Saturday, April 25, 2020

The 10th Victim (Elio Petri, 1965)

Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress star in this half mod, half madcap ‘60s lollapalooza about a government-sponsored game that pits volunteer hunters against victims in mortal combat. Based on a Robert Sheckley sci-fi short story, Elio Petri’s trenchant social satire, co-written by the director and frequent Antonioni collaborator Tonino Guerra, takes aim at consumer capitalism and the society of the spectacle, five years before Guy Debord popularized the term in his Situationist manifesto. Among its preferred targets, the script draws a bead on ageism (Marcello’s vengeful wife threatens to turn in his elderly parents), corporate-media domination (both Mastroianni and Andress arrange to have their kills sponsored and broadcast on live TV), and New Age cultism (Marcello presides as high priest of the Sunsetters, a bikini-clad wild bunch, half in love with easeful death, who gather every evening to worship the westering sun). The Sunsetters are opposed by “vulgar neo-realists,” who blow raspberries at them, and it’s just one of many of the film’s referential cine-gags: Marcello’s torturous love life (termagant wife, materialistic lover) refers to his role in Pietro Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style, and a vacuous press-junket interview owes a debt to Mastroianni’s frequent director Federico Fellini, namedropped jokingly as a street address, while Andress’s flaxen-maned vixen recalls her Bond-girl turn as Honey Ryder in Dr. No. The staccato electric voice issuing from computers that pair hunters and victims for the Big Game seems to parody Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, which came out earlier that year; another character speaks through an electronic larynx, the same method Godard used to achieve Alpha 60’s uncanny vocal patterns.

Visually speaking, The 10th Victim is, at bottom, a pop-art melting pot. Every scene is filled with eye-catching eye candy, whether bright primary tones or optical-illusion backdrops; the film employs a sort of bric-a-brac bricolage (plaster statues and “winking eye” paintings used for home decorations), championing its comic-strip sensibilities (Marcello’s confiscated literary “classics” are shelves of comic books) at the same time that it decries mass culture’s “bread and circuses,” lowest-common-denominator appeal. The in-media-res opening scene sets the pace and tone, very much in vérité style: A man and a woman chase each other around downtown Manhattan, exchanging potshots, while, in a series of crosscuts, an MC introduces the rules of the game known as the Big Hunt to an unseen audience. The chase concludes inside the austere, glaring white Masoch Club, strewn with sleek ultramodern décor, where the MC introduces a masked dancer. As she strips down to a glass shard-festooned bikini, she whips the audience with her cast-off clothing and now and then slaps a patron across the face. The joint obviously lives up to its name. The unmasked dancer, revealed to be nine-time Big Hunt winner Caroline Meredith (Andress), shoots down one of the patrons, the Chinese man involved in the chase, with two guns mounted in her bikini top. Just maybe this reminds you of the Austin Powers Fembots, baby?

After successfully bagging his own prey, a German aristo he takes out with explosives hidden in his clicking heels, Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni) visits the Big Hunt Ministry building, a squat Orwellian nightmare, where a professorial type lectures on “Big Hunt theory,” essentially Freud’s theory of the death-drive declared with tongue firmly in cheek: It’s a safety valve, the professor opines, state-sanctioned mayhem that allows humanity to vent its violent instincts. Or, as a loudspeaker informs passersby outside, “An enemy a day keeps the doctor away. Why control the birth rate when we can increase the death rate?” Why, indeed?

Later, Meredith and Marcello meet cute at a rooftop eatery. The scene’s jazzy score turns out, in a clever meta bit, to be diegetic, as the panning camera picks out two black-clad saxophonists blatting away from atop black cubes, while nearby Marcello pages through a comic book. Passing herself off as an American journalist, Caroline says she wants to interview him, as a typical “difficult man,” about his love life, staging the event at the Temple of Venus near the Coliseum. In actuality, she’s arranged, along with her sponsor, Ming Tea, a telegenic tableau mort for Marcello, complete with dancing teacups and crane-mounted cameras.

The climactic four-way shootout at the Coliseum pitting Marcello and Caroline against his wife and lover gets a little too antic, tipping the balance in favor of the madcap. But the acid-edged epilogue, Petri’s modernist take on a shotgun wedding, posits marriage as the Most Dangerous Game of them all. Indeed, Marcello’s erotic imbroglio, torn between wife, lover, and (potential) wife, points to a recurrent theme in commedia all’italiana: Italy’s then-lack of divorce laws, which wouldn’t be instituted until the early ‘70s. Petri visualizes Marcello’s prospective future, the future of the future, if you will, as a sight-gag gun blasting out a bouquet of flowers rather than the usual “BANG!” --Slant

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