Shame and Beauty: When nudity works

Of all the films deserving of a restoration and a spanking new Blu-ray issue, Caligula is near the bottom of the list. The spawn of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, man of letters/secret screen-trash peddler Gore Vidal, and Italian titty-film director Tinto Brass, Caligula was meant to be an epic and a controversy, the first-wave mainstreaming of porn clad in classical laurels. Upon its initial release in 1979 it turned out to be perhaps the most expensive exploitation film ever made, a gaudy, awful bomb without a cult to lend it a good name. The fact that someone felt it important to restore the film to its pristine state in HD clarity is worth a horse laugh, as the film has a famous history of cuts, recuts, warring creative partners, and participants distancing themselves. Still, made me look.

The film seems to have snakebit the story for the screen, which is a shame since it’s one of the most outrageous yarns of antiquity, and a cautionary tale to boot. In this telling, unstable young Roman noble Caligula (Malcolm McDowell, working his half-mad gleam) succeeds his adoptive uncle, the Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole), whose death he abets. Once in possession of absolute power, well, what you do think? Caligula brings his incestuous relationship with his sister Drusilla (pretty vacant Teresa Ann Savoy) almost out in the open, he murders rivals, and he acts out every whim, however generous or perverse, e.g. celebrating a wedding by raping the bride—and the groom. His power grows, and so does his madness, until the inevitable bloody end.

Even in the mildest of its various forms, Caligula is repellent. The supporting cast barely registers while the leads go Forum big; McDowell makes his turn in A Clockwork Orange look like a masterpiece of understatement. Guccione and company certainly spared little expense on enormous, tacky sets and flesh-revealing costumes. Indeed, Caligula might be worth watching for the visuals alone, had not the inept filmmakers shot scene after scene through long lenses, making for a shaky, undynamic image, and lit so many scenes in unsubtle opposing red and green. And then there are the hardcore porn inserts that Guccione shot and insisted upon, reinstated here to offer little more than a final coat of terminal ick. The only pleasure to be had amidst all this hedonism comes courtesy O’Toole, who in his few scenes makes Tiberius a syphilitic old monster taking a few last memorable bites of scenery before ceding center stage.

The only actors to escape Caligula relatively unscathed were John Gielgud (whose character kills himself after two scenes) and Helen Mirren, who played Caligula’s wife Caesonia. She’s a grand dame now, and her phenomenal talent deserves every bit of that respect, but Mirren’s career has always been distinguished by her willingness to strip down for a role, whether it’s for crap like Caligula, art-house fare The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, or even 2003 matron comedy Calendar Girls. Somehow it always looks regal on her, and that trend began with 1969’s Age of Consent, freshly restored and released on DVD.

Despite its suggestive title, Age of Consent isn’t an exploitation film. Director Michael Powell had directed or co-directed classics such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes before all but killing off his career with the unsettling 1960 cult classic Peeping Tom. The great James Mason signed on to Powell’s adaptation of Norman Lindsay’s semi-autobiographical novel as star and co-producer, helping it get made despite Powell’s studio cooties. And in her first significant film role, Mirren signed on to play the frequently naked ingénue. Mirren was no bimbo starlet, having already launched a stage career with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but she was young and protean enough that she makes quite an impact.

Mason plays successful painter Bradley Morahan, who’s lost his zest for his art. He retreats to a remote island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, but a handful of colorful locals don’t leave him much peace. So far, so stock, except for young beachcomber Cora (Mirren), who reignites Morahan’s creative spark, among other things. It’s an odd enterprise, full of corny old conceits and, in this new director’s cut, rampant Mirren flesh fresh from 1969, deemed too much at the time. Yet this is a sweet film, not a carnal one, thanks in large part to the dignity of Mason and Mirren. It’s a pleasure to watch such charismatic talents just be amid Powell’s pacific but colorful mise-en-scene. And when Mirren takes a nude skin dive, it’s more classical in the Golden Age sense than anything Caligula can offer. m

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