‘The Libertine’ or — Defying Expectations with Style?

Wow!

I’ll be honest; I wasn’t expecting much from Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Italian sex comedy ‘The Libertine’ (1968). I’d kept the receipt in case I wanted to return it (“It was an unwanted gift, honest”) and was even wondering if I’d make it through the film at all because when Euro-sleaze is bad it’s very bad. What I wasn’t expecting was being utterly entranced, laughing A LOT and “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” at some extremely impressive filmmaking and design work because ‘The Libertine’ is fantastic.

After the death of her husband Mimi (Catherine Spaak) goes through his belongings and discovers a secret side to her recently deceased spouse’s life she knew nothing about — he was a kinky, sexual hedonist! She even finds a home-made sex-film he made with Mimi’s best friend. Rather than being shocked at such a revelation Mimi is more annoyed that her husband didn’t even consider inviting her to join in his exploits. Is she not also a sexually curious and open creature?

So Mimi sets out on her own journey of sexual discovery, seducing a range of various men to broaden her horizons. She discovers she quite likes pain thanks to her freaky dentist (played brilliantly by the great Frank Wolff) and finds she is quite adept at role-playing too, specifically prostitutes. She even gets her own sex-beetle too! Then, one day, she meets the dashing and caring doctor Carlo (Jean-Louis Trintignant) on whom she develops a serious crush. The only problem is that Carlo would like to marry Mimi but Mimi is unsure she wants to give up her new found freedom. Can Carlo handle her libertarianism? It’s not as if he wants to make an entirely honest woman of her but maybe a little domesticity wouldn’t hurt and, possibly, be quite kinky too?

‘The Libertine’ is somewhat similar to ‘Secretary’ (2002) in that it initially revolves around sadomasochism but is actually an affectionate romance. It’s also very similar to Barbet Schroeder’s ‘Maîtresse’ (1975) as both films end on a giggle by a couple regarding the silliness of it all. There might be nudity (not much), whippings, bondage, exhibitionism and spanking but the overriding tone of ‘The Libertine’ is cute and fun. Nothing is taken seriously, everything played for laughs and with it vibrating with a slyly satirical edge (the male displays of sexual arousal range from the pathetic to inept) the humour at play here is legitimately funny.

This could be because Campanile’s comedic touchstones seem to be a mixture of Preston Sturges and early Godard with gags concerning sex and on looking still photographs rubbing up against brightly coloured cinematic tricks (it’s almost like pop-art Lubitsch). The result is very effective and I was laughing as much at some of the flamboyantly audacious camera-work than the smartly written lines. For example — there’s an outstanding 180 degree panning shot from the hood of a moving car as they pass through a tollbooth that demonstrates the technical skill running throughout ‘The Libertine’ that floored me.

This extends to the set and costume design, all of which are eye-catching and thrust-in-your-face retina grabbing brash. Mirrors extend and slice up space whilst patterns recede only to open up again in surprising geometric ways. This is a constantly inventive film to enjoy on a purely visual level with a technical dexterity as impressive as it is imaginative.

Mimi’s fantasy sequences represent this well; we know when she’s having one as bongo drums start playing and everything goes into slo-mo as she imagines the men she’s with not how they present themselves to the world but as their true sexual selves. The transformation of her tennis partner into a leather-clad, whip-lashing dominatrix might be the best, although the slow motion water-hose comes a close second. Add a gloriously cheesy, sleazy lounge soundtrack onto all this and ‘The Libertine’ is a total delight.

The final message might be a tad condescending — “the most exciting lover a young woman can have is her own husband” — and suggests maybe all Mimi needs is a good spanking, but the sense of comedy and charm never drops or flags, remaining consistent throughout till climaxing in a funny, sweet, inclusive ending that celebrates the humour and silliness of love and sex. And besides, Carlos might have tried to tame Mimi but he’s the one willing to go down on all fours for her and give her the reins.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.