Before becoming Italy’s premier auteur of soft-core erotica, Tinto Brass dabbled in an array of popular genres during the 1960s, ranging from a wacky UFO comedy Il Disco Volante (1964) to his one shot at a spaghetti western, Yankee (1966). However, he truly found his groove with a trilogy of genre-bending experiments, heavily influenced by pop art and the avant-garde: The Howl (1970), Attraction (1969) and Deadly Sweet - or Col Cuore in Gola (“Heart in his Mouth”) as it's known in Italian - a sexy, psychedelic comic book giallo.
After identifying her father’s corpse at the morgue, Jane Burroughs (Ewa Aulin), her brother Jerome (Charles Kohler) and their step-mother Martha (Vera Silenti) dance their troubles away at a groovy nightclub in the heart of Swinging London. The beautiful, blonde teenager is immediately noticed by Bernard (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who wistfully longs for a chance to meet her alone. He gets it, in most unexpected fashion, after stumbling across Jane standing beside the dead body of the nightclub owner, whom she insists she did not kill. On impulse, he decides to become her protector. Bernard and Jane embark upon a colourfully madcap odyssey across London, on the run from the dead man’s associates who include a gleefully nasty gangster named Jellyroll and his vicious dwarf sidekick. Piecing the mystery together, Bernard unravels an intricate conspiracy involving blackmail and some incriminating photos, but waiting for him is one final surprise…
Probably because it’s drawing upon a genre already rife with sexy strangeness, Deadly Sweet is the most accessible of Brass’ early experimental films and can be savoured as yet another mind-bending giallo. Having employed erotic comic book artist Guido Crepax - whose S&M flavoured work influenced Jess Franco’s Necronomicon (1967) and received an official adaptation with Baba Yaga (1973) - to storyboard the film and handle production design, Brass further ups the avant-garde ante with eye-popping colours, dynamic editing and sight gags. Most notably a sequence that plays like a Benny Hill riff on Blow-Up (1966) wherein Jane performs a striptease during a photo orgy while Bernard pounds furiously on drums, climaxing with a Tarzan yell as he jumps her for a fast-motion sex scene.
Often sequences jump from colour to film noir black and white, comic book sound effects are spliced into fight scenes a la the Sixties Batman show, quotes from poets and philosophers pepper the dialogue, and there are allusions to everything from superheroes to classic Hollywood icons. When Bernard decides to play the tough guy, Brass wittily cuts to a poster of Humphrey Bogart. Later on, when shoved against a portrait of Mad magazine icon Alfred E. Newman, Bernard quotes his mantra: “What, me, worry?” The end result is somewhat akin to Pierrot le fou (1965) minus the socio-political content, although there are scenes filmed amidst a real CND rally in Piccadilly Circus as well as newsreel footage of the Vietnam war and conflict in Israel. Brass being Brass, he also includes loads of stylish, soft-focus love scenes and nudity from achingly lovely Ewa Aulin.
While the labyrinthine mystery is uniquely both hard to follow at times and not terribly complicated upon close scrutiny, it’s anchored in a solid performance from the great Jean-Louis Trintignant. Not so much a detective as someone playing at being a detective and gradually out of his depth. The idea of play becomes crucial to the film, as Brass takes a more sympathetic look at youth culture than grumpy, cynical Michelangelo Antonioni (whom he quotes directly during the photo-sex sequence), less cerebral but more passionate and of the moment. “I don’t want to grow up”, remarks Jane tellingly, underlining an era when reality seemed so bad, young people preferred to retain their childlike innocence, opting out of social responsibility for the Neverland of the Counterculture.
Seventeen year old former Miss Teen Sweden, Ewa Aulin is often mistakenly thought to have had a disastrous movie career, all because she headlined the all-star sex comedy Candy (1969), a “bad” movie that isn’t really all that bad anyway. In fact, whether by accident or good taste, Aulin appeared in some of the most offbeat and accomplished gialli out there, including Death Laid an Egg (1967) - where she reunited with Trintignant - and the superb The Double (1971), along with the admittedly schlocky but still eerily dreamlike Death Smiles at a Murderer (1973). Her little girl lost demeanour perfectly suits the oddly childlike femme fatale, plus she models some fab Sixties outfits.