Sometimes I skim through the titles DVDTalk currently has for review and pass on certain titles because I feel uninformed. I mean, would I know about, say, 1940's Brazilian cinema? (Not that we have any.) Alas, sticking to my comfort zones every day doesn't broaden my horizons, so I recently selected The Art of Love as an attempt to venture into uncharted waters. Verdict? Sorry to all the devoted Walerian Borowczyk fans out there (I know you are many), but The Art of Love is a bizarre, cheap disaster of a movie.
The plot...well, the events of the movie are framed within a Roman professor's lessons on the title subject, but I'd be hard prssed to tell you who was who, what they wanted, and why: this DVD of The Art of Love is only presented with a dub, which I generally avoid listening to when possible, and find hard to take seriously, especially on an older film like this. It's hard to pay attention to what's actually being said when the voices just plain don't match the actors in question, and the dramatic skill of the voice actors is deeply suspect. Complicating matters further is the apparent decision to not shoot or cut out most of the shots where you can see actor's mouths, frequently rendering the identification of who is supposed to speaking a challenge in and of itself.
Instead, writer/director Borowczyk focuses his energy on genuinely baffling sexual sequences. The most baffling of all an early scene where a character is shown, in some sort of fantasy or dream sequence, running through a really fake forest set after a really fake cow (clearly on wheels), which eventually develops into the woman, naked, climbing inside the fake cow (lined with velvet?) and being taken from behind by a guy with a bull mask on, wearing a fake prosthetic penis. There's also a scene where characters are in a museum, and one of them fondles a statue of a horse, with brief glimpses of a horse fantasy of some sort spliced in. The less bizarre sex-related material isn't particularly engaging either. The back of the DVD trumpets that the "complete Roman Orgy sequence" has been restored -- footage that, if I identified the scene correctly, amounts to less than two minutes of poorly-shot people laying and rolling around on a floor together. Several characters also spend a lot of time praying to Priapus, allowing for the movie to repeatedly cut to a silly statue with an oversized erection, and a painting of basically the same thing.
The weirdness doesn't stop at sex, either. A man eats a live goldfish in a drunken stupor. There are several scenes of women sitting in a weird, windowed bath, looking mighty uncomfortable in such a cramped space. Early in the movie, the characters also spend a minute or two laughing at a parrot, who is often hanging around, squawking at people. There is a prank involving a headless dummy. I could tell you that most of these scenes appear to exist for no reason, but I imagine the reader can already tell. All of the above takes place on cheap, poorly-lit sets, in cheap costumes (the armor is clearly made out of plastic). The final piece of the Art of Love puzzle is that the film feels distractingly modern, with plenty of the professor's advice (dispensed frequently through poorly-integrated voice-over) sounding more applicable today than it would have been in ancient Rome (okay, so there is ultimately what appears to be a reason for this, but it's really bad).
Were it not for the film's frequent sexual content, I wouldn't have been surprised to see The Art of Love pop up on "Mystery Science Theater 3000" back in the show's heyday, especially by the time the movie's ridiculous ending rolls around (which the movie just hammers home, in case the audience is full of morons, and which features an almost-admirably gonzo double-twist). I'll plead ignorance a second time to the works of director Walerian Borowczyk, who is responsible for a few other films that appear to be, at the very least, better-known and more reputable than this one (for instance, one of the quotes on the cover is by Terry Gilliam). I'm also willing to concede that an uncut, original-language presentation of the film might have been a somewhat different experience. In English, though, the film is just a bizarre relic, missing even the exploitative pleasures this DVD is clearly being marketed with.
The Art of Love gets a dull, photo-taken-from-the-movie front cover image that isn't particularly eye-catching. The back cover isn't much better, slipping in a few more vague screencaps with nudity and covering the rest up with a wall of text. The movie's Rome setting is mentioned on the cover, but you wouldn't know it from any of these pictures (to me, it looks like it could be considerably more modern, if still a period piece). There is no insert in the case, and the disc art is the same as the DVD cover.
The Video and Audio
Looking at the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer provided by Severin for this disc, you'd swear The Art of Love was at least a decade older than its 1983 release date. The picture is grainy, beat up, washed out and fuzzy, and there's a bizarre obstruction on one of the movie's final shots. I imagine it could look a lot worse -- colors are alright, although they whites blow out like crazy whenever the action moves outdoors -- but this is not a particularly pleasing transfer.
Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is an English dub of the movie, and the sound effects and music have a distinctly tinny echo. The dialogue is pretty crisp and clear, but it's hard to take the dub seriously, since the voices all seem wrong for the characters and the dialogue rings false. No subtitles are provided, which is also a pain.
None, except the movie's original theatrical trailer.
The Art of Love is a film that has, in the kindest assessment possible, not aged well. It's hard to imagine even the director's most devoted fans being unable to skip this one.
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