Walerian Borowczyk, 1983
Starring: Marina Pierro, Michele Placido, Massimo Girotti
Cornelius, a student in Ancient Rome, is taking a class on the art of love from the poet Ovid. He lectures his students on how best to get a woman's attention through a series of seemingly chance encounters, affected disinterest, and so on. Cornelius’ target is the beautiful young wife of a centurion. When he goes off to war, Cornelius begins courting the lady in earnest, with the help of her maid and under the nose of her mother in law. They begin an affair, but things take a tragic and surreal turn…
One of director Walerian Borowczyk’s last films, this effort has some entertaining moments, but is ultimately a frustrating interpretation of some of Borowczyk's beloved themes. While many of his films deal with sexual relationships, this French-Italian coproduction is an adaptation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. The majority of Borowczyk’s films are adaptations of literary works, but this seems like a baffling choice, as it is not a work of fiction, but a series of lectures about the art of romance and relationships. This lengthy, pedantic work can be read in full here if you think you need some dating advice from the ancient world, or check out this amusing reader’s digest version.
As much as I wanted to like Art of Love, it’s slow and dull for the part most, with a very self-consciously literary sense that only serves to underscore how erotically-neutered the sex scenes are. This takes into account the fact that the producers spliced in some more graphic sex scenes after the fact, which are allegedly taken from Caligula: The Untold Story (1982), Joe D’Amato’s sexploitation films from the year before. While there is some very beautiful imagery, much of it feels recycled from the medieval tale in Immoral Women, and the very best scene is an opening shot of Borowczyk's regular star Marina Pierro bathing in a glass tub lined with fish tanks. I really wish this had been another anthology film, like Immoral Tales or Immoral Women.
Despite Borowczyk’s blend of Ovid’s lectures and the torrid affair that takes forever to unfold, he still didn’t have enough plot for a feature length film, so this has a completely left-field ending tacked on. SPOILERS: Claudia, the bored Roman house wife is discovered by her husband, which leads to a massacre. But then Claudia wakes up in a jeep pulled over by the side of the road in rural Italy. It turns out that the Roman sequence was all a dream and she’s an archaeological student in present day on the run from a traumatic romantic occurrence. She picks up a priest (Michele Placido, the same actor who plays the centurion husband).
Speaking of giallo regular Placido (Plot of Fear, The Pyjama Girl Case, as well as Borowczyk’s Lulu), he is part of an interest cast that does the best they can with a shallow script. Placido is joined by Pasolini regular Laura Betti (The Canterbury Tales, Teorema), who is over the top as the centurion’s mother, a constant source of harassment for Marina Pierro’s Claudia. The adorable Milena Vukotic (The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Spirits of the Dead, Blood for Dracula) has a small role and Massimo Girotti (Ossessione) is criminally underused as Ovid.
What should have been a poetic meditation on fantasy and desire is a tedious exercise in romantic intrigue with way too much soft focus. Interesting moments — such as a dream sequence where a woman is hidden inside a bronze cow, allowing her to have sex with a bull — are overshadowed by some unfortunate attempts at comedy courtesy of ‘80s cinema's most annoying pet parrot. Moments of statue groping, Priapus worship, and the world’s lamest Roman orgy would have been better served with more surrealism and less melodrama. If you’re planning to do a double feature of Roman-themed erotica, this is the film that will put your prudish significant other to sleep so that you can watch the extended cut of Caligula instead. If you’re a Borowczyk (or Roman erotic fantasy) completist, you can find Art of Love on DVD from Severin.