The Pioneering Filmmaker Known for Her Wild, Antifascist Sex Comedies

In 1977, Lina Wertmüller, whose work depicts the battle between sex and politics, became the first woman nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. We caught up with the 88-year-old filmmaker to talk about her legacy.

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Apr 14 2017, 3:45pm

Still from "Love & Anarchy" courtesy of Kino Lorber

During an uncharacteristically quiet moment in Lina Wertmüller's 1986 film Summer Night, the Italian billionaire Fulvia Block and her Swiss lover, Frederick, sit down to breakfast after a session of enthusiastic lovemaking. He dips a cracker in honey, holds it clumsily between his teeth, and attempts to offer it to her. Instead of biting the other end, she laughs in his face. "What is this, love—9 ½ Weeks?" she crows. "That's crazy bullshit. We get dirty and nothing happens. If the Americans aren't erotic, imagine you Swiss."

By the time she made Summer Night, Wertmüller had more than earned the right to belittle hokey, Hollywood-style eroticism. In the 1970s, she became the world's greatest director of sex comedies—a genre she made entirely her own by fusing romance, farce, and politics. She was the first woman to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Director, for her 1975 film Seven Beauties, and its plot is classic Wertmüller: In 1940s Naples, a hood kills his sister's lover for dishonoring the family, escapes punishment by enlisting in the army, and ends up in a German concentration camp, where he must submit to a grotesque female Nazi's sadistic whims in order to survive. An excess of male pride—and a selfish willingness to fight for fascism—results in punishment at the hands of a uniquely cruel woman.

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Interpersonal power dynamics, and the way they mirror institutional systems of oppression like patriarchy and capitalism, are Wertmüller's chief fascination. In an email interview in advance of her retrospective screening series at New York's Quad Cinema, the 88-year-old filmmaker tells me that she "wanted to explore human beings, their weaknesses, their ideals," and that she used sex as a window into politics because she was "curious about contrasts between the sexes that reflect social contrasts between upper classes and lower classes."

Her most famous film, 1974's Swept Away, is also her purest investigation into those contrasts. During a yachting holiday gone wrong, aristocratic Raffaella (played by Mariangela Melato, who plays the female lead in many of Wertmüller's films) ends up stranded on a desert island—a place where, Wertmüller explains in her email, "society and social borders don't exist"—with Gennarino, a member of her boat's crew (Wertmüller's leading man of choice, Giancarlo Giannini). Raffaella happens to be virulently classist, while Gennarino is a card-carrying Communist and open misogynist. On the yacht, she takes pleasure in humiliating him; on the island, he has all the survival skills. She becomes his slave. Of course, they fall in love.

Melato and Giannini in "Swept Away." Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

Wertmüller's appetite for probing the extremes of human nature might have been stoked by the geopolitical catastrophes she witnessed as a child. Born in Rome on August 14, 1928, she grew up during Mussolini's rule and World War II. The war, in particular, "had a strong influence on me," she says, "especially when it was over and the images from concentration camps started to be published and spread. In those moments, something had changed in me, in the way I conceived human beings."

As a child, she was drawn to films, comic books, and novels, but it was her friend Flora Carabella who set her on the path to becoming a director. "She introduced me to theater because she was studying to become an actress," Wertmüller recalls. "It was love at first site for the stage, so I had decided to attend direction classes at Pietro Sharoff's Theatre Academy." She became an assistant director and made the jump to film when Carabella put her in touch with Federico Fellini and he hired her to work on 8 ½. "Federico was a unique artist," she says. "He was a poet and magician to my young eyes. Everything was funny with him."

A scene from "Seven Beauties"

Earthy humor would eventually become a hallmark of Wertmüller's films, but her first feature, The Lizards (1963), provides a more naturalistic snapshot of small-town life in southern Italy—a part of the country that was, at the time, woefully underrepresented on the screen. She soon realized that she didn't want to be known simply as a "socially conscious" filmmaker. As she says in Valerio Ruiz's 2015 documentary, Behind the White Glasses, which will screen as part of Quad's retrospective, "I wanted to go down in history as a director who'd had fun."

That is the attitude that animates her best films, most of them made in a remarkably short period during the first half of the 70s and starring the blindingly blonde Melato and the gruff Giannini, who almost always plays a poor man from the provinces. Wertmüller says the pair appealed to her because "they both had a theater background. So they were open to improvisation as well, which is something I always asked of my actors." As she recalls, "We were in perfect harmony. Our work started several months before shooting because I like to [stage] readings of the script and rehearsals for 40 days, like in every stage production."

Wertmüller on the set of The Seduction of Mimi

Wertmüller rose to international renown in 1972, with The Seduction of Mimi, a ribald, biting comedy about a Sicilian laborer, Mimi (Giannini), who is practically run out of town when he votes for a Communist instead of the mafia's candidate of choice. Mimi's frigid wife, Rosalia (Agostina Belli), stays behind while he takes off to look for work in Turin, where he starts attending Communist meetings, falls in love with a beautiful follower of Trotsky named Fiore (Melato), and soon becomes the father of her child. The rub is that Mimi keeps allowing himself to be manipulated by capitalist thugs. And it's his knee-jerk traditionalism when it comes to gender and the family that dooms him to remaining a pawn. "Your daddy will buy you everything you need," he coos at Fiore's swollen stomach. "It's in the consumer society before it's even born," she sighs. Later, forced to return to his hometown, he finds himself in prison after impregnating the wife of a military officer who knocked up Mimi's own neglected spouse. Instead of accepting that he drove Rosalia to adultery, he flies into a hypocritical rage upon learning he's been cuckolded. For all his newfound leftist ideals, Mimi turns out to be hopelessly conservative by nature.

The screaming arguments in Wertmüller's movies might be even more pleasurable than the sex scenes.

Sex and politics are the two constants in Wertmüller's films, and they are almost always in conflict—often because characters' carnal appetites tend to contradict their professed beliefs. Swept Away's supposedly egalitarian hero fails to acknowledge women as independent humans, while its heroine's vocal support of abortion makes her a sort of forerunner to the contemporary corporate–feminist archetype. Summer Night revisits Swept Away's setup; Melato's civic-minded industrialist, Fulvia, turns the tables on an anti-capitalist terrorist (Michele Placido), capturing him and holding him for ransom. She chains him up, feeds him caviar (although he professes to prefer simple peasant food), gives him speeches about how the rich are just inherently superior to the poor, and, inevitably, can't resist slipping into bed with him.

In Love & Anarchy (1973), perhaps the greatest of Wertmüller's films, Giannini plays Tunin, a young anarchist farmer who comes to Rome in the 1930s with a plan to assassinate Mussolini. His contacts set him up with Salomè (Melato), a radical prostitute whose work gives her access to plenty of high-level fascists. But he soon falls in love with another working girl, Tripolina (Lina Polito), who wants him to give up his scheme so they can be together. The screaming arguments in Wertmüller's movies might be even more pleasurable than the sex scenes, and Love & Anarchy culminates in an epic fight between Salomè and Tripolina over whether to wake Tunin in time for him to take his shot at the dictator. It is, literally, a battle between sex and politics.

Giannini as Tunin in "Love & Anarchy"

Although they were made in the 70s and often take place in the more distant past, Wertmüller's political burlesques feel astonishingly contemporary. That is, in part, because America in 2017 is nearly as rife with buffoonish fascists (and rich with colorful leftist radicals) as Wertmüller's 20th-century Italy. Her characters are constantly debating the merits of "law and order" vs. liberty, and capitalist competition vs. socialist egalitarianism, though Wertmüller resists the idea that there's a direct connection between her classic films and the current political situation. "The context is so different now," she says. "Fears have changed and political interests, too." But she allows that "some of my movies reflect human problems that are still present—immigration, social and cultural integration."

Her embrace of sex as a fun and life-affirming experience has also aged better than the sex-negative diatribes of her second-wave contemporaries. But, probably because she is more interested in gender as an observable phenomenon than as a platform for polemic, Wertmüller sometimes gets in trouble with feminist critics anyway. While she seems to delight in punishing misogynists, she also treats ugly women as brutally as any male director and loves a lighthearted sexual assault scene. In a horrifying sequence from 1974's All Screwed Up, a man rapes his girlfriend because she refuses to sleep with him until they're married (and refuses to marry him until he's rich). She ends up enjoying this brutal initiation, and the couple's roommates get off on it, too.

Melato as Fulvia Block and Michele Placido as her lover, Frederick, in "Summer Love"

Swept Away, in particular, has attracted criticism as a film about how women would rather submit to men, in a state of nature, than hold power in society. But its ending complicates that reading. When Gennarino tests Raffaella's love by hailing a passing boat to rescue them, she resumes her old life, while he rejects his wife and begs Raffaella to return to the island with him. Their degrading affair may have passed the time while they were shipwrecked—and she clearly loves Gennarino more than her husband, whom she's come to view as weak—but now that she's got her privilege back, she isn't so ready to cede it. In a less sophisticated director's hands, Swept Away really could've been a movie about how all women secretly want to get slapped around. As Wertmüller wrote and directed it, though, it's about how prejudice and inequality make happiness impossible. Raffaella and Gennarino are both the products of a society that teaches us to want contradictory things: equality and wealth, freedom and captivity, to dominate and to submit.

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For her part, Wertmüller doesn't mind being cast out of the feminist club. "I don't consider myself a feminist. I prefer to say I'm a director, not a female or feminist director," she says. "I think that marking the difference is a mistake. Our work has to be appreciated and noticed because of the quality of the movie, not the gender of the creator." It's a common sentiment, but Wertmüller—whose camera gazes at men and women with equal lust and whose smart, sensual point of view reads as neither stereotypically male nor stereotypically female—has earned the right to resist limiting labels. In White Glasses, the critic John Simon remarks that she and Leni Riefenstahl are the only two female filmmakers who equal their greatest male counterparts. It's an opinion so bad as to be almost objectively incorrect, but you can see why men whose limited points of view prevent them from appreciating women's art would find Wertmüller's work less alienating.

Still, Wertmüller has always embraced other female directors and would like to see more of them. Asked about the legacy she hopes to leave, she says, "I just hope that new generations will appreciate my movies and that my movies will encourage women from all over the world to believe in themselves and to follow their dreams." Especially in our current, surreal political landscape, a new generation of directors could learn a great deal from her approach.