Escaping a carload of would-be rapists, naïve but cute, American tourist Nancy (Sydne Rome) becomes lost inside a labyrinthine villa beside the sun-kissed, Amalfi coast. It’s a curious place, where time runs in circles and only Nancy notices events repeat themselves with tiny variations. Our frequently naked heroine has a series of kinky encounters with the oddball inhabitants, including syphilitic ex-pimp Alex (the great Marcello Mastroianni), jittery spear gun-wielding Mosquito (Roman Polanski), and dying patriarch Joseph Noblart (Hugh Griffith) whose ecstatic lust for the beautiful girl reaches a poetic end.
Following the tragic death of wife Sharon Tate and the bloody catharsis of Macbeth (1971), legendary filmmaker Roman Polanski clearly felt the need to lighten up. Hence this playful, perverse, but light-hearted sex comedy which drops allusions to Alice in Wonderland - a potent source for many erotic fantasies. It’s a world where people wander around naked, fornicate in front of strangers and merrily compliment the heroine’s boobs. Mastroianni is resplendently reptilian as the oily, yet oddly vulnerable cad who dresses like a tiger so Nancy will whip him silly as a prelude to wild sex.
With her bouncy, blonde curls and blue eyes, sun-tanned sylphlike Sydne Rome evokes the erotic fumetti heroines of Milo Manara. The downside of many counterculture sex comedies is that faint whiff of misogyny born from their reluctance to let their heroine share the fun. Like Barbarella (1968) and Candy (1969), the lovable heroine obligingly does as she is told even when molested or verbally abused by strangers. When Nancy tries to play along with Alex’s policeman fantasy, he cruelly slaps her. You keep wanting her to fight back, but she is required to play the victim. That familiar Polanski paranoia resurfaces when conspiring houseguests giggle at Nancy’s expense or read aloud from her diary. And yet Polanski’s affections clearly lie with his heroine, who rekindles jaded Joseph’s joie-de-vivre with a glimpse of her private parts (“What splendour!”). Amidst surreal skits that recall Polanski’s early, short films, a uniquely 1970s combination of erotic abandon and indestructible innocence carry Nancy through to the puckish, post-modern ending.
Beautifully shot around the luxurious villa decorated with original Picasso and Degas artworks owned by producer Carlo Ponti, and scored with snatches of classical music. A lovely interlude sees Nancy perform a Mozart piano duet with an arthritic maestro. For all its lapses, this evokes Polanski’s love of life, a facet that underlines even his bleakest movies. Severin’s region 2 DVD includes interviews with composer Claudio Gizzi, cinematographer Marcello Gatti (who shot interiors while exteriors were handled by Peppino Ruzzolini), and the lively, insightful Sydne Rome. Also included is the original European trailer that condenses all the nude scenes into two minutes. Which is nice.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.