The playboy son of a wealthy industrialist, Armand Duval (Nino Castelnuovo), falls in love with the beautiful but dissolute and fashionable Marguerite Gautier (Danièle Gaubert) during a trip to Rome, after he sees her at the opera one night in the midst of a long weekend being shown around the city by his best friend Gastion (Roberto Bisacco). Though Gastion warns him that ‘the seven hills are littered with the bodies of the men she’s ruined,’ Armand becomes a spectator to Marguerite’s hedonistic, la dolce vita lifestyle of louche parties and multiple sex partners fuelled by alcohol, pills and injections of dubious substances, all of which is being financed by her elderly aristocratic benefactor the duc de Mauriac from a series of elegantly palatial settings. After seemingly becoming another mere amusement whose romantic feelings are to be toyed with by Marguerite and her circle of emotionally vapid friends such as Armand’s main rival, the Count De Varville (Philippe Forquet), Marguerite falls for Armand back, and promises to leave behind her days of decadent excess. But their affair quickly comes to the attention of Armand’s wealthy father (Massimo Serato, “Don’t Look Now”) who believes Marguerite intends to financially drain his son and live off him in the same manner which has previously been her custom; he is also worried about how the news of Marguerite leaving the duc de Mauriac’s wealthy patronage will impact on Armand’s sister’s upcoming marriage, which will also see the Duval family inducted into Roman society’s aristocratic elite. Marguerite promises to leave Armand in order not to wreck his prospects, or those of his family, but the price for turning one’s back on one’s true feelings once they’ve finally been acknowledged proves to be a heavy one for both of them …
It seems to have been the destiny of Radley Metzger’s 1969 existentialist erotica classic “Camille 2000” always to be considered a disappointment by those who’ve initially come to it through a prior interest in the American director’s more overtly explicit sexploitation or hardcore ventures (just clock the amount of internet reviews bemoaning its lack of ‘skin’, for instance). Even within the niche sub-genre of late-sixties to early-eighties vintage sexploitation retrospectively tagged ‘porno chic’, Metzger’s Italian opus is particularly notable for the peculiar amount of emphasis it places on surface gloss and abstract style -- and for the excessive art conscious stylisation the director utilises in order to delineate his fantasy illustrations of the elegant but disposable lifestyle trappings which dominate the environment of his rarefied, ‘60s demi monde of characters: the film presents an immaculately tailored, European crème de la crème (‘and a bit of its scum’) at the apex of the decade’s sexual revolution who live in an effortlessly chic, elaborately designed and richly accessorised world of extreme consumer affluence, haute couture and relaxed morals. It’s a make believe world Metzger labours to define in every exquisitely designed widescreen shot of the film’s full 130 minute running time for this newly restored director’s cut. In fact, if the movie can be considered to be in any way pornographic at all, it’s much more of a lifestyle porn picture than one that’s based in sexuality, which only makes up a comparatively small element in its tapestry of unattainable desires.
The amount of naked flesh which gets displayed during the course of “Camille 2000” was just enough at the time to make the film marketable to a mainstream 1960s audience as sexploitation despite the often contrived lengths it goes to in its avoidance of full frontal nudity, not to mention the respectable literary origins of the source material, the high end cast and the respected technicians employed behind the camera to give the entire thing a shiny sheen of legitimacy. But the film also had the misfortune to appear just before the rules changed regarding what was and was not considered acceptable in mainstream cinema. Only a few years later, Hollywood films would be getting away with far more than “Camille 2000” is even interested in exploring, still without being considered pornography; meaning those, like Metzger, working in the realm of erotic movies, were inevitably pushed further towards the terrain of hardcore in their need to deliver something racier to that which contemporary audiences could now expect get in their local theatres. Looked at today, “Camille 2000” hardly seems to deserve its erotic movie tag at all, and maintains it purely on the basis of its place in the historical landscape at the time of the original release. To paraphrase how Metzger puts it himself on the accompanying audio commentary track, the film hasn’t changed at all, but its surrounding context has completely.
Instead, Metzger’s work seems to display a typically conflicted attitude towards the opulent world of transience it strives so hard to depict as colourfully and attractively as possible -- an attitude which seems precisely analogous to the way in which sex films in general operated at the time: having to deliver ‘the goods’ on screen which their audiences had paid to come and see in order to be considered successful -- but at the same time often ending up sermonising about the moral dangers such behaviours posed to those who would imitate the free and easy activities they sought so vividly to depict. Similarly, “Camille 2000” offers a lush, wish-fulfilment fantasy depiction of the kind of lifestyle the average viewer could only have dreamt about: an exaggerated, futuristic exoticism that we can nowadays enjoy purely as a spectacle of space age camp, but which viewers at the time would have only fairly recently have been able to read about in the innovative pull-out colour Sunday supplements which started appearing with newspapers regularly in the early ‘60s, offering focus features on the latest names in fashion, photography and design during an age when travel was also just starting to become more widespread -- popularly represented in the cinema by the globe-trotting, consumer-led daring-do exploits of James Bond, etc. But, at the same time as dazzling its viewers with sumptuous images which revel in undreamed of wealth and uber-modern design spaces, and which serve up the jet set lifestyle a la mode against slick sun-drenched travelogue brochure portraits of old world sights and sounds (which, in cinematic terms, marks out an image of the eternal city in its affluent heyday), Metzger also takes care to portray his cast of playboy bachelors and model-like ‘now child’ demi-mondaines as decadent and doomed in their idle profligacy; and -- deep down -- underneath all those tailored suites and synthetic haute couture fabrics, to be living empty, shallow, unfulfilled lives which render them ultimately incapable of finding happiness. Thus like porn, we can enjoy the visual excess of this lifestyle while reassuring ourselves that it’s all quite bad for you really.
Metzger’s taste for all this European arthouse anomie was born back in his early days as a film editor when, ironically, he found himself being employed to cut out all the risqué bits from imported European art movies. After a brief career cutting trailers and commercials for Janus Films, he founded Audubon Films with Ava Leighton, spotting a market at home for that brand of serious and stylish erotica already being produced abroad by the likes of Tinto Brass during the sixties. He began to combine the independent production of his own movies such as “The Dirty Girls” and “The Alley Cats” with the distribution of imported, offbeat European exotica like Piero Schivazappa’s “The Frightened Woman” -- a film which anticipates the hyper designed psychedelic opulence Metzger would soon attempt to bring to his own films in glossy literary adaptations such as 1967’s “Carmen, Baby” (based on Bizet’s opera) and the lesbian coming-of-age drama “Therese and Isabelle”. “Camille 2000” is the highpoint of this phase in Metzger’s varied career. An updated but otherwise faithful adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel, La Dame aux camellias (The Lady of the Camellias), the story was also made the basis for Verdi’s opera La Traviata and had been the subject of numerous previous adaptations based on its stage play incarnation, most notably in Greta Garbo’s acclaimed 1936 film version. Other screen icons who have played the story’s tragic main ‘heroine’ Marguerite Gautier include Sarah Bernhardt and Theda Bara, and it was already one of the most frequently adapted and well-known literary classics when Metzger’s opulent Italian production hit screens in 1969.
The story is relatively straightforward and was probably already fairly well-known in outline to mainstream audiences at the time, thus guaranteeing little attention would need to be paid to explaining what was already viewed by most to be essentially light, easily digestible romantic subject matter. By dressing the resultant spectacle in hip fashions, modern accessories, stylised sets and lavish, way out décor Metzger was able to take advantage of his Italian locations (the characters retain the novel’s French names and titles despite the entire film being set in Rome) to create a retro-futuristic mise-en-scene which initially appears to be offering a slightly more self-aware 1960s art house/space age version of the ‘telefono bianchi’, or white telephone movies, of the Italian fascist era in the 1930s, wherein grand spectacle and wealth provide escapist bourgeois entertainment in an artificial setting which actively strives to ignore social reality.
Indeed the most striking set in the entire film -- Marguerite’s boudoir – consists of a circular bed made of transparent inflatable plastic with thin nylon sheets, set in the midst of a minimalist, colourless, mirrored room with a ‘30s style white telephone placed at its very centre, perched on one of the translucent cuboid blocks that serve as both display cabinets and functionary seating. The set looks more like something one would be expected to have likely found on-board the space station portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s recent “2001: A Space Odyssey”, or perhaps a futuristic laboratory, a modern museum space, or an art gallery. This sort of clinically mute environment, with its inflatable plastic furnishings, mirrored wall tiling, transparent Plexiglas table tops and polyurethane flooring, certainly doesn’t lend the antiseptic space to being made an obvious setting for a passionate romantic or sexual encounter. Indeed, the sex scenes between Marguerite and Armand are self-consciously and artily shot, either as endlessly repeating reflections in the adjacent mirrored tiles or from above, at an angle designed to refract the image through the transparent Plexiglas of the bedroom’s furnishings, causing it to repeat into infinity. The naked bodies and their tentative couplings are merely a detail in the Warhol-esque reproductions of pattern which result.
The couple’s lovemaking hardly looks like sex at all; situated precariously on the laughably unstable-looking inflated circular bed, they’re barely able to move without immediately collapsing in a heap, and consequently look like models striking an uncomfortable pose that’s merely designed to look good reflected in the landscape of surrounding mirrors rather than effect any show of demonstrable passion. The only note of warmth in the entire setting comes from the signature vases of white Camellias strategically dotting the set. Metzger’s avant-garde use of space and form extends to his use of the camera in one particular scene to create visual texture by swapping focus between the foregrounded camellias (which look like a funeral bouquet – an obvious piece of foreshadowing) and Marguerite lying prone on the bed at the extreme left of the frame in the background of shot. The focus switches between the two images in time with Marguerite’s breathing as she orgasms, a sequence which cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri refused to work on since it made such outlandish use of the camera focus that he was worried for his professional standing within the industry when people saw it. Thus the striking stylisation becomes the substance of the piece in this adaptation -- rendering it modern by the very concentration on surface textures and appearances a la the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, with characters defining themselves purely by appearances in a hedonistically charged succession of differently themed social settings which either emphasise their aristocratic wealth, contemporary notions of glamour, or outré late-sixties visions of modernity.
In fact, by the late-sixties, this pop art, space age bachelor pad look was largely passé and had appeared in everything from James Bond movies to Mario Bava’s Rashomon-like sex farce “Four Times that Night”. Although a few of Marguerite’s dissolute female friends look as though they’ve recently entered the hippy era thanks to their chiffon scarves and extensive use of face paint, Metzger’s idea of a ‘happening’ social scene otherwise looks oddly outmoded considering the lengths which have been gone to in the creation of the film’s elegantly toned, Op Art inclined vision of futurism. Danièle Gaubert’s frenetic pill-fuelled ‘groovy’ dancing, for instance, is a riot -- and the suited, Beatles-like band seen playing during one party sequence look about six years out of date, given that the Beatles had long ago outgrown that phase of their career and would have probably already have disbanded by the time most people saw this film. Much of this material might well have been a subject subject for the satire in Russ Myer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (which was written by Roger Ebert, who gave “Camille 2000” a pretty scathing review), but what saves the spectacle is that the retro-futurism of the film is made to look simultaneously alluring yet also strange, even somewhat alienating, with the most outrageous scenes usually set to composer Piero Piccioni’s most spaced out ambient cues. The emptiness and vacuity of it all is amply summed up by Marguerite’s description of her life as being nothing but a bubble in a glass of Champagne: ‘alive for a moment’ before hitting the rim of the glass and ‘pop! It’s gone!’
The look of the film was largely the concept of art director Enrico Sabbatini, who co-ordinated the sets and costumes so that Marguerite’s whole environment -- from her living spaces to her flimsy, expensive-but-disposable nylon clothes (which are often transparent too, thus providing a little more of that coveted ‘skin’) and even her jewellery -- was made to look as synthetic and inorganic as possible. Even her drug kit – her plastic hypodermic and its dainty little silver tray – co-ordinates with the minimalist look of her bedroom and its mirrored, chrome-trimmed contents. Marguerite lives in palatial grandeur in a large stately home with a lavish surrounding estate, while on the inside the Regency-era drawing rooms have been done over with all mod cons furnishings. At the grand home’s centre is a large white short-legged table on which a barely clothed woman is stretched out to provide a form of decadent live ornamentation as Marguerite and her friends sit around in a druggy stupor. Armand first encounters Marguerite at the opera and later in a series of opulent spaces (such as this extravagant palace) which denote both old world wealth and a glamour that’s young and fresh and of the so-called Now Generation. He becomes a part of her ‘set’ – a club of the idle rich who apparently never have to work or do any housework (there are a conspicuous lack of washing machines or hovers in this rarefied world); a few references to dabbling on the stock exchange are the only indications we ever get about where all the money actually comes from. One of Marguerite’s best friends, Prudence (Eleonora Rossi Drago – looking exceedingly like Edwige Fenech in some scenes) runs a chic, gaudily primary coloured high end boutique, but probably makes most of her money supplying women to playboy bachelors-about-town such as Armand.
Metzger initially paints a portrait of Armand’s lifestyle which is carefree and without concern, careening about a bustling Rome with Gastion in a canary yellow jeep during a montage which takes in the sights and the charms of the city circa 1968 (of course, the Trevi Fountain features prominently) while the boys pick up elegant-looking women in the street, virtually kidnapping one green trouser-suited redhead from her vintage automobile while stuck in a traffic jam. Marguerite initially toys with Armand by breaking dates and dividing her affections between him and the smarmy Count de Varville (after discovering them together Armand at first splits up with Marguerite by sending her an abusive message scrawled in pink lipstick on the back of a nude model), but sheer persistence eventually pays off and leads her to return his love.
Mid-way through the film the couple decamp to the picturesque port town of Porto Ercole (where the duc de Mauriac keeps his private yacht) for a romantic interlude, scored with some of Piccioni’s more conventionally lush romantic orchestral cues. This is where Armand’s father tracks her down and makes contact with Marguerite, first of all in a quaint dockside marketplace, where he engages her in conversation over the possible value of a couple of figurines he’s considering buying: ‘You don’t have to be an expert to see that they’re made of plastic,’ Marguerite informs him: ‘they’re fakes … but very good ones!’ Although she manages to persuade him that she has no intention of living off Armand’s money (if anything the reverse is true and Marguerite has been secretly selling off her jewellery and the expensive paintings lavished on her as gifts by the duc, to pay for the couple’s well-heeled lifestyle) she nevertheless feels compelled to leave him in order to safeguard his future. Not knowing this, Armand becomes embittered and attempts to lose himself in a whirlwind of gaudy themed parties, leading to perhaps the movie’s stand-out sequence in which set design, photography and wardrobe come together to produce its most indulgent spectacle – a prison themed ‘bondage’ party in which Armand once again meets Marguerite, this time in the company of de Varville, who, in keeping with the theme, leads her about on a chain attached to a silver dog collar which tops off an outrageously fetishistic metal-barred Paco Rananne dress held together by minuscule silver chain links. The set gives every impression of being a playpen for the idle rich with its shiny gold foil decor combined with pastel pinks, yellows and tangerines; a prison cell in the corner of the room contains a luxuriant bed for couples to provide a live sex floorshow for the entertainment of the other party guests; and Armand ends up doing so with party host Olympe (Silvana Venturelli) while Marguerite is forced to look on, held firm on the end of de Varville’s thread-like leash …
Scored with one of Piero Piccioni’s catchiest tracks (Chains of Love), the sequence becomes a key set-piece of this ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl -- girl gets sick and dies’ tale. The earlier scene in which Marguerite first agreed to pledge herself only to Armand was shot against a picturesque Tuscany skyline with a funeral taking place in the background -- so it’s hardly surprising that, after doing everything possible to publically humiliate her for playing him for a fool, Armand finds out too late the truth about Marguerite’s true reasons for leaving him: because, by then, her drug addiction has taken its toll and she ends up on a hospital ward that’s equally as futuristic and antiseptic-looking as the previous mirrored bedroom set (the hospital interiors were in fact a standing set re-used from Enrico Sabbatini’s last film: the psychedelic Richard Burton and Marlon Brando sex comedy “Candy”) -- with its moulded plastic curvilinear chairs and unending white corridors continuing the space age theme. The film closes with a repeat of the opening shots, this time with Armand replacing Marguerite at the centre of the fast-living group of libertines who drink and pill-pop their way through a life of racing flash sports cars down empty motorways towards ever more elegantly staged parties. Danièle Gaubert (who met a similarly tragic end to her character here, dying of cancer at a ludicrously young age) was never the most compelling of screen actresses to grace the screen but she’s perfectly suited to this role with her perpetually blank-eyed prettiness providing the necessary mannequin-like image for the centrepiece of a world made of hollow illusory appearances. Nino Castelnuovo (“Strip Nude for Your Killer”, 1975) too, has the correct balance of boyish nonchalance and handsome charm for his role. With characters as thinly delineated as they are in Michael DeForrest’s screenplay, the correct appearance is everything: an irony not lost on the director, who even starts the film by highlighting the artifice of the filmmaking process by using the clapperboard announcement at the beginning of the opening scene in place of a proper title sequence. Thus Philippe Forquet has the requisite vulpine features for the role of the passively sadistic Count de Varville; and Zachery Adams possesses one of the few friendly faces among Marguerite’s vacuous set, playing her gay fashion designer pal Gody -- he even gets to utter the immortal phrase ‘fabulous … absolutely fabulous!’
Ravishingly photographed in 2.35:1 widescreen by Ennio Guarnieri “Camille 2000” – the restored director’s cut, looks wonderful in HD. Since this is a film whose visual appearance is central to its interpretation, the newfound clearness and brightness of this transfer enables a reassessment by those of us only familiar with the dark, faded DVD version previously made available in the UK in a dull non-anamorphic transfer. There are still some scenes where speckles and flickers are discernible but the decision to avoid all but the most necessary DNR or edge enhancement results in a natural-looking image with vibrant colour and sufficient added detail for the most part, with only occasional distracting grain. Five scenes have been added to this version, padding out the running time to a lengthy two hours and ten minutes; but few of the new scenes seem unnecessary. The disc also includes an extended version of a striptease sequence as an extra, deemed to slow down the narrative too much to be included in the final cut of the film; and there’s an alternative take of the bizarre ‘cube’ love sequence which cropped up in some Spanish cuts of the film.
The main extras are a 32 minute featurette made up of on-set 16 mm footage from behind the scenes narrated by Radley Metzger, and a full audio commentary track with the director and film historian Michael Bowen. These both necessarily repeat some information but are very worth listening too. Particularly interesting is Metzger’s account of shooting the bedroom scenes, which required very long lenses on the camera which were consequently very hard to set up for focus. The crew found that the body heat from the actors affected the inflatable plastic and altered their positions in relation to the lens, therefore making it hard to keep the shots in focus at all! Perhaps that also provides another explanation for why the love scenes look so static and posed?
The disc also includes ‘before and after’ comparison shots; and trailers for “Camille 2000”, “The Lickerish Quartet” and “Score” – the latter two films also released by Arrow Video (reviews of each of these to follow soon). Finally a collector’s booklet is included, with writing by Robin Bougie. Both the Blu-ray disc and booklet are packaged in a case which includes a DVD version of the film and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly illustrated artwork by The Red Dress.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!