Seven Beauties / Swept Away

Seven Beauties / Swept Away
Dir. Lina Wertmüller, Italy, 1975/1974
Koch-Lorber, part of the Lina Wertmuller Collection, $99.98

Lina Wertmüller claims to have partially borrowed the plot of her slapstick-tragedy Seven Beauties (1975) from the life story of an extra working on one of her earlier films, who was convicted of murder in Naples at the beginning of World War II. True or not, it’s a fabulous story. Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), a dapper fool from a fatherless family, calls himself “Settebellezze” as the self-professed guardian and defender of his seven sisters. The effectiveness of his gallantry, like the beauty of his sisters, is dubious. His efforts to protect his family’s honor regularly lead to calamity, and around town he earns a new nickname, “The Monster of Naples.” Outraged when he discovers that his eldest sister Concettina supports herself through prostitution, Pasqualino vows to murder her pimp/fiancée, but fouls it up and gets caught shipping bits of the victim’s hacked body to various locations in Italy. Against the advice of both his attorney and the local Mafia Don, Pasqualino proudly confesses to the crime in gruesome detail, and several more of his sisters must become prostitutes to pay off his legal bills. To avoid capital punishment, he feigns insanity, but dislikes the nuthouse, and opts to volunteer for Mussolini’s army instead. After witnessing the frontlines in Germany, he pulls some bloody head-wound bandages off a corpse, disguises himself as injured, and deserts the army. Lost in a deep forest with nowhere particular to go, he stumbles into the path of German soldiers, who ship him and a fellow Italian deserter to a death camp. There Pasqualino concocts another survival scheme, and attempts to seduce a Nazi commandant (Shirley Stoler). Wilted at the terrible woman’s feet, then forced to murder fellow prisoners, Pasqualino trades in his final scraps of humanity to avoid execution.

Seven Beauties is an elegant and resonant parable about fascism, machismo, and the intricate link between sex and survival. Womanizing is a meal ticket for Pasqualino at first, but as his experiences get darker, he becomes more concerned with progeny than pleasure, regularly declaring his desire to have dozens of children to anyone who will listen. He will never be much of a father, however; although he returns to Naples at the end of the film, Pasqualino comes back hollow. His last incarceration is absolute; if anything, he’ll be a shell-shocked stud.

In some ways, Seven Beauties seems to prefigure Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), in which a headstrong, pragmatic, apolitical German woman subsists at the murky intersection of romantic love and utilitarian sex in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The war both hastens matrimony (Maria and her husband are wed in the middle of a bomb raid) and negates the most basic rules of love (she is driven by hunger to balance marriage and prostitution). At the core, all the characters in the story are barterers. As Fassbinder asserts over and over in his films, human interactions are essentially commercial.

A far less engaging comment on sex and circumstance is Wertmüller’s earlier, vacuous romance Swept Away (1974). Here an aristocratic megabitch (Mariangela Melato) finds herself at the mercy of her former deckhand, a macho prole and card-carrying pinko (Giancarlo Giannini again), after the two suffer a dinghy malfunction in the Mediterranean and are washed up on a desert island. Gennarino takes revenge on Raffaella and capitalists everywhere by forcing her to grovel. The reversal of master-servant roles predictably leads to passion, but the expected exploitation thrill of making a rich girl crawl (in fact, a Paris Hilton look-alike) wears off almost immediately, as Wertmüller pauses every six minutes to bludgeon us with a baton of simplistic politics. Does Raffaella really enjoy the dog treatment? Well, we all go slumming sometimes. Watching Swept Awayafter Seven Beauties certainly felt like slumming. In terms of the writing, the tone, and Giancarlo Giannini’s acting, it’s astounding that these two films were made consecutively.

As an investigation of sex/class relations and sadism in a nautical milieu, it bears a striking resemblance to Gary Marshall’s 1987 Overboard, in which a blue-collar Kurt Russell tricks a filthy-rich, amnesia-stricken Goldie Hawn into a life of domestic servitude as retribution for her nastiness. To its credit, Overboard attempts to be funny. Swept Away has its stilted chuckles, not belly laughs—in one scene, after a steamed-up Raffaella requests to be “sodomized,” Gennarino becomes furious with her for flaunting her superior vocabulary. In another, Raffaella blurts out, “Why don’t you believe I want only you?” to the only other person on the island, a joke I’m fairly sure was lifted from a New Yorker cartoon. The bulk of Swept Away is banal, monotonous fantasizing, surprisingly devoid of farce or irony. I kept hoping Gennarino would morph into another communist-chauvinist-beefcake character from 1974: Joe Dallesandro in Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula, whose stiff cue-card delivery and ludicrous bridge-and-tunnel accent brought the bittersweet smell of garbage to an otherwise slick production, and who had the power to steal scenes from Udo Kier simply with his posture. Now that’s exciting.

Certain issues are unclear, such as the length of time they are stranded. The castaways never get around to worrying about hygiene issues (tooth decay, scurvy, pregnancy) or about being stuck there forever, and have plenty of time to discuss their relationship, because this particular deserted island is conveniently stocked with indigenous rabbits and birds, as well as fresh water. Wertmüller explains in an interview that Mariangela Melato suffered a debilitating foot injury during shooting, and regrets that they had to replace her in many scenes with a stand-in. This accounts for the breakdown of narrative time in the third quarter of the film (which mostly consists of montage and distant shots of the two in steadfast embrace, facing away from the camera) and, perhaps, the entire package’s general crappiness. Thankfully, there are no bonus materials on Koch-Lorber’s Swept Away DVD. Seven Beauties includes a second disc featuring an extensive interview with Lina Wertmüller by critic Carlo Lizzani.