The Art of Love (Walerian Borowczyk, 1983)
Borowczyk’s THE ART OF LOVE takes the “make love not war” message to Ancient Rome (as Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA did for the Greeks). After a title sequence depicting a bathing Marina Pierro (the most memorable and beguiling of the director’s screen muses), Borowczyk quickly sets up his oppositions. General Macarius’ (Michele Placido, LA ORCA) return to Rome from Gaule with fanfare but his thunder is stolen by Ovid (Massimo Girotti, BARON BLOOD) whose class – instructs his students in the “art of love” from wooing to copulation – draws the attendance of much of Rome’s young population (and Ovid must close the shutters to prevent the marching band from drowning out his lecture). At home, while a restless Macarius is seen unconscious stroking the feathers of his helmet by his bedside, his wife Claudia is in the throws of an erotic dream. Both are woken by the pet parrot Telemachus’ cry of the name Cornelius. Macarius’ homecoming it turns out is only brief as is shortly to return to Gaule leaving Claudia supposedly in the company of his mother Clio (Laura Betti, TEOREMA) only. What he does not know is that the aforementioned Cornelius is one of Ovid’s students decided to put his master’s teaching into practice in wooing Claudia with the help of her housekeeper Sepora (Mireille Pame) who arranges for their clandestine meetings. When Macarius finds out that he is being cuckolded, Ovid’s fate is sealed (the film is set in 8 AD, the year that Emperor Augustus had Ovid banished to the Black Sea because his works including “The Art of Love” promoted adultery which ran counter to the Julian Marriage Laws of 18 BC).
The plot is pretty straightforward but Borowczyk’s treatment of it is the point of interest as usual. He is less concerned with the narrative than the opportunity it provides to examine the sexual obsessions and erotic material culture of the setting. One of Claudia and Cornelius’ escorted meetings takes place in a museum of erotic statuary Sepora for which shows a tactile appreciation (she also keeps the statue of a phallic god in her cabinet for worship). Claudia writes a message for Cornelius on Sepora’s back in invisible ink. One of Claudia’s daydreams has her inside a hollow cow statue to be mounted by a man in a bull mask. Other episodes include the initially funny cuckolding of a general (Philippe Lemaire, THE BLOOD ROSE) by his much younger wife which ends in murder to Macarius’ own mother (what did you expect with Laura Betti in the role?) pawing a drunken youth as well as a pregnant widow (Placido’s wife at the time, Stefania Stefanelli of THE GODFATHER) who attends Ovid’s class and gives birth during the apocalyptic finale.
Despite Borowczyk’s usual attention to such detail, THE ART OF LOVE is not one of his best films. It lacks the audacity of THE BEAST or IMMORAL TALES or the intimacy of his later THE STREETWALKER and LOVE RITES (also featuring Pierro) and fits in with middle-of-the-road fare like IMMORAL WOMEN (well, the second and third tale, the first is a masterpiece), his contribution to PRIVATE COLLECTIONS, and BEHIND CONVENT WALLS. Performances cannot be faulted (Pierro, Placido, Girotti, Pame, and Betti are all excellent) and the cinematography is up to Borowczyk’s usual standards (not slick and not intended as such but with an eye for composition and delicate lighting) though Luis Enrique Bacalov’s (DJANGO) score is not particularly memorable aside from a disco tune that plays out on the end titles (which is inappropriate to the period but fitting in the context of eighties Euro erotica).
According to IMMORAL TALES, there was quite a bit of producer interference in the making of the film including faked letters from Borowczyk giving the producer’s permission to add mismatched orgy footage from Joe D’Amato’s CALIGULA 2 (present here in coarser condition and lacking the more explicit shots although this seems to be common to all English versions) although this footage is framed as Macarius’s repressed dream so the mismatched footage may work for some. While the film’s modern epilogue could have used book-ending prologue footage, it doesn’t really make much sense either way as it features archaeology student Claudia being woken up in her car by a priest (Macarius) who then gives him a lift only for him to discover a newspaper article about a love triangle involving Claudia, another archaeology student (Cornelius), and an archaeologist (Ovid) that ended in the murder of the latter.
Serverin’s DVD of THE ART OF LOVE is not the expected improvement over previous transfers. Although anamorphic, the picture quality is not much better than the previous non-anamorphic Greek newsstand (which I own) and Dutch DVDs (going by the comparison screencap at DVDBeaver). As with Cult Epic’s DVD of LOVE RITES, Borowczyk’s deliberately soft-focus cinematography and diffuse lighting styles are always going to play havoc with MPEG2 encoding – particularly on a single-layer disc – but the quality of the master may also be to blame. The disc does run at the correct 24 fps running time (1:36:24 versus the Greek discs 1:32:33). The 1.77:1 is also too severe and throws off Borowcyzk’s careful compositions (the Dutch DVD was letterboxed at 1.60:1 and the Greek at 1.64:1).
As with HANNA D., we can probably blame rights holder Filmexport for the cropping. Audio quality is comparable to the older transfers in that dialogue and music are clear but the dubbing really takes away from this one (although Marina Pierro is dubbed by Pat Starke on the English track). Extras on the Severin disc are limited to a poor quality Italian theatrical trailer (also present on the Greek disc) which is 4:3 letterboxed (looking a bit cropped) within a 16:9 frame. Interestingly, while the film’s credits state “Ugo Tucci presents” the trailer says “Ugo Tucci e Camillo Teti presentano” (Teti is known to Eurocult viewers as the director of THE KILLER IS STILL AMONG US).
Although Severin’s DVD is imperfect, it is probably the most accessible disc of the English language version as the typically overpriced Japanese DVD was optically fogged (and, like the Dutch DVD, is long out of print) while the Greek disc was only distributed on news-stands but pops up infrequently on eBay (though when it does, its relatively cheap).