Please excuse the long delay in updates, the last month has been pretty hectic. I’m hoping to post more frequently in the next few weeks, because I have a lot of things to talk about.
So, I wanted to build off of my last post about La Matriarca (aka The Libertine) with my review of its Blu-ray and novelization. (I did the same for Femina Ridens, so it seems only fair.) Let’s jump right into it, starting with the novel.
The Bizarro Mimi
I do not remember how I discovered that Femina Ridens had a novelization commissioned for American audiences. I just know that at some point I did, and then I found the last copy of the book available online at the time. I don’t know why I didn’t check sooner, but eventually I thought: “Radley Metzger imported La Matriarca to the US too. Maybe that has its own novelization?” I did some googling and sure enough, it does. Actually getting a copy was a huge pain in the ass, as I’ve alluded to in the past. For some reason the Amazon listing didn’t show up on Google, the first copy I bought simply never arrived, and so I had to shell out for a second. It took weeks, and the whole time I was stressing out, thinking I lost my one chance to find this extremely rare book.
In any case, the second copy I ordered came on time and I read to my heart’s content. Similar to my experience with Femina Ridens, I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece of literature, but as a fan of the movie and an aspiring writer myself, I wanted to see how an author might flesh this story out. Now that I’ve finished, I would like to go over my thoughts on the book, with emphasis on its differences from the film.
Let’s tackle the big points of departure first, and then I’ll finish by listing a series of minor changes I noticed.
The Identity of the Author
My biggest overriding thought, from the moment I learned of this book’s existence to now, is wondering who the hell Jacapo Massimo is. This is his only authorial credit, and indeed googling the man’s name only brings hits related to the novel. “Jacopo” is a given name in Italian, and “Massimo” can be either an Italian surname or given name. But “Jacapo” with an “a” seems to be gibberish. Was it a pseudonym because he didn’t want to be associated with erotica? Is the spelling of the first name a misprint on the cover and no one corrected it because it’s a cheap paperback about erotica? Did he write anything else under other pen names? We will probably never know, because the man has almost certainly passed on by now. As unimportant as this mystery is in the grand scheme of things, it still intrigues me. Especially considering the changes to the story, I’d really love to sit down with the guy and ask about his motivations for this assignment, how much (if any) control Radley Metzger had over the final draft, how much freedom he was given to improvise, etc. I imagine that writing a novelization must be a relatively boring job for an aspiring writer, since there’s so little room for creativity. Considering some of the changes to the core themes, I almost wonder if this “Massimo” guy was pushing the envelope deliberately to see how much character-assassination against Mimi he could get away with. That’s my fun little pet theory anyway. It could just be another case of men not understanding how to write women.
Hell, I’m even curious why this novelization has “75 cents” printed on the cover when the Femina Ridens novel went for 95 cents. They’re the same size almost exactly, commissioned by the same company and pertaining to similar subject matter. So many unanswered questions from such a simple, disposable little book… (And I’m the only one in the world who cares 😛 )
I feel that this book largely did Mimi dirty. She’s one of my new favorite characters, and in my opinion a symbol of female empowerment with respect to both sex and body positivity. I mean, the original title translates to “The Matriarch” for God’s sake. Her entire arc is about gaining confidence in herself as she takes charge of her own sexuality. The source of 75% of the humor in the film is that most men don’t know how to handle a girl who eagerly initiates sex. Guys expect women to be reluctant and Mimi throws them off their game, in some cases rendering them impotent as a result. This novel instead frames Mimi as more scatterbrained and even outright unhinged in a few places. She goes back and forth on whether she’s doing the right thing with these casual flings, and her antics get her into trouble far more frequently than the film. I would have genuinely feared for her safety in a few scenes if I didn’t already know how the story ends.
I guess the author felt that he had to create internal turmoil in Mimi’s mind as a source of drama, or he sensed that his readership would be mostly male and therefore not interested in a treatise about female empowerment. But I strongly believe this undermines the central message of the story along with Mimi’s whole character. My impression from the film was that Mimi had dutifully listened to her mother and then her husband all this time, and diving head-first into the kink scene was the first willful act in her entire life. Sandro and her Mother don’t understand but that’s because they’re controlling and square, so she rightly blows them off. In the novel, Mimi reads like someone having a protracted nervous breakdown and I found myself thinking she needed a therapist, not a new hookup.
I was also disappointed at the choice of using third person narration rather than a first person POV. The film begins with Mimi’s internal monologue and is peppered with her little asides to the audience. In the final scene when Mimi rides her new man into the bedroom, she even looks directly into the camera and smiles, subtly breaking the fourth wall. The conflict is a textbook example of man vs himself, with Mimi overcoming her own internal hang-ups about sex to be a happier, more outgoing person. There’s multiple scenes of her reading Psychopathia Sexualis and mulling over this new information in her internal monologue. It just felt to me like this story, more than any other I know, was begging to be told in the first person.
The film states outright that Franco never initiated BDSM/kinky games with Mimi. She was his wife and he wanted to keep her “pure,” while mistresses and prostitutes were fair game to defile. Mimi says this unambiguously in her internal monologue while discovering Franco’s home movies. What fuels Mimi’s desire to explore sexuality is the betrayal that her husband never thought she was good enough to share this part of his life with. My impression is she would have loved to experiment with Franco all along had he not kept her in the dark. (In the film version, Mimi admits to Sandro that she felt bored with their sexual routine, which I imagine was probably missionary position through a hole in the sheet.) I filled in my own backstory that Mimi was probably a young trophy wife in an age gap relationship to a wealthy business mogul who pampered yet patronized her. This background makes Mimi sympathetic to the audience, and frames Franco as the condescending, misogynist sleaze who doesn’t deserve a second thought.
In the book, Franco actually did try to initiate wild sex with Mimi on several occasions but she was too prudish and proper. After multiple rejections from his own wife, he decided to seek his thrills elsewhere. Massimo even goes as far to write a flashback of Franco’s last night alive, and how his final memory was being turned down rather coldly. (In the movie it was some kind of accident at the country club in broad daylight.) This has the effect of making him sympathetic when there’s no reason to–in the film he’s mostly a plot device to set our heroine on her journey. It also changes Mimi’s interest in sex from curiosity (which is endearing and healthy) to guilt (which is tragic and misguided). Several of the other characters, including Claudia, even resent Mimi to some degree for forcing Franco to resort to outside dalliances. As I recall, some even secretly blame her for killing him. In fact, the book makes it clear that most if not all of Franco’s secret lovers attend the funeral and worry if Mimi will ever find out the truth.
All that said, there is a passage which explains that Mimi hates sex because of all the times she’s been ogled, pinched and brushed against by men in public throughout her life. I could understand that, but I would have liked to see this new backstory influence her thoughts and decisions through the story. Is she scared of the men even as she seduces them? Does she reach a point where she realizes they’re more afraid of her than the reverse? Does she have certain triggers which remind her of past traumatic incidents of groping? (I know I hate it when people approach me from behind at clubs after my own experiences getting my rear pinched.) Does she prefer men with a softer touch? None of the character possibilities which this change opens up are fully explored.
I suppose I was mistaken, but I always thought Sandro Maldini was Franco’s business partner. (If there was a line saying otherwise, I’ve missed it all the times I’ve watched the film.) In this book, he’s actually the family lawyer. Also, I got the impression from his hookup with Mimi in the film that Sandro was a womanizer. Someone who sought to take advantage of a vulnerable young woman now alone in the world. (And not even a week after the funeral!) Mimi gives a heartfelt monologue about how hurt she was to discover Franco’s cheating while Sandro crassly looks up her skirt. She cries and he starts undressing her. She asks how she is in bed and he gives her low scores with an unwarranted sense of smugness. Sandro figured he’d score with a hot piece of ass, give a half-hearted fake apology to placate her feelings and then brag to the other guys at the office. Mimi turned it around on him, in her first act of liberation. I always thought he was a tool who finally got his comeuppance by meeting a woman just as casual about sex as he is. Mimi was cool and owned sleeping with Sandro, which was a new experience that intrigued him, so he fell head over heels. Mimi knew he was a pig after their first interaction however, and deservedly blew him off for the rest of the story. Sandro is so smitten all the same that he surrenders any pretense of dignity as he begs to marry her. The player got played, in a simple but effective role reversal.
The book portrays Sandro as a full-fledged “nice guy” who’s pined for Mimi in secret all these years. There’s lines about how he always likes to be “her helper” and how he idolizes her. During their key scene together, he promises not to hurt her and never looks up her skirt in this version. At one point Sandro tries to throw out her book on sex to “save” her. During the party at Claudia’s, he actually says aloud “so anyone can have you but me?” which just made me feel bad for the guy. In another scene, Mimi actually does offer to have sex with him a second time, which isn’t in the movie, and he turns her down because she’s been drinking. (Sandro bitterly thinks about how she’ll just hook up with someone else instead, though. What a white knight.) This has the effect of making Mimi’s cold rejection of Sandro actually kind of sad. Not that they would have made a good match, or that she owes him a relationship, but I get the sense the poor bastard just never learned how to charm women. I will say, after encountering this interpretation, when I go back and watch the film I now notice that even from the beginning Sandro was always visibly nervous, flattering and somewhat clumsy around Mimi. So this take on him does have merit within the original work.
In several scenes of the book, Mimi expresses her newfound knowledge on sex to Sandro, rather than the audience via internal monologue. She also seems to take it to heart that he gave her low scores, where I felt as though film-Mimi barely gave that a second thought. There’s a line about wanting to prove Sandro’s ratings wrong, and when she offers to sleep with him a second time it’s under the pretense of raising her score. Finally, book-Mimi actually considers Sandro as a Plan B if her relationship with Carlo doesn’t pan out, whereas film-Mimi wouldn’t touch him again if he was the last man on Earth. (At least, that was my impression.)
The one character who makes it out of this adaptation largely unchanged is Dr. Carlo de Marchi, Mimi’s ultimate love interest and future husband. The alterations to his character are few and always for the better. I like how it’s made clear that the reason Mimi likes him so much in the book is because he’s the only guy not trying to get inside her skirt. (In the film, I thought she fixated on him because he happened to be the first man to carry her, which she immediately discovers is her kink.) The fact that Carlo’s restrained and passive by nature presents a challenge to Mimi, which makes him interesting. Similarly, I like how Mr. Massimo portrayed Carlo’s justifiable annoyance at Mimi’s games while still finding them endearing all the same. It felt like a realistic portrayal of “opposites attract” and “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” In this version, Mimi feigning injury so Carlo will carry her to the car isn’t a minor annoyance to him–it’s a two mile excursion which leaves the poor man exhausted. (The things we do for love, eh?)
Possibly the most iconic scene associated with The Libertine is when Mimi strips on the highway. Carlo pulls into a gas station and hijinks ensue. In the movie version, I was always under the impression that he genuinely needed gas, though he clearly wasn’t above finding the humor in the situation. In the book, it’s made clear that Carlo did not need gas and was giving Mimi a taste of her own medicine. He even takes his time ordering multiple espressos at the bar to let her dangle a little under the scrutiny of onlookers. For me, this was great because it shows what kind of relationship the two will have, where they can build off of each other’s “sexcapades” playfully. Carlo isn’t a violent or aggressively lustful man, yet he is not someone she can push around either. He’s not ashamed of her free spiritedness, he embraces it. At one point in the book, Carlo explicitly notes Mimi’s spontaneity as a positive attribute, something he’s lacking. Yet he also brings her down to Earth to an extent, keeping her games grounded and safer. (And in the novel if not the movie, it’s clear Mimi needed a stabilizing influence.)
In the film, Carlo’s destruction of Franco’s flat didn’t make complete sense to me. I thought he’d gotten fed up with Mimi’s games and wanted a straight answer on marriage, or perhaps he wanted to show her that he can be as wild and unpredictable as she proved to be in her own home movies. The book handles this moment better, because in this version Mimi’s experiments are getting out of control and making her less stable. The book frames her entire arc as a somewhat misguided attempt to prove herself to Franco in absentia, and by destroying the room Carlo is freeing her from the past. (Again, it ruins her overall character but hey…this one scene is better for it.) He doesn’t propose marriage over a spanking session, which is a shame because I thought that was adorable. But he does carry her out of the room in his arms, which Mimi had been longing for since she met him. (Until this point, in the novel as well as the film, Carlo always carried her piggy back. In the movie Mimi enjoyed this, and she still does in the book…she just wants to be carried in his arms more.)
- Franco’s flat is given an address/name in both film and text: Via Due Torre 37. However, in the former this is only spoken once, where in the latter it’s referenced constantly. This is my favorite “change” (really, a necessity of the different medium) since it almost makes that setting a character onto itself. The name inexplicably inspires a sense of mystery and ominousness whenever it’s mentioned in the book.
- They made Mimi a blonde, though luckily this is only communicated in a throwaway line in the first chapter. The whole asinine stereotype that blondes are always sexier/more fun while brunettes are plain/stuffy is one of my all-time pet peeves about society. Both as a brunette myself and someone who has a preference for brunettes. I’ve known so many gorgeous brown-haired women who felt they needed to dye their hair light in order to attract men and it just makes me mad. Not only is this substitution unnecessary in the first place, it feeds into that toxic perception despite the fact that Mimi as she exists in the film is exhibit A in why that preconception is bullshit. I don’t know how anyone could watch the film, see the most physically beautiful woman imaginable in Catherine Spaak and be so petty as to want to dye her wonderful hair. (And honestly, changing the character’s most distinguishing physical attribute like that is outright disrespectful to the actress who brought her to life, if you ask me.)
- All of the sex scenes are described in full rather than left to the imagination, which is to be expected. For the most part this is fine in theory. But in practice it often completely changes the effect which sex has on Mimi’s character. Most notably, the shower scene with Phillipe Leroy in the film clearly implies he couldn’t get it up. Mimi teases him by drawing a question mark after the word “Men” outside the showers. This doesn’t happen in the book, instead he regains his nerve and physically dominates Mimi, who immediately regrets her decision. (See how these changes consistently undermine her personal growth?)
- The scene with Fabrizio is also completely different. In the film, Mimi takes him and another woman (named Ornetta in the book) to Franco’s apartment but decides she’s uncomfortable with the scene. In the book, she agrees to hookup with Fabrizio but while he’s arranging for Ornetta to come too, she wanders off with two young men. These guys don’t speak Italian and there’s some wackiness as they watch Fabrizio come over later and get whipped right in the doorway. Mimi decides to kick Fabrizio and Ornetta out and focus on the younger guys instead. They’re scared of her, thinking she might whip them too. Ultimately, Mimi forces them to be intimate with each other on pain of lashing. It’s a bizarre change, but admittedly a more fun scene.
- Mimi kills the beetle on the necklace Claudia gave her after Maria’s disgusted reaction to it. This is just another example of her getting more and more crazed as the story progresses, rather than confident as she did in the film.
- Mimi tells Carlo in no uncertain terms that he “saved [her.]” As if it were possible to miss the point any more than that. Their dialogue in the filmed scene, especially the original Italian language version, is already so sweet and beautiful without resorting to bullshit gender stereotypes like that. It’s really clear that this book was written by a man for a male audience, so the strong female protagonist had to be humbled and irrational. Otherwise it might make guys insecure, or perhaps reflective of their own shitty double standards towards sex and women. In fact, some of Mimi’s best lines in the film are cut, like how men only call her “whore” when she doesn’t want to sleep them. Some of Carlo’s best lines are gone too, like “I saw the girl of my dreams carry out her own private sexual revolution […] and quite imaginatively I admit, but the most revolutionary and imaginative act is still falling in love.“
Despite all the changes I disagreed with, I’m still glad I own this book though, if for no other reason than to have a rare collector’s item associated with a favorite film of mine. But it could have been so much more. For example, I loved how Hadrian Keene, author of the Femina Ridens novelization, was able to build on the themes of his own assigned film in unique ways. He added an anecdote about how wind chimes are beautiful yet symbolize death, plus references to legendary men who were brought low by the women they loved, as well as quotes from second wave feminists. These additions indicate that Mr. Keene understood well what the movie was about, and he cared enough to expand upon the mythos. In my opinion, this is what a good novelization ought to do. I got no such impression from Mr. Massimo, though taken as a standalone work his prose was solid.
A Labor of Love
This film made me develop a huge celebrity crush on Catherine Spaak, so I’ve been checking out what I can find of her ’60s filmography these past two months. (That will also be the subject of a future blog entry.) La Matriarca seems to be among her most well preserved movies, where others have never been released to DVD and can only be found on low resolution downloads. (And some I can’t find at all.) This is great news for fans like me, because Matriarca represents Catherine at her most beautiful, playing one of her most intriguing roles.
I want to thank Nucleus Films for bringing this fantastic movie to Blu-ray. I can honestly say that it is now my favorite home media release of any movie I’ve ever owned. (And as a film buff, that’s saying a lot, believe me.) You can tell the people putting it together really cared about this film too, and wanted to make sure it was treated with the proper respect. The picture quality is breathtaking; after only seeing it in low resolution online video (sourced from a degraded print with yellowed colors) it’s almost like watching a completely different movie. Not only did they include a restoration of the Italian and US versions, there was even a whole new dub included of the Italian cut of the film which I’d never heard before. So you can listen to the one Radley Metzger put out in ’68, or this other one whose origins I do not know. I go back and forth on which dub I prefer personally, and I think which is “better” depends on the specific scene. The “Metzger dub” voice for Mimi is more emotive, but her counterpart in the other dub has a flintier, more sensual voice.
I mean, even down to the tiniest detail–namely, the background music on the menu–this is sublime. They used the quietest, most understated composition on the soundtrack (“L’amore Dice Ciao (Psychedelic Version)“) so that if you leave the disc idle it doesn’t blare repetitive 60 second loops of loud theme songs at you indefinitely. Yes, admittedly, this is a minor thing to comment on. But as someone who watches a lot of home media, overly loud menu music (and Netflix auto-playing!) are a first world pet peeve of mine. For the team assembling this release to give consideration even to such a minor point is really going above and beyond in terms of costumer service. It shows me that they are also lovers of film, who’ve probably dealt with the same issue themselves in the past. This was a release made by people who care about the end user experience and know how the rest of us feel about these things. They get it.
The special features are great too, with featurettes about the movie, the soundtrack and even the sets/costumes. It’s clear these people have done their homework and/or participated in a lot of the same online discussions I’ve seen while researching the film myself. I love how they mentioned the fact that nobody knows the name of the song which plays in the trailer and gas station scene. (That’s a subject people have been discussing for years, if the MovieChat backup of the old IMDb forums is any indication.) They even name drop a bunch of other Italian films in these mini-documentaries, which is great for people like me looking to explore rabbit holes and find new stuff to check out. The “deleted scenes” are really strange extended sequences of the film, like actors jumping around in slow motion with erotic music playing. It almost feels like B-roll footage and, wouldn’t you know it, Nucleus restored these to pristine quality too!
If I were to offer any constructive criticism of this release, it’s the reversible sleeve. I love how Shameless Films gave us two completely different images on the reversible sleeve for Femina Ridens, based on the Italian and US posters. Each was different, showing Maria in either a vulnerable or triumphant pose, so there was a purpose to include both. With Nucleus’ Matriarca Blu-ray, the image is exactly the same no matter which way you turn the sleeve, only one says “The Libertine” and the other says “La Matriarca.” The end-label on the spine doesn’t even change–it always says “The Libertine” no matter which way you turn it. If it had been up to me, I would have used the “Mimi standing over a guy with a whip” poster with the American title, and have the “Mimi sizes up a Greco-Roman statue” poster with the Italian title for the reverse. Y’know, for the sake of variety. One’s a naughty cover for the fans, the other’s a benign cover you can leave out on the coffee table in front of company. But of course, this is such a minor nitpick which pales in comparison to the hard work and thoughtful choices that went into this disc.
As I said in my earlier review of The Libertine, there are 4 great Italian movies about BDSM I’ve seen thus far. I now own all of them on home video. Shameless’ DVD release of Devil in the Flesh was quite shoddy in my opinion. (More on that in a future post.) Their DVD release of Femina Ridens was good but left me wanting for HD picture quality, special features and the Italian language version of the film. Mondo Macabro‘s Blu-ray release of Check to the Queen was great but I do wish there were special features. Only with Nucleus Films’ Blu-ray release of La Matriarca did I truly feel that the restoration team gave 110% in order to create the definitive version of the film that was entrusted in their care. Thanks, guys!
Wonderful review of the book and movie. I know this is a labor of love for you too. Good job as usual. Glad you discovered both the film and book since they mean so much to you!
I know that I have seen this film but too long ago to comment at length about the plot. I do recall all sorts of wonderful visuals, e.g., her disrobing in the car and tossing her clothing out of the car and arriving at the petrol station ( i.e., gas station ) topless, that strange room, slipping into the men’s showers, and, oh, riding on the back of that gentleman !