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Cursed films

By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 17, 2009

But, it's all in good fun, unlike the grimly earnest, semi-surreal abominations in Arrobal's Viva La Muerte. Set in Civil War Spain, it, like Flamingos, is grotesquely Oedipal, with its pre-adolescent protagonist engaged in a love/hate relationship with his buxom mother, whom he suspects of betraying his father to the Fascists. And what better way to express the complexities of family relationships, not to mention the politics of revolution, than a fantasy in which mom takes a dump on daddy's head?

The carnival spirit of John Waters returns in Pasolini's final film, Saló: Or the 120 Days of Sodom (preceded by Jean Genet's seminal — in more than one sense of the word — 1950 black-and-white silent short, UN CHANT D'AMOUR). Pasolini's film ingeniously sets de Sade's eponymous tale in the Northern Italian city of Salò where the Fascist regime holed out for the last days of World War II. Four fascist leaders seal themselves in a castle with a supply of adolescent captives and while away the time, "Masque of the Red Death"-style, having their monstrous way with them. Pasolini's starkly baroque version includes a nod to Dante, as the merciless quartet take their victims through infernal circles of increasing repulsiveness. They are leeringly evil, but they do possess a macabre sense of humor and a vaudevillian showmanship: three of them fall into a kick-line as the atrocities enter their final phase.

Likewise, Walerian Borowczyk's LA BÊTE (1972; July 18 at 9:15 pm) epitomizes patriarchal tyranny while still maintaining a sense of humor. A musty story about an impoverished aristocrat who must salvage his estate by marrying off his benighted son to a British heiress serves as a framing device to a variation on the old legend about Beauty and the Beast. Unlike in Cocteau's version (not to mention Disney's), this Beast is hung like a horse. As lively Scarlatti preludes set the pace, he gives chase to a Marie Antoinette-like aristocrat fresh from a Fragonard painting who loses all her trappings, from powdered wig to cornflower blue shoes, before being cornered in a tree.

Its nods to class warfare and its paean to paganism aside, one can't help noticing that The Beast is a prolonged and graphic rape fantasy, and one in which the victim ends up liking it. Which brings me back to my earlier observation that as transgressive as these "cursed films" pretend to be, they are not nearly as cursed as the women in them. Take the title character in Robert Aldrich's THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1968; July 17 at 7 pm), a campy, freak-show look at lesbians, in which the title character, an aging harridan actress (Beryl Reid), fears losing both her role on a BBC soap and her lipstick lover (Susannah York). She ends up drunk on the studio floor bellowing, "Moo!"

Similarly, Ken Russell's The Devils, despite its assaults on the Establishment and organized religion, remains regressive in its attitudes toward women, as the Inquisitorial douche mentioned above might indicate. An account of events that occurred in Loudon, in 1634, it is The Crucible by way of Monty Python. Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave reminiscent of Ygor in Bride of Frankenstein), mother superior in a convent of Ursuline nuns, has fantasies about washing the feet of sexy Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). Alas, she never confronts the padre with her love, who, since he has spread his holy chrism nearly everywhere else, probably wouldn't mind having a go at her. But then Grandier gets not religion as much as political awareness.

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  Topics: Features , Oliver Reed, Harvard Film Archive, The Beast,  More more >
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