In my limited experience thus far, I’ve seen four spectacular Italian films about BDSM: Femina Ridens, Check to the Queen, The Libertine and Devil in the Flesh. Each one explores the subject matter in its own unique way, and has its advantages over the other three. So for the next two entries in this series, we’re going to focus on the two most closely related films in this group: Check to the Queen, known in Italy as Scacco alla Regina, and sometimes titled The Slave, as well as its predecessor, The Libertine, known in Italy as La Matriarca. (That directly translates to “The Matriarch,” which in my opinion a far more apt title to describe the protagonist’s arc, as we will soon see.) If you’re interested in reading about the other two films with this distinction, I’ve already discussed Femina Ridens ad nauseam and I plan to do a future post about Devil in the Flesh.
Both The Libertine and The Slave were directed by the same man, Pasquale Festa Campanile, and they came out one year apart: 1968 and 1969, respectively. I have yet to see the rest of Campanile’s extensive filmography, but a cursory glance at IMDb reveals that most of his movies revolve around variously stylized depictions of sex. There’s films set in the stone age and some set in a future where sexual intercourse has replaced fossil fuels as humanity’s main source of energy. We have another film about a guy playing his wife’s body like an instrument, and several about discovering or reawakening one’s sexuality. This guy Campanile was a bona fide connoisseur of the erotic arts, and I look forward to experiencing some of his other work in these waning days of COVID. If any of them should merit it, I’ll share my thoughts in upcoming blog posts.
Anyway, I enjoyed both of these films so much that I bought the novel which Check to the Queen is based on, written by Renato Ghiotto, as well as the novelization of The Libertine by Jacapo Massimo. (Who, by the way, is a complete ghost on the internet, so either that was a pseudonym or he never did anything else.) I haven’t had time to read them yet, but when I do, I plan to write a follow up blog post comparing book and film. (I have a few additional thoughts about the excellent Libertine blu ray release as well, which will be included in that future essay.) In the following reviews about each movie, I’m going to use the Italian and English titles simultaneously so as to avoid rhetorical repetition. Let’s go in chronological order…
Becoming a Matriarch
Coincidentally, I happened to watch both of these movies on the same day, not knowing that they shared a director. At the time, The Slave greatly overshadowed its sister-film in my eyes, but upon repeated viewings The Libertine has grown on me exponentially. At first, I was lead to believe that Libertine would be another cinem-atic treatise on BDSM, so with those expectations I was disappointed. It was not until later that I appreciated this story on its own merits; it’s meant to be about personal growth and sexual exploration rather than a tragic love story examining the human condition. I believe on some level this was intended as a vanilla/inexperienced person’s introduction into the world of kinky sex and light BDSM, while offering them a good role model to identify with and learn from along the way.
Our main character is a beautiful young woman named Mimi (Catherine Spaak), who’s recently become a widow. She doesn’t feel particularly sad at her late-husband Franco’s funeral, and it’s soon clear that there was little affection in their marriage. (For example, Mimi is excited at the idea of having the house to herself, and sleeps in the maid’s room so as not to be reminded of her deceased partner.) She soon discovers that Franco had a secret sexual retreat where he practiced hardcore BDSM with many different mistresses.* He even kept a proverbial little black book where he rated each woman on her imagination, experience, “talent” and cooperation. Mimi laments the fact that her husband kept this side of his life from her, in a misguided (and misogynistic) attempt to keep her “pure.” Feeling betrayed and more than a little curious about sex herself, she decides to explore her own kinks throughout the rest of the narrative. What follows is an equally cute and empowering journey from repressed prisoner to liberated matriarch.
*ASIDE: Franco’s sexual retreat is by far the coolest location in the film, on par with the chic art deco/retro-futurism design of Dr. Sayer’s lavish villa in Femina and Margaret’s swanky mansion in The Slave. I’m telling you guys, there’s just something really incredible happening in these late ’60s Italian productions, from the surrealistic dreamscapes of Barbarella to the aforementioned pleasure palaces. You even see it in the individual objects sometimes: like the amphicars, three-legged chairs, square coffee mugs and serpentine tables. It’s almost like every single component of these films were designed to be as sophisticated and aesthetically pleasing as possible. I’m not exaggerating when I say it makes these movies worth watching even if you’re not interested in erotica.
Through the course of her experiments, Mimi gains new confidence, as well as the tools to navigate the kink scene better than she ever thought possible. Immediately after her first conquest, for example, Mimi boldly asks her dentist if he’s a sadist before coming onto him. She knocks her late-husband’s smarmy business partner off his high horse, to where he’s throwing himself at Mimi and begging for her hand in marriage. Most amusingly, she emasculates a meathead tennis instructor by surprising him in the shower. (Presumably, for all his bluster, the poor guy couldn’t get it up when actually presented with a naked and willing woman.) This continues until Mimi eventually meets a nice doctor named Carlo who is able to keep up with her. Not only is Carlo willing to indulge in kinky sex, he’s the only guy whom she can intelligently discuss psychology and philosophy with. (This is in stark contrast to most other characters in the story, who either assume Mimi must be a prostitute or condescendingly tell her she’s unwell because she no longer conforms to their idea of “normal.”)
Overall, La Matriarca presents a groundbreaking feminist arc for ’68, where Mimi proves that women like sex too; it’s not debasing and can even be empowering to us the same as it is to guys. While it may not offer the same gripping character drama or titillating BDSM scenes as some of its peers, this is still a worthy facet of the subject matter which deserves a thorough exploration. I’d also argue The Libertine serves as a compliment to Femina Ridens‘ symbolic deconstruction of gender dynamics,* particularly the double standards for women who engage in casual affairs. Almost none of the guys know how to handle a liberated woman like Mimi: they call her a whore if she rejects them, they’re afraid of her or they assume she’s gone crazy. It forces the more judgmental members of the audience to come to terms with how ridiculous their double standards are, and encourages the repressed free spirits among us not to care what other people think and just have fun.
*ASIDE: Similar to Femina Ridens, the dynamic between men and women is underscored by symbolism related to the arthropod world. Instead of Sayer’s monologue about a female scorpion eating a male, this time it’s a still-living scarab chained to a necklace that’s given to Mimi by her friend Claudia. The trinket is meant to teach Mimi that men are weak, replaceable and within her control, so that she may never lose perspective in her journey. The touch of the insect is intended to remind Mimi of her inherent wild side, even while she’s wearing the most elegant fashions at fancy upper class parties.
After half a dozen viewings, I’ve come to respect La Matriarca as one of my all-time favorite films, and Mimi as one of my top fictional characters. I notice something new about this movie every time I rewatch it, and I could really see a lot of my younger self in the protagonist’s arc. I know there are subsets of feminists out there who are against the porn industry and feel that sex films such as this are degrading to women. Without going off-topic and addressing all of their concerns (several of which I agree with, for the record) I think it’s worth pointing out that La Matriarca represents an exception to the rule, as an erotic movie that emancipates women. It represents a divergent path which the genre might have taken had it not been completely derailed by its own self-imposed need to find new ways to shock the audience with more and more depraved proclivities. (Plus increasingly exaggerated portrayals of the act which don’t reflect reality and give guys the wrong expectations going in.)
The Steps to Liberation
I have to say that Catherine Spaak (who, again, plays Mimi) is fantastic in this role, and the film would not have worked without her. She’s absolutely gorgeous, maybe the single most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, which makes watching her antics a delight. Yet–and this is crucial to La Matriarca‘s appeal–she never feels unapproachable, either. We get several internal monologues as the story plays on, which reveal her insecurities and occasional second-guessing of herself. This has the effect of telling viewers that it’s okay not to have limitless self-assurance at all times–you can still be flirtatious and sex-positive too. Even her eventual love interest, Carlo, is a bit of a dork, and not exactly the most handsome face in the crowd. I hope that doesn’t sound callous, I just mean that you don’t have to be a 10/10 to be attractive or interesting to women. I feel that’s what The Libertine is trying to convey to its audience with Carlo’s characterization–that no matter who you are, you too can have a fun sex life. The way to build up confidence is to keep putting yourself out there, keep exploring your turn-ons, and be willing to take things in stride. This movie does a great job of embodying that message without being too upfront about it. Basically, if you ever wanted to see a grown-up version of Clarissa Explains It All, where a cool-but-relatable woman breaks the fourth wall to talk honestly about her experiences with sex, (what, just me?) this is it.
At face value, Mimi is a feminist icon reclaiming the art of seduction for womankind. At the same time, while the story definitely revolves around the theme of feminine sexual liberation, many of the general lessons could equally apply to men:
- In particular, I really like how we see Mimi reading psychology books just as frequently as she has sex in this movie. It’s a good way to demonstrate that sexual liberation is as much an intellectual endeavor as it is carnal. In the process of exploring new things which turn you on, a person is also coming to terms with their own mind, in a matter of speaking. (I’d go as far to say that BDSM, and the exploration of human psychology which it entails, is an overlooked psychonautic activity.) This is an empowering message to send to any young and/or vanilla viewers. Less seriously, it’s also a consistent source of humor throughout the film, with Mimi imagining people in her life acting out some of the weirder fetishes she reads about, like drinking water out of high heels. Some scenes involve Mimi convincing her partners to engage in kinks she’s interested in, often to their comical exasperation. Not everyone’s going to understand the appeal of your kinks, at least not all of them, and that’s okay–just keep searching for the ones who do.
- In addition, there’s a sequence where Mimi calls off a BDSM scene that she’s participating in once it’s no longer comfortable for her. This is another really good lesson to send to people exploring kink stuff: you never have to follow through with anything you don’t want to. It’s okay to say “no” even after a scene has already begun–that’s not only your right, it’s a duty you owe to yourself. It’s not the fact that a woman says “yes” to everything which makes her “cool,” or keeps guys interested. Setting firm, healthy boundaries in no way prevents someone from achieving “empowered libertine/matriarch status.” The other Italian eroticas I’ve seen would have had Mimi go through with it and deal with the trauma and emotional fallout instead. While that admittedly might make for a more thrilling narrative, I’m glad there’s at least one film in this cannon which serves as a positive example for people to emulate in real life.
- While our protagonist is ridiculously attractive, they did a good job letting us see that Mimi makes mistakes too. She hooks up with a few guys who aren’t the best fit. Mimi is clearly out of her element at times, like the scene where she hooks up with a hardcore sadomasochist who rips her dress and manhandles her. Sometimes Mimi’s sexual games outright blow up in her face, like when she strips on the highway and then has to endure a lot of unwanted male attention when stopping for gas. The audience is probably wondering “well, what did she expect?” during moments like those. But if we’re being honest, we all sometimes bite off more than we can chew when we try new things and test our limits for the first time. It’s a fact of life that exploring uncharted waters means finding out that some kinks, or partners, are not exactly what you wanted after all. It’s good for the filmmakers to let people know there will be a few missteps along the way, some humbling moments from time to time, and whenever that happens the best thing is to just laugh it off and move on.
- In between various bouts of sexual experimentation, Mimi is often hounded by her mother for not mourning in the traditional way. Besides providing a source of humor, and yet another humanizing touch to Mimi’s character, this is also a lesson to the audience. Not everyone is going to understand, or support you if you stray from the conventional life plan, and that’s something you need to accept. Don’t let people pressure you into being something you’re not. If sex-positivity, polyamory, LGBTQ relationships or BDSM activities are what you’re into, then go for it and screw the haters. Again, this movie does a particularly great job of exploring this concept without being too one-the-nose preachy about it.
- Mimi ultimately decides that her favorite kink is to ride men–either being carried on their back while they guy walks, or while he walks on all fours.* Mimi’s preference is extraordinarily tame in the grand scheme of things, but for the purposes of the story and its role as a “how to” guide for novices to the scene, it works. It’s important to communicate to those people that kinky sex doesn’t always mean hardcore sadistic floggings and leather restraints. Sometimes, in the process of exploring your sexuality, you realize that you like something comparatively simple and/or unique. That’s part of the fun, and it doesn’t make you more boring or less adventurous. In fact, through the course of her journey, Mimi realizes she doesn’t like some of the more hardcore stuff she tries out.
*ASIDE: This development is wonderfully foreshadowed in the first few scenes of Mimi and her future husband Carlo. Notice how she wears a cowgirl hat upon their first meeting. Then, on their first official date, she wears a horse riding outfit. (Also, I don’t know where else to say this, but he proposes to her during a spank session, which is just the most adorable kink-laden thing I’ve ever seen!)