Art of Love is what I hope is the first of many reviews for Exploitation Retrospect over at dantenet.com. Frankly, the review may be as choppy as the movie was, and I've never been more challenged to make heads or tails out of how I feel about a movie - first review flick I've ever watched 2.5 times to get a handle on... I hope you like it.
According to Walerian Borowczyk, Rome in 8 A.D. was a mix of extra-marital affairs, fantastic aquarium bathtubs, phallus-idol worship, and boring sex-ed classes. The basic story here has the poet Ovid teaching his classes on the “Art of Love” while pretty wife Claudia conducts an affair with student Cornelius behind the back of her husband, General Macarius. She’s one big, ripe and frustrated raw nerve of sexual frustration who‘s illicit adventures make up the “thrust” of the plot here. However, this is some languid Euro-erotica and her liaisons are tempered with Ovid’s rather boring narration. His classes may be referred to as “always full,“ but they seem to be a lot of talk and no action. In fact, while Art of Love has the structure of a soft-core sex romp it has the pace of a nap.
Sure, Ovid lectures male students while bored housewives go to the museum to fondle statues of horses (and hallucinate playing with real ones) and get felt up at their own weddings. We have a bunch of well-photographed but chiaroscuro-lit bed-hopping episodes, with a meddling Mother-in-Law, combative neighbors, and lecture hall bits tossed in for good measure. The vignettes get a little more martial when he switches to teaching a class to women and it eventually leads to what I’d suppose is his downfall. We’re not invested in the actual story-line for it to matter.
You have to give credit to the director’s noted perversity, as at one point Claudia hops into a weird construct of a cow so she can be mounted by a bull-masked man wearing a giant strap-on and all intercut with footage of actual cattle mating. It’s the creative highlight of the movie and if you want to show the audience a housewife is desperate for some lovin’, this ain’t a bad way to do it. I haven’t seen The Beast, but having heard that it's as wild and vivid as this sequence, it’s going on my “must” list.
In the end, though, it took two watches and I'm still not sure what to make of Art of Love. Is it supposed to be some kind of ribald historical comedy, like The Decameron, or a watered-down sexstravaganza clearly inspired by Caligula? It has that strung-together quality like a bunch of gently-naughty vignettes, but then there’s a servant girl fellating her idol to Pirapus like some extra in an Emanuelle flick. Sadly, this has all the posed “sophistication” and none of the innocent glee of good exploitation.
The whole point of this exercise seems to be Borowczyk fueling his old-man fantasies about the pear-shaped bottom of lead actress Marina Pierro. She’s ripe, but not necessarily “all that.” The smut highlight (or is that “lowlight”?) here is some spliced-in orgy footage featuring some very 70s hair, both upstairs and down, that evidently came from a Joe D’Amato Caligula knock-off, but on the whole even this isn’t nearly as spicy as you’d think from the box copy. Not only is this rather staid for soft-core erotica, but as a narrative it feels like someone took a bunch of disastrous random footage and prayed they could save their financial investment with linking narration.
The biggest monkey-wrench here is the ending. The meditative, arty pacing makes Art of Love seem like it’s adding up to something, but then Claudia wakes up from a roadside nap... in the Eighties. Casting everything that went before as a dream is a cheat that feels tacked-on. Considering the movie is barely coherent to begin with, switching things up with a cop-out ending doesn’t help any. In fact, it’s downright frustrating to spend over eighty minutes trying to make sense out of the nonsensical, non-linear story to have all that work feel wasted.
In the end, Art of Love is more for European Art-House super-fans only. You won’t get much of a lesson on Ovid here, and exploitation fans hoping for “Emanuelle meets Caligula” are going to be sadly mislead. If anything, you'll use the downtime to try and remember all the other trashy Seventies and Eighties Euroflicks you’ve heard these voices in.