XX: Swept Away
(Italy, 1974; dir. Lina Wertmüller; scr. Lina Wertmüller; cin. Ennio Guarnieri)

Having endorsed the Psycho remake earlier in this bracket, I'm not going to push the envelope. In this case, I do mean the Wertmüller original, not the Guy & Madge update from 2002, even if, truth be told, I didn't think that version was so bad. Doesn't matter anyway, since defending Wertmüller's own reputation takes enough energy these days. My, but world film culture can turn against its rising female auteurs! After the hat trick of Love and Anarchy, Swept Away, and Seven Beauties in the mid-1970s, Wertmüller made a string of flops, at least as regards their performance outside of Italy. These days, you barely hear a kind word even about her career-makers. (Jesus, it's like she and Jane Campion really are soul sisters—and Sofia Coppola, you'd best watch your back from here on out.)

Swept Away, for all the jewel-toned lusciousness of its cinematography, is not designed to go easy on any scenery-seekers who wander in. The sparkling blue water, gleaming boats, and paradisical isle of Swept Away are among the first mirages of the "natural" that get slyly absorbed into the demagogic rattle-bag of the script, which appropriates as many capitalized Concepts as it can before giving them all an earthy, vigorous shake. Even better and more boldly, Wertmüller conceives characters who are as directly and constantly aware of these concepts as she is, and who invoke them with a shrill obnoxiousness that the film is willing, even proud, to assume as its own. "How sad to imagine this paradise full of shit, the sea a big, open sewer," pronounces Mariangela Melato's spoiled aristocrat, reaching new acmes of braying superciliousness. Here is a woman who looks at the ocean and the horizon and can't not think of them as hers, can't not think of them as somehow encroached upon by some unwashed someone somewhere. Even as the film strokes her with buttery light it slaps her around with sharp, arhythmic edits that only emphasize the way she herself brings up everyone and everything short. "You ludicrous, vain black midget!" she screams at a ship's crewman (Giancarlo Giannini, inevitably), who counters back with his own stampeding herd of epithets, of which "You dirty, social-democratic prickteaser!" is a roundly typical example. The collision of warring social vocabularies is never louder in Swept Away than when someone's insulting someone, which is often. Beyond the film's pugnacity in keeping up this bruising war of words, consider the achievements of Giannini and especially Melato, who have to preserve but also modulate this pitch of invective for more than an hour, well into their joint marooning on an uncharted island. This is the point when the script really shows what audacious stuff it's made of, countering her social Darwinism with his brutish misogyny, and then turning them both on to each other.

As the movie barrels forward, Raffaella and Gennarino change their view of the island from a simple haven to some kind of prelapsarian utopia, but go ahead and laugh at them—as long as we don't only laugh at them. The muscular systems of class and gender, no matter how socially constructed, nonetheless abide in such a way that wherever humans go, so go they. The inexplicable presence on this island of some kind of bunkered chapel is a sign that no terrain is untouched, but unlike Raffaella, Wertmüller doesn't recoil from this notion. Exploring ideas in such a way that they are never abstracts, provoking her own sense of their limits and their linkages, Wertmüller almost takes a perverse pleasure in the world's ugly power plays, since they sure give her a lot to say and plenty of buttons to push, in formally controlled and gorgeous images that she underlines and italicizes without making them into polemics. Precious few directors hand their films over so openly to ideologies when they aren't billboarding for one of them. In Wertmüller's case, I'm not sure if she is committed to none or to all of the positions that get espoused in this film, but certainly not to just one. Meanwhile, I'm not the only person with questions, for I think Wertmüller has some, too. At its heart, Swept Away is a melodrama, at moments even a tender one, asking whether people have outlasted landscapes as the last sites for romantic possibility, whether people can break out of conditions and into genuine novelties. "We're not on the yacht anymore," Gennario reminds Raffaella, but in truth we probably always are on the yacht, just like we're always actually in Kansas, Toto. Still, the movie tests the fantasy, in brilliant Technicolor, even when we privately know or at least suspect what's real.

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