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Private Vices, Public Virtues (Blu-ray review)

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Sexy, delicious, provocative, Miklós Jancsó’s , Italian/Yugoslavian co-production, Private Vices, Public Virtues (1976) is so loaded in sublime visual style, it begs to be seen in glorious high definition. Now, thanks to Mondo Macabro, the film gets a world exclusive upgrade to Blu-ray in a limited edition release, making this a possibility for the first time ever. The restoration presents as a faithful and gorgeous looking transfer; thus enabling Jancsó’s orgiastic statement of sex, drugs and political consciousness to bask in its own wonderful carnal based majesty, for this upgraded medium. The film hasn’t had the best treatment since its initial release, when it was labelled as pornographic after being entered in the 1976 Cannes Festival; appalling so called serious critics so much, it ruined Jancsó’s reputation as an admired filmmaker. Shortly after, the film faded into obscurity. For such an important voice in Hungarian cinema, the lack of bonafide, English-friendly, quality releases of the director’s films is downright criminal. Although much of the director’s work is out there to find, some of his finest pieces—and not to mention most visually decadent—are only available at this time in degraded bootleg quality. Thankfully, that seems to be changing. And through this release, Private Vices, Public Virtues can return to the spotlight in order to be celebrated as the important cult film it really is, making this upgraded edition a vital step in helping to restore the legacy of one of Hungary’s most powerful filmmakers of all time.

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Jancsó, who didn’t start making films until he was in his late thirties, created a rich cinematic tapestry throughout his lengthy career; with most of his early and mid-point works focusing on one central theme: power and oppression. The director, a former student in Hungarian Folk Studies (as well as Law) with a strong background in theatre, carved out a name making films that explored free flowing narratives—often without any traditional structure—but which carried an extraordinary sense of visual style. Desolate haunting landscapes, masses of bodies choreographed as if moving in a display of interpretive dance, unemotional violence, Hungarian folk elements, uniforms, nudity, teams of horses, cruelty, death, mystic and pagan aspects became the director’s calling cards. His use of long takes and expansive scenery, with figures caught up in a constant rhythm and flow from which there is no respite, demonstrates a dynamic energy rarely seen on such a grand scale in cinema. Because of this, watching these works becomes a uniquely personal and emotional experience, which cannot be described in any logical terms. Infuriating to some, I am sure, but for those willing to free themselves from the shackles of conventional realism, those ready to let go of the need for coherence and solid detail in terms of plot, the ride can prove to be a truly exhilarating experience. Private Vices, Public Virtues is certainly a film that falls into this bracket.

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For Jancsó the human experience was often a collective one. His earlier films, despite being much more downbeat and pessimistic than Private Vices, have a lot in common with his later, decadent and surreal features; with Vices something of a logical progression in this journey, if you follow the right signs .In his sixties output—in particular My Way Home (1964), The Round-Up (1965), The Red and the White (1967), and Silence and Cry (1968), right up to Winter Wind and The Confrontation (both 1969)—violence, oppression and cruelty become the main focus; with narratives based on opposing factions struggling for power and control in a never ending circle that maintains the idea that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, only more powerplay and destruction for everyone involved. Master or slave, no one is free. Jancsó’s message is clear: power corrupts, no matter to whom it belongs. As his career progressed, the director brought in more playful aspects; people frollicked amongst bubbles and balloons, everyone danced and sang to Hungarian folk music, women bared their breasts in sexualised defiance, or engaged in lesbian foreplay, moral boundaries came down, as incest thrived, and although death and violence still dominated, an anarchic celebratory atmosphere took over.

The director is on record a number of times, stating that while he was interested in certain aspects of Hungarian history, he had no intention of trying to recreate anything grounded in reality. Jancsó often argued that we cannot really know what happened in times that are past, unless we were there (and even then all experience is subjective). Instead for this director, art focusing on the past should serve as a creative form of interpretation, no more, no less. As a former documentary maker, he was also clear on the message: the camera always lies. Even when trying to present a universal truth, no truth is free from personal interpretation. The camera may be able to capture an image, but how that image is read or presented does not exist in a bubble free from judgement. For this reason, and with only the intention to create pure artifice in mind, when the director decided to focus on the Mayerling Incident for Private Vices, Public Virtues, he filled in the “what if?” with his own speculation; swapping suicide for politically motivated assassination, and making the central figures, debauched, self-indulgent, sexually free creatures, rebelling against the system in a struggle for their own power, by unleashing their animalistic carnal depravity on all those around them.

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The real life inspiration for Private Vices, the Mayerling Incident, is one of those great unsolved mysteries. The Crown Prince Rudolf—heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire—was found dead on January 30th, 1889 at a hunting lodge near Vienna, together with the body of his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera. Officials originally tried to cover up the incident by saying the Prince died of an aneurysm, however, later it was presumed a murder-suicide took place. Scandal and speculation ran rife, but no solid conclusion was ever found. Jansco took the political aspects of the story, and moulded it into his own form. For his version, the Crown Prince (Lajos Balázsovits) attended the Imperial Hunting Lodge with his step-siblings Sofia (Pamela Villoresi) and Duke (Franco Branciaroli) prior to his untimely death. Locked in an incestous ménage à trois, the trio pass their time indulging in threesomes, making love in a room full of candles, or playing on a sex swing. During this interlude, the Prince certainly has his hands full; he despises his wife, preferring the company of his lovers, that is when his nanny (Laura Betti) isn’t also attending to his voracious sexual appetite.

Tired of demands from his father to tow the line, Rudolf, with the encouragement of Sofia and Duke, comes up with the plan to invite a crowd of young notables to the lodge, where they will be led into sexual licentiousness, photographed without their knowledge, and the evidence used to blackmail the government. The young, bored, aristocratic socialites take no persuading; amongst which is Mary Vetsera (Teresa Ann Savoy)—a hermaphrodite baroness known for her sexually liberated antics. Rudolf helps with the party atmosphere by providing fireworks, wine, a circus, folk singers and dancers, as well as drugging his guest’s drinks with a mysterious yellow powder which will take away their inhibitions (not that many of them have them in the first place). In no time at all the throng descends into an orgy, where no man, woman or beast is found lacking sexual attention. An official is raped by the hermaphrodite, turkeys are violated, and the crowd writhes in a wall of flesh, rutting and fucking, as complete chaos descends.

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Private Vices, Public Virtues is a painfully beautiful film. Visually spectacular, especially now in this restored version, the true art involved in Jansco’s framing and composition is mouthwatering. Gone are the long takes, but the dynamic camerawork is still present. Bodies litter the screen, naked flesh, and full frontal nudity—both male and female—dominates for most of the running time. Together with the performances, and both Balázsovits and Savoy are outstanding in their parts (each possessing chemistry and charisma), the film becomes a romantic age painting come to life, using pagan nature based elements and Dionysian frivolity: sex, art, and transgression blend into one magnificent melting pot.

While critics at the time saw Private Vices as a marked digression from Jancsó’s typical form—with sexual content dominating most of the running time—the film isn’t all that different in theme to his previous works. Especially considering nudity was a key feature in the bulk of his work up until this point; with the naked body used in a variety of ways to portray oppression, defiance and sexuality. The power and tyranny themes continue, with many drawing a parallel with the young rebels in Private Vices to the student protests that occurred globally during late sixties counter-culture and civil unrest. Jansco’s earlier films The Confrontation (1969)  and The Pacifist (1970) also cover these themes. Only with Private Vices does he pick up the threads started in Winter Wind, where he introduced sexuality and a sense of the avant garde; letting these elements blossom through his fully fledged surreal masterpieces, The Red Psalm (1972) and Electra, My Love (1975). His next three films to follow Private Vices— Hungarian Rhapsody (1978), Allegro Barbaro (1979) and The Tyrant’s Heart (1981) (the latter would see Savoy return as a Bathory-type mother who is engaged in an incestous affair with her grieving son)— continued the director’s trend toward dreamlike consciousness, and surrealism. Themes of eroticism also prevailed, although not quite as spectacularly as seen in Private Vices.

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It can be argued that Jancsó’s career trajectory followed a similar fate to contemporaries Walerian Borowczyk and Tinto Brass—where the overt sexuality in their work unfairly wrecked a previous good reputation because of snobbery in critic circles—just like those mentioned, Jancsó never lost a sense of his art, regardless of criticism. Even though certain commentators have tended to dismiss the director’s late seventies, early eighties work as largely incoherent, for me at least, some of his most delirious and enjoyable pieces are found here. Just like Fellini departed from tradition with Juliet of the Spirits (1965) onwards, through his fever dream visions in Satyricon (1969), Roma (1972), and Fellini’s Casanova (which came out in 1976, the same year as Private Vices), Jancsó became much more bold and experimental in the period leading up to and immediately following Private Vices. There are many parallels to be found to the wider sphere of erotic based works to come out of Europe in the early to mid-seventies; in particular, Pasolini’s Salo (1975), and his historical based features, Medea(1969), The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), A Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) (1974) as well as Tinto Brass’ debauched masterpiece Caligula (1979). My co-host Samm Deighan and I explored these connections, as well as Jancsó’s life and career in much more depth, in a recent episode of our podcast Daughters of Darkness, and if you would like to hear more then you can check it out here.

Mondo Macabro’s limited edition slipcover release includes some interesting extras, as well as a collector’s booklet (with a co-authored essay on the film from former Diabolique editors Joe Yanick and Max Weinstein). In the interview featurettes on the disc, European cinema expert and critic Michael Brooke waxes lyrical about Jancsó’s career and key themes, while celebrating the glorious sexual transgression found in the film, in a delightful segment where he can barely suppress his glee as he reads off the laundry list of salacious antics Private Vices offers up and discusses its airing on the Playboy Channel, amongst other amusing and compelling anecdotes. There are also interviews with actress Pamela Villoresi and screenwriter Giovanna Gagliardo (Jansco’s long term partner in both love and cinema) which provide some important insight and context for the film.

All in all this is a wonderful release that should appeal to all fans of European cinema laden with erotic flavour, but which also pushes the bar in terms of subtext and deeper meaning. You can pick up a limited edition, numbered copy here.

Note: Stills are for illustration purposes only and not indicative of disc quality.

NSFW Trailer:

About Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger is the Editor-in-Chief of Diabolique Magazine, and the co-host of their Daughters of Darkness podcast. Her writing has appeared in the pages of Fangoria, Scream Magazine (UK) and Gothic culture magazine Carpe Nocturne. She has recently worked a number of liner notes for cult home video label Arrow Films, as well as appearing on camera for them, written for Senses of Cinema and is currently working on a book on Daughters of Darkness (1971) for the Devil's Advocates Series (Auteur).

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