mondo Macabro as its initial foray into Blu-ray courtesy of a dual-format release also packaged with a DVD (containing the same extras). The transfer looks marvelous with rich, eye-popping colors, and the LPCM mono audio does a fine job with the iconic soundtrack. It's worth noting that this film was shot in Techniscope, an anamorphic process that often resulted in increased grain and sometimes problematic detail issues; you'll notice the quality here is a bit grittier than what would be seen in a standard flat film of the period (compare it to The Frightened Woman), but that's a fair trade given the kicky wide compositions you get here in almost every scene.
The video extras kick off with a 27-minute interview with film critic Roberto Curti, who's impressively versed in both Campanile and the cinema of the period as he lays out the working process of the filmmaker and the variations from the source novel. (He also has great taste in reading material going by the bookshelf behind him.) Next is a 19-minute piece with Justine Harries of London's Film Bar 70, who talks about the enduring appeal of European cinema of the era (basically the late '60s to the early '80s) ranging from A Quiet Place in the Country to Italian comedies. The packaging cites the inclusion of deleted scenes, which appears to be some additional footage actually integrated back into the main feature since it now runs a bit longer. Also included are an excellent write up about in the film (in typically informative MM fashion) and solid bios for both of the leading ladies, the director, and composer. Be sure to go all the way through these as you'll run into a surprising batch of trailers for titles like La collectioneuse, the marvelous Queens of Evil (which is still screaming out for a good official release), Hector the Mighty, Count Dracula's Great Love, The Human Factor, The Libertine, When Women Had Tails, When Women Lost Their Tails, Soldier of Fortune, Hitch Hike, The Girl from Trieste, the indescribable Bingo Bongo, and a clip from Interrabang. Very highly recommended all around.