Just when bawdy, medieval sex comedies seemed to have died out with Italian exploitation, along comes Virgin Territory, another oddity in the quirky careers of the onetime Anakin Skywalker and The O.C.’s former style icon. In 12th century Florence, rakish ne’er do well Lorenzo di Lamberti (Hayden Christensen) is hopelessly in love with fair Pampinea (Mischa Barton), but on the run from the evil, Gerbino (Tim Roth), who wants her for himself even though she has been promised in marriage to Count Dzerzhinsky (Matthew Rhys). Gerbino sets an ambush for the dashing, Russian count, who survives the massacre of his men and rides in search of the fiancé he has never met. Hiding out at a countryside convent, posing as a deaf-mute, Lorenzo becomes a willing love slave to dozens of beautiful, young nuns (“You are an angel sent from heaven to bring us joy.” When Pampinea joins the convent, ostensibly to safeguard her chastity, she can’t resist stealing a kiss from the blindfolded Lorenzo, and thus becomes a mystery woman who steals his heart.
Meanwhile, Pampinea’s friends Elissa (Kate Groombridge), the defiantly chaste Philomena (Rosalind Halstead), her long-suffering boyfriend Dioneo (Christopher Egan), and his friend Ghino (Ryan Cartwright) take an eventful journey towards the wedding party, encountering some lusty milkmaids and nasty brigands along the way. Whilst bathing nude in a stream, sexy Elissa chances upon Count Dzerzhinsky, and tricks him into thinking she is Pampinea, so she can have her wicked way. This tangled web of lust, love and mistaken identity eventually reaches a happy ending, with the aid of worldly-wise artist Tindaro (Craig Parkinson), who is travelling in the guise of a priest.
Adapted from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron - which was famously filmed by Pier Paolo Pasolini and spawned a cottage industry of medieval sexploitation romps - this curious confection marks an unlikely union between producer Dino “when monkey die people cry” Di Laurentiis and writer-director David Leland, of Wish You Were Here (1987) fame. Leland opts for a wilfully anachronistic, tongue in cheek approach akin to A Knight’s Tale (2001) to revitalize this bawdy classic for a young generation, signalled by the Terry Gilliam style opening credits and the soundtrack that mixes surf rock, rap and trip-hop. However, the fact that this has gone straight to video, suggests nobody got the joke despite the film being released in France as “Medieval Pie.”
While Barton and Christensen certainly look the part, dressed in Roberto Cavalli’s sumptuous period costumes, they remain stiff and unconvincing. The wayward plot, moving from one sexual encounter to the next, stays true to its literary source but lacks the necessary joie de vivre and the sporadic nudity fails to compensate. Interestingly, the regional British accents of the supporting cast, who include comedians David Walliams and Nigel Planer in cameos, recall those dubbed voices from 1970s Italian sexploitation. Although over-reliant on Tindaro’s, would-be hilarious voiceover (“Gerbino was a bit short in the trouser department. Funny, I’ve always thought he was the biggest dick in town”), there are a handful of amusing gags, plus a bizarre dream sequence where Dioneo fantasizes about having sex with an angel while winged penises flutter by. The swashbuckling finale is also frantically funny, with the athletic Rhys and Christensen locked in debate over who gets to kill the ever-villainous Tim Roth.
While the message that women can unleash their inner sexpot as a form of feminist triumph is open to debate, it is true to the puckish spirit of Boccaccio. To the film’s credit, the women are clever, sexually confident and in control, while the guys are happily overwhelmed. You can’t help but laugh when Elissa reduces a bandit chief (Rupert Friend) to a quivering, impotent wreck with a medieval pole dance, or when she and Philomena trick a band of would-be rapists into dropping their trousers before making their escape. Even the prudish Philomena loses her virginity on her own terms, by ravishing the love-starved Dioneo. Everybody has a good time and it all ends in a rather sweet and romantic way, with Blur’s “Tender” soaring on the soundtrack. It’s that kind of movie.