Sunday, November 9, 2008
IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH (1970) d. Sergio Bergonzelli
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
There are many reasons why a motion picture can be deemed “enjoyable” or “viewable”. Most movie lovers would agree that the story of a film needs to be compelling and that same group would probably add that the acting performances of a flick need to be of a high caliber. Most what people don’t always take note of or are even unwilling to admit is that the cinematic potential for something shameful or titillating would also be high on their list of reasons to watch and then enjoy a movie. When a film tries to tackle societal and cultural taboos and yet still be imaginative or atmospheric, it is likely to garner a degree of remarkable attention. It was for that reason that the beautifully shot and even more impressively cast films of Russ Meyer’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS or SUPERVIXENS have become cult classic for many reasons beyond the pendulous bosoms of his actresses. Radley Metzger’s avant-garde films of the same era also caught the eye for their sensuality and supremely scandalous surrealism. When a film tries to create a visceral response and does it in an artistic manner, something beyond exploitation cinema is created. IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH has the reputation of being a Euro-sleaze film, but it is more and less than just a simple genre label. As a result of being a more complex film, it can be said that it is both “enjoyable” in a strange sense but maybe is even more of a compelling “viewing experience”.
IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH is the story of Lucille, who is the governess in a palatial Mediterranean villa. She lives with her son Colin and Falesse, the daughter of the former master of the house, Andre. Everyone in the villa suffers from a series of neuroses and/or psychoses stemming from violent experiences going back 13 years to a night of murder, rape and insanity. Add to this mix the taboos of incest and bloodlust, a blackmailer with a penchant for molestation, and the convoluted tale of assumed personas, infidelity, lies, depravity and sinister manipulation and IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH is an exhilarating mix of plot twists and narrative devices that makes it an elaborate tale.
IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH looks fabulous and trades on the strength of its beauty throughout the entirety of its 90 minute runtime. Even from the start of the title credits, the viewer is treated to a surrealistic design utilizing the optical illusion of swirling oil paints creating the blazing colors of a vortex which is probably a superb metaphor for the personality of the story and the emotions of the characters. As soon as the title credits are over, the viewer is plunged into sumptuous sets with striking exterior architecture and lavish interior décor. Added to that are exotic and extravagant modern fashions so beautifully juxtaposed with the elegant and sophisticated set designs so that the eye is constantly bombarded with color, form and shape that borders on picturesque. To intensify the visual cornucopia even further, the camera work and photographic effects of IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH are quite impressive. Whether it is dramatically executed camera angles, multiple images, superimposed images, filters and fog or thoughtfully composed framing of wideshots or close-ups, this film is a smorgasbord for those seeking a motion picture founded on the strength of its imagery. If it was just the imagery that stimulated the mind, IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH would be a bit static in its nature, but there is a quirky score and incidental music and exceedingly exaggerated dialogue dubbing that helps to intensify the emotional impact of the scenery. Married to these audio quirks are the eccentric performances and even appearance of the principal cast members Eleonara Rossi Drago (Lucille) and Maria Pierangeli (Falesse) who steal the show with their haunting and disturbing facial expressions and the mesmeric aspects of their eyes. While neither actress has the smoldering glamour of the typical Euro-beauties like Erika Blanc, Silvia Tortossa or Helga Line, they don’t need to. Their performances and appearance is not supposed to be alluring, but rather are meant to be vaguely appalling and repellent, and so they are. Finally, there was the superb restored transfer from original Italian film elements done by Severin Films. One of the great delights of any viewing experience is the chance to see a motion picture look nearly as good as it did when it was released. This film is a kaleidoscopic panorama of hues mixed with symmetrical and asymmetrical designs. Had it been a murky and miserable transfer, all the joy would have been sucked from the experience like blood drained from a corpse. Fortunately, the emphasis was put in the right place and we can see a beautifully crafted movie the way it was meant to be seen.
The weakness of IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH is the story; if you can call it a weakness for it seems that from the onset, the narrative is not meant to be as important as the imagery. Until most of the loose ends are tied up very late in the film and in a hasty and somewhat sloppy fashion, IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH plays more like an episodic plot that it does a truly chronological narrative. Beyond the fact that the primary story idea is mixed with a non-linear plot and a multitude of flashbacks or scenes related to flashbacks, the main plot points seemed pieced together in a manner that is meant to be deliberately non-cohesive. What emerges instead is a series of intense, atmospheric scenes that are very delicately stitched together by an underlying mystery connected to this “family’s” psychosis. Despite the lack of story cohesion, there is something about the yarn of IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH that draws you in like a simple and yet overwhelmingly sticky spider web. Possibly it was the promise of sickening taboos or other naughty niceties. In the end, while IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH was compelling, it does not deserve its reputation of being any more depraved than other European sex/sleaze cinema of its time. In fact, it is the implied nature of the exploitation fare and the somewhat restrained violence, nudity and sex that puts it a cut above most of Europe’s cinematic debauchery that was still to come at the beginning of the 1970s. This film did remind me of the works of Radley Metzger, for like the skin of an onion, it has many layers of visual complexity and expressionistic flair. It may not have delivered on the story front, but it didn’t have to.
The bonus features menu of IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH is very thin and probably with good reason. In addition to the focus being the film transfer, most of the principal cast and crew of this film has long ago passed beyond the confines of this mortal realm and entered “the domain of hidden things”. That is the problem with any revisionist project, once the primary human source material is lost, there is no going back. No criticism is meant towards Severin Films and I hope none is taken, they just arrived on the scene too late to conduct interviews with the director and much of the cast. There is the theatrical trailer of IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH, and that is all. It is a shame. What most cinema-loving Americans could use more of are anecdotes from the misty film pasts of actors and crew members of films like IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH. Every time the chance to see inside their hearts and minds is lost, we are not as richly vibrant people anymore, for the voices of history can not be resurrected as easily as one would think. I am thankful that Severin Films brought us this quirky little gem in the splendid condition that it is. I just wish that they could have worked some of their interview magic with some of the creative persons connected with this film before they had passed the shadows and gone to their reward.
When you watch IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH, keep in mind that this is a film that will appeal only to certain parts of the cinema-loving brain. If you are looking for an all-inclusive experience of unmatched spiritual enlightenment, you will be disappointed. If you are a person who can appreciate elements of a film’s majesty and can overlook its “weaknesses”, you will be subtly impressed. IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH is a slice of history much like its American cousin SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES. It blends some of the visual splendor unique to that transitional time period between the end of the 60s and the 70s. It charts its own course and unashamedly tries to whet specific appetites we mostly won’t admit we have. It is not high cinema, but it is creative and artistic in its own fashion. My advice is to uncork a really heady vintage before viewing IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH so that the film and the wine’s bouquet can work together on the more epicurean centers of the consciousness and lead you to planes that no narcotic can ever really explore.