David Lynch, in certain interviews, has famously told a story from his childhood that served as one of the chief inspirations for “Blue Velvet.” Evidently, when Lynch was about 10 years old, he was walking home from school with a friend, when a woman in her mid 30s, distraught, approached the young filmmaker on the street. She was crying. She was distraught. And, most disturbingly to Lynch, she was nude. Lynch had ogled the women in Playboy magazine in the past, and talked with his peers about how much he wanted to see a naked lady in person, but the sight of this crying nude woman, unexpectedly shambling toward them in the suburban sunlight, struck the young Lynch as a hideous aberration to his perceived normalcy of the world. His reality began to unravel at that moment. He and his friend ran from the woman, also crying.
It’s that uneasy feeling of sickening aberration that permeates the surprisingly dark 1985 Italian erotic “thriller,” “Scandalous Gilda” (pronounced with a soft “G”), directed by actor Gabriele Lavia, who was in “Sleepless” and Dario Argento’s “Deep Red,” and which has recently been released on DVD by One 7 Movies. This is a film that is indeed about sex, and follows the deep emotional trenches traversed by damaged adults and their unhealthy sexual obsessions, but one whose marketing campaign makes it look like a sexual romp.
I shall explain: On the back of the DVD box, the story is described as the journey of a beautiful unnamed woman (Monica Guerritore), who goes on a “sexual odyssey or erotic discovery” after discovering her husband in bed with another woman (Pina Cei). In your mind, you’ve already pictured the clumsy, pseudo-comic seduction scenes as this woman hops from bed to bed, seducing stranger after stranger. You can hear the cheesy, dubbed pick-up lines. You may even picture the inevitable dip in the bisexual hot tub for this woman (and there always is such a dip in this kid of film). Sadly, “Scandalous Gilda” is less a bawdy sexual romp, and more a Hanekian spiral into psychosexual oblivion. I will elucidate:
The story does indeed begin the way the box says: Our heroine discovers her husband in bed with a local newscaster. The sex scenes are shot in sweaty, porous passion, and are actually kind of erotic; the people seem to be genuinely surrendering to the vulnerability of sexual abandon, rather than merely moaning for the camera. Our heroine is crushed, and is soon dumped by her husband – via an audio cassette he leaves behind. There are a few early scenes of Guerritore listening to the tape over and over, while she lays about in the nude. She cries, but her face is a heavily made-up mask, belying any decipherable emotions. Here’s another comparison to “Blue Velvet:” Guerritore, with her heavy eye make-up and sloppy lipstick, with her pale skin and cushy, drapey powersuit-fetish outfits, strongly resembles Dorothy Valens. I’m convinced Lynch watched this movie before making his 1986 classic.
Guerritore takes to the road. She is approached in traffic by a buffoonish fellow (Lavia), who, with this wiry frame, reddish mustache, white suits and straw hat, looks a lot like R. Crumb. He drives a Jeep with the word “SMASH!” painted on the hood. He listens to “Carmen,” sings along, and swerves wildly across the road. He ends up talking to our heroine at a rest stop, and he convinces her to have a huge, huge lunch with him(several courses are bought, no food is eaten). She is hurt and mildly annoyed by his obvious attempts to pick her up. Then he draws a cartoon, explaining that he is an animator, which lightens the mood a little.
Then there’s a really, really weird animated sequence, in which a city of talking cartoon penises are visited by a talking vagina, named Scandalous Gilda. Part of the audio went missing from this animated sequence, so many of the sound effects are clearly people making noise with their mouths. This sequence is fascinatingly oddball.
But what has so far been a droll romantic comedy about redemption and fun sex quickly shifts into something far more sinister. Our hero and heroine do indeed sleep together, but, during the post-coital period, she immediately begins to beset him with Mamet-ian verbal trickery, accusing him of being a hound, insisting he call her a whore, and then insulting him when he does. She demands payment. What is going on here? We were having great sex just a few minutes before. Why have we gone into this dark place? She hits him and insults him and tries get him to admit that he’s a dirty man.
In a way, this is a boilerplate S&M headgame, this alternating of deprecation and outright abuse. And it’s never clear when either of them are being sincere. It’s only a few minutes later that our hero is violently sodomizing our heroine in a pile of broken glass on the floor. Through this act, they claim to fall in love.
From there, it’s just a cold, soul-crushing spiral into crime. This is not a fun, goading crime spree like in “The Honeymoon Killers” or even “Natural Born Killers.” This is more an emotionally detached abyss of incurable sexual dissatisfaction and crippling, ineffable loneliness. If “Gilda” resembles any film, it’s David Cronenberg’s “Crash.”
She insults him. He rapes her. She shaves his head and pees on him. They fuck in a bathroom stall. She bones a trucker while he watches. They dare each other to get more and more horrible. Had this film pushed a little bit further, it would have resembled the unrestrained Sadian perversions of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye.
And then it ends with death. By way of maintaining dramatic tension, I will not tell you who dies.
I hesitate to call “Scandalous Gilda” a good film, but it’s certainly effective, and seems to get its point across just well enough. For those of you expecting a playful sexual romp, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is an adult film for grown ups that is relentlessly sour and unexpectedly brutal. What’s more, it’s not as deep as it wants to be; it seems preoccupied with being provocative, and is less interested in actual sexual psychology (like in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” for instance). If you like your erotica to be playful and fun, stay away.