Before I begin eviscerating these films as kindly as possible, a little bit about the prolific Liliana Cavani...
Born and raised in Italy, Cavani is the daughter of an architect father and a cinephile mother, who used to take her to the film house every Sunday. She studied literature and philology (the study of the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages) from Bologna University in 1960, and had intended to become an archaeologist before switching gears entirely and choosing to pursue film instead. She attended Rome's well-respected "Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia", (Experimental Cinematography Center), and then like so many of our other Mad Matriarchs, began making documentaries to gain experience. It wasn't until her film The Night Porter in 1974 that she began to receive more critical (and occasionally controversial) acclaim for her filmmaking.
The Night Porter (1974)
Directed by: Liliana Cavani
Written by: Liliana Cavani & Italo Moscati
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling
IMDB Synopsis: After a chance meeting at a hotel in 1957, Holocaust survivor Lucia and Nazi officer Max, who tortured her, resume their sadomasochistic relationship.
It honestly blows my mind how a movie with such an OUTRAGEOUSLY FASCINATING DESCRIPTION could actually end up being so totally... underwhelming, in such a variety of ways. It was as disappointing in it's lack of sensitivity as it was in it's lack of brutality, which is an extremely odd sentiment to carry away from a film with such a barbaric premise.
Honestly, do yourself a favor and skip it entirely. Watch this kinky Cabaret reinterpretation of Salome (trigger warning: it ends with a head in a box) and read the Roger Ebert quote and consider yourself 1 hour and 58 minutes richer for having not viewed this wildly mark-missing tragedy through your fingers (like I did).
"The Night Porter" is as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering. It is (I know how obscene this sounds) Nazi chic. It's been taken seriously in some circles, mostly by critics agile enough to stand on their heads while describing 180-degree turns, in order to interpret trash as "really" meaningful..."
"...That's not to say I object per se to the movie's subject matter, a sadomasochistic relationship taken up again 15 years after the war by a former SS concentration camp officer and the inmate he raped and dominated when she was a young girl. I can imagine a serious film on this theme -- on the psychological implications of shared guilt and the identification of the slave with the master -- but "The Night Porter" isn't such a film; it's such a superficial soap opera we'd laugh at it if it weren't so disquieting." - Roger Ebert
I wanted so badly to like this movie not just because of it's incredible premise, but because it was made by this badass Italian woman in the fucking 70's when women really weren't making movies, and they certainly weren't making movies like THIS. It is perhaps the most scathing insult I could give a Matriarch, so forgive me in advance: but if I hadn't known any better I would've assumed hands-down that this was directed by a man. The male gaze is so aggressively overwhelming in this that I really can't pin down whether Cavani was simply trying to emulate the toxic masculinity that was considered "normal" in her era or if she genuinely struggles with sexism herself.
I agree wholeheartedly with Ebert in that it wasn't the subject matter that was off-putting, but in how casually Cavani handled it. I think what's the most disappointing about this film is that it had SO MUCH POTENTIAL to be so, so much better, and we know this to be true because there are EXAMPLES of excellent films that deal with the master-slave dynamic in a way that is respectful, intellectual, and fucking compassionate:
I have always had a deep and respectful fascination with the BDSM community, largely because of how many sex-positive and pure things I have seen come out of it. Most people incorrectly think that BDSM stands for “bondage dominance sadomasochism.” It actually stands for: “Bondage Discipline Submission Masochism.” The key difference? Submission, not sadism. It’s not just about taking pleasure in hurting someone else, it’s about experiencing the vulnerability of letting an other control you - this requires extreme trust and trustworthiness (which is why people with this lean tend to seek it out from a professional; it doesn’t tend to work with a “normal” partner, because there’s usually just too much personal baggage that confuses the boundaries). So we know that in BDSM relationship there is a “Dom” (dominant) and a “Sub” (submissive). You know what those essentially are? The Lover and the Beloved. Honestly, they’re just extreme, exaggerated, aggressive expressions of those two roles.
That’s partly why so many people had such a vitriolic reaction to the 50 Shades phenomenon, and why I am so bitterly disappointed with The Night Porter: THAT IS NOT WHAT BDSM IS ABOUT. These stories are about the wrong kind of control - total ownership of a human being, of making a woman a man's literal slave - in and out of the bedroom. They are abusive, manipulative, controlling, and wrong, which is the antithesis of an authentic BDSM arrangement.
I am also bitterly disappointed with this film because I really, really thought (okay, fantasized) from the description that the Holocaust survivor was going to be the Dom... how much cooler would that have been?? Picture this: a beta male, closeted Sub is forced by the Gestapo to become an SS Officer. He isn't racist, in fact he really likes Jewish women. ...He even has this dirty little fantasy of getting beaten up by a Jewish woman, he doesn't know why, maybe his German guilt? He just wants some hot Ashkenazi broad to wear sharp stillettos and walk up and down his back until he bleeds and cries. Then one day on the job, some officers are making fun of him, saying he's never raped a Jew before. They taunt and bully him into dragging a particularly beautiful young woman out behind the Holocaust dumpsters... but he can't do it. The woman - played by a precocious and exquisite Charlotte Rampling - mocks him. "Oh, the little Nazi can't get it up?" She throws dirt in his face. She spits on him. She takes his whip and beats him. He likes it. She likes it. They make passionate, consensual love, and continue to do so until he sneaks her out of Germany and they open their own BDSM dungeon in NYC, THANK YOU, YOU'RE WELCOME, THE END.
Ripley's Game (2002)
Directed by: Liliana Cavani
Written by: Charles McKeown & Liliana Cavani, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Starring: John Malkovich, Dougray Scott, Lena Headey
IMDB Synopsis: A dying family man in need of money is persuaded to assassinate a European crime boss.
Once again, my mind is BLOWN by how much this movie misses the mark.
Contrary to the IMDB synopsis, the premise is essentially about this sociopathic part-time hit man (Malkovich) who gets Very Slightly Snubbed at a party by his totally average-Joe neighbor, Dougray Scott, who's only real character traits are that he is dying of Leukemia and is married to Baby Cersei.
So basically just ripping of Albert Camus' The Stranger, Malkovich decides to exact his totally hurtful, gratuitous, and unnecessary revenge on Baby Cersei's Dying Husband by paying his Hit Man Boss to hire the poor guy to assassinate someone??? And then what??? Like just die from guilt??? Unclear.
And we never find out, because the Hit Man Boss decides to get greedy, and pressure BCDH to assassinate someone ELSE (this is all for money, of course, which he's being convinced will help his family after he dies). But Malkovich is like "no I just wanted him to murder one guy" and Hit Man Boss is like "too bad" and then the second hit job goes TERRIBLE probably because BCDH is a super shitty hit man and Malkovich has to bail him out but one of the targets doesn't die so then BCDH and Malkovich have to hide away in his giant mansion in Italy together and wait for the the survivor and his cronies to come attack them but don't worry, Malkovich kills them all, but only survives because FUCKING BABY CERSEI'S IDIOT DYING HUSBAND STEPS IN FRONT OF A BULLET FOR HIM.
AND THIS IS LITERALLY ALL BECAUSE THIS POOR SAP SAID ONE KIND OF MEAN THING ABOUT MALKOVICH AT A PARTY. WTF.
I suppose I can't totally fault Cavani for the plot because this was based on a novel (one of a trilogy about this Mr. Ripley character, apparently), but from what I can guess, Mr. Ripley is a fuck ton more interesting than Cavani gives him credit for. When I say that this film misses the mark, once again I am sorely feeling the gaping void of satire when it could've been expertly used:
A totally ridiculous and easily offended sociopath who moonlights as a hitman gets very moderately insulted at a party and sets up an elaborate and totally absurd revenge plot that goes hilariously wrong. THAT IS PRIME FODDER FOR SATIRE. Movies like The Game and Ready or Not did an aggressively better job at handling the tension between violence, humor, and absurdity, and managed to do so while finding moments of real anguish and existentialism. Ripley's Game just took itself so seriously, which is not only a ludicrous position for a movie about such an absurd character to take, it's a goddamn waste.
And the winner is...
I think one of the biggest let-downs of this bracket was that I am walking away from it feeling like I have very little to say about Cavani. I couldn't pick her directing style out of a line up, much less describe or analyze it. There was nothing memorably beautiful about either film (except, of course, that Cabaret scene from The Night Porter, as well as a totally unnecessary but lovely ballet number earlier on), no strong style choices good or bad. I never got a sense for her taste or aesthetic, or for what was important to her, other than gravely misplaced senses for when to demand levity or seriousness.
So I am doing something unprecedented, BECAUSE I CAN: I am moving the fuck on.
MARJANE SATRAPI FOR THE WIN!!!
Satrapi moves on in the competition because I am forfeiting these films. I refuse to let a movie about a Nazi raping a teenager win, and I refuse to give the award to a totally mediocre and lame anti-satire about bullying a guy with Leukemia. While I have appreciation for how Cavani trail-blazed women-helmed cinema in Europe, she doesn't hold a candle to what Satrapi has accomplished artistically.