Monday, 7 July 2008

Una Ondata di piacere / A Wave of Pleasure / Waves of Lust

The opening image of Waves of Lust throws you, makes you pay attention: it’s upside down.

Has someone made a mistake?

The answer is no: we are sharing the point of view of a man standing on his head.

“How's the world upside down?”
“Basically the same as right side up.”
“Then just as sick.”

Rather than being a simple attention-grabbing strategy on the part of the filmmakers – you can imagine audiences being ready to throw things at the screen or to scream at the projectionist – it's also an image that is crucial to an understanding of this 1975 erotic thriller / drama, recurring as it does at the film’s conclusion.

As a device, the image brings to mind the theories of the Russian Formalists, with their notion of defamiliarisation, taking something we know and take for granted and representing it in an unfamiliar way to make us question our presumptions and assumptions. It was, for the formalists, a key component of poetic language.

Yes, it’s yet another filone film that has more to it than meets the eye and which offers a number of interpretive challenges and possibilities.

It's also a vital film for anyone interested in the work of director Ruggero Deodato specifically, coming at a time when he had spent a number of years in television productions to mark the inauguration of his second, 'mature' period as a filmmaker and the introduction of a number of signature marks that would become more pronounced with his later, more (in)famous works.

In Deodato's best films – amongst which Waves of Lust certainly counts – he rarely gives us what we expect. Unless, that is, what we are expecting is a showcasing of humanity at its worst...

Deodato is a filmmaker who denies us easy answers and heroes and villains, tending more to present a division between the dead and the living, more often than not survivors who have been profoundly affected – or damaged – by their experiences.

He also subverts our narrative expectations. The most obvious instance of this is, of course, Cannibal Holocaust with its two films in one structure, but much the same could be said of his thrillers, Waves of Lust included, insofar as he has never really made a straight giallo.

There's no murder mystery plot here, with the discovery of a dead body early on leading nowhere; none of the familiar iconography beyond the J&B bottle, almost a character in its own right at times as it is consumed in quantities that the manufacturers could hardly endorse; and a fundamentally different logic underlying what we are told, not told and left to decide for ourselves.

Not promoting responsible drinking

The result is a chamber piece in which the air is thick with sexual tension, recalling Polanski's Knife in the Water as much as anything, which keeps looking like it is about to move into more obvious Lenzi-style sexy giallo territory but never quite does – a strategy of formalist retardation, at a stretch – by refusing to signpost an obvious noir-style conspiracy of power, lust and wealth despite the central presence of these three ingredients.

The film presents the story of two somewhat contrasting couples who happen to be vacationing at the same coastal resort at the same time.

The first couple comprises Irem – the man standing on his head – and Barbara. They're a bit younger and a bit counter-cultural, but otherwise deliberately sketchily drawn.

The second comprises Giorgio and Silvia. He's a wealthy businessman with a tendency towards cruelty even when sober, she's his property / trophy and the main target of his verbal, mental and physical abuse.

After a few apparently chance encounters in the resort's marketplace and gallery, Giorgio invites Barbara for dinner. She sends Irem in her stead and then arrives with Silvia, whose presence Giorgio had not counted on.

As the evening goes on, it is decided that Irem and Barbara will accompany Giorgio and Silvia on their boating trip. All manner of sexual and other tensions arise as Giorgio expresses his interest in Barbara – an interest which she reciprocates and Irem, with his hippie ideas, is happy to go along with – but proves reluctant to grant parallel license to Silvia, whom he continues to abuse and humiliate...

Along the way we get just about every combination except Giorgio and Irem

Though not as harsh a film as Cannibal Holocaust or House on the Edge of the Park, Waves of Lust still offers a heady mix of sex, violence and general unpleasantness. Yet, it is all curiously unobjectionable, making sense in its own terms.

Thus, if Giorgio at one point brutally stabs an eel he has caught while fishing it is presented, cannibal film-like, as part of nature, red in tooth and claw and, beyond this as an expression of his capitalist, social darwinist understanding of the world – “You fired 600 people?!” “My business regards no one else” – which, in turn, relates back to his cruelty and borderline psychopathic behaviour.

“You've completely destroyed it!”
“It would have done the same to me”
“No that's not true. Humans are always more ferocious. Animals kill out of defence or for food. Only humans do it for their own enjoyment. You enjoy seeing people suffer.”

Yet, in this, he's also different from David Hess's character in House on the Edge of the Park. Whereas Hess's proletarian character is all untrammeled id, doing things without regard for their longer term consequences, Giorgio, with the possible exception of his bingeing on J&B, is far more forward planning and in control.

He behaves in this way, uses these strategies and plays these games because he knows he can get away with them and that they fundamentally work for him, bringing rewards because of the way 'the system' operates.

“You almost killed me today”
“I'm sorry. The idea of going to jail over you doesn't entice me.”
“Don't worry, guys like you never go to jail.”
“You're right.”

As such, like the bourgeois who set up Hess in House's rape-revenge scenario or the cats paws and manipulators of many a giallo, there is then the awkward question of who are the real monsters are, those who cannot help themselves or those who would take advantage of them in their schemes.

In a similar vein, thought the film contains extensive nudity and softcore sex these elements come across not just as an exploitation film essentials – how exactly would you do an erotic thriller without them? – but also as a part of Deodato's almost anthropologically detached approach.

If as a filmmaker he exploits sex as a commodity, it is also because sex also has a commodified value in the world he is depicting.

Deodato's worldview thus for the first time emerges in Waves of Lust as that uniquely disconcerting combination of the critical – there is little doubt that we are supposed to be against Giorgio – and the cynical / cyclical.

Specifically, his take on revolutions, be they social, sexual or both, looks to be along the lines of “what goes around comes around,” leading not so much to a transcendence of any master / slave dialectics as to a temporary – i.e. 180 degree – reversal of fortunes and positions. As with Cannibal Holocaust's closing remark / question, “I wonder who the real cannibals are,” one suspects that this struck a bit too close to home for some.

Deodato's direction is not quite as accomplished as it would be in later films, being functional and effective without always convincing that he had chosen this or that set up, angle or movement for any specific, 'meaningful' reason. This could also, however, be put down in part to the inherent constraints imposed by the main setting. Certainly there is a contrast between the confined spaces and pointed exchanges of words and glances that tend to predominate on the boat and the sub-aqua sequences – likely the major contribution of co-writer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, best known as an underwater camera specialist – whose blue expanses and silence provide punctuating moments of apparent tranquilty.

Even so, danger is ambiguously present, as when Silvia gets trapped in between some rocks on the sea bottom and must be rescued by the others in a collective effort. Was this an accident or a pre-planned incident, a challenge issued by some of those present to see how others would react? As ever, Deodato provides no easy answers or get out, only questions and challenges.

As Giorgio, John Steiner again impresses in his willingness to go for it in the role of a human monster while remaining believably scary. The role of Iram is well-suited to Al Cliver's laid-back, casual style, with his relative inexpressiveness contributing to the effectiveness of his performance by making Iram that bit harder to read. Silvia Dioniso and Elizabeth Turner, as Barbara and Silvia respectively, likewise impress, delivering credible performances that belie the notion they are only present for decorative purposes.

Marcello Giombini's reedy synth score is one of the film's few weak points, though is not too intrusive and also helps ground the film in its specific time and place with its easy / sleazy / trash stylings that provide an aural counterpart to Dioniso's extra-wide flares and Steiner's tastefully patterned trunks.

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