Sunday, January 4, 2015

Simona / Passion (1974)

You might not know it from looking at the playful erotic movie posters and DVD covers, but Simona is no sex comedy. Though still playful and sexy in certain parts, Patrick Longchamps’ Fellini-inspired adaptation of the French novella Story of the Eye (1928) is a dark oddity of avant-garde filmmaking, with a heavy undercurrent of social alienation.

At the time the film was released its lead actress Laura Antonelli had recently achieved overnight fame from her award winning role in Salvatore Samperi’s sexy, controversial dark-comedy Malizia (1973). She had made such an impact that moviegoers flocked to see Antonelli in Simona, which was actually shot about a year before Malizia (Simona was shelved for a while before being released).

Simona was unfortunately confiscated in Italy for its explicit content. One-time Belgian filmmaker Longchamps had a friend with connections in the Vatican who organized a private screening of the banned film for four priests, and after finally being approved by the church, Simona was released in Italy, where it made a lot of money (the film was never released in its native country of Belgium). Eventually the original film negatives were acquired by "distributors of ill-repute," and as it currently stands, a properly restored version of Simona, as far as I know, remains unrealized.

What makes Antonelli appealingly standout as the titular character in Simona, aside from her good looks and acting talent, is her character’s tendency to be the aggressor in the sexual situations with her male lover (Maurizio Degli Esposti from Arcana (1972)), antiquating a notion that it is the male who dictates the sex, with Simona always being the seducer and always being the one on top, somewhat ironically predicting the controversial climax to Malizia.

The story to Simona is one big flashback, being a kind of composition of experiences, most of which are of a surreal nature, which might lead one into thinking that the narrated story comes from Simona’s memory, being more of a subjective account, illustrating what Simona thinks may’ve happened rather than what really happened. However, this notion becomes slightly conflicted considering that the story is narrated, not by Simona’s own voice, but by a male voice (Arturo Colonello), narrating about Simona during the present day at a bullfight and continuing to narrate once the story flashes back to the past events. In addition, there are a number of segments in the story that occur in Simona's absence, further supporting the idea that viewers are getting the objective story rather than one based on her memory.

The movie opens during a bullfight in Spain, and Simona appears to have her mind on other things. In contrast to the joyful audience, the festive killing of a bull prompts Simona to take on a near melancholic expression, being reminded of a personal tragedy. The narrator hints at some sort of sexual near death experience, before the film flashes back to tell a story that will clarify not what happened to Simona but rather what happened to an unfortunate girl named Marcelle (Margot Margaret), of whom the story is primarily about, despite the film’s title.

The flashback story begins in a lonely, low populated seaside town, where two young attractive characters, Simona and George (Esposti), curiously spot one another for the first time on the beach and naturally become interested in one another. Simona longs for George to take the initiative and intimately approach her, but as he proves too shy, she assertively ‘breaks the ice’ with an erotic invitation involving a plate of milk. From there on the two become inseparable lovers.

One day, while George and Simona are on a joyride, they crash into a girl, Marcelle, crossing the road on a bike. Simona recognizes her as the girl who lives in the castle, someone she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl. Marcelle wakes up uninjured, yet she is reluctant to communicate with Simona and George. She then gets on her bike and rides off as the couple laugh out loud together, amused at her strangeness.

Later on, while they are having sex on the beach, Simona and George spot Marcelle watching them from behind a grassy hill. The skittish Marcelle flees as soon as she is discovered, but the two lovers chase and catch up to her; and seeing that she is still reluctant to talk with them, Marcelle is pretty much coerced into a threesome, despite her initial protests. She quickly warms up, no longer resisting but embracing the orgy, and afterwards she becomes closer, not just as friends but on a deeper level, to Simona and George, as if their intercourse sparked some sort of spiritual union. (Most of the beach scenes have a similar sensibility to that of the beach scenery seen in several paintings by Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte).

Eventually, the setting shifts to a more oppressive atmosphere in a castle where Marcelle lives a very isolated existence with her overbearing, possessive father (Patrick Magee from A Clockwork Orange (1971)) and abusive uncle (Raf Vallone looking like he came right out of the Middle Ages). Stemming from an obsession with his dead wife, Marcelle’s father unnaturally and tyrannically preserves the past, most notably with the preservation of dead things, cleverly illustrated with his having a penchant for taxidermy and having stuffed dead animals around. It probably doesn’t help his sanity that Marcelle bears a resemblance to her dead mother. The environment is socially unhealthy for the troubled girl, who is a prisoner in a time frozen world her father maintains.

One day, Simona and George take Marcelle to a graveyard, in what I believe is supposed to be her family burial plot, to have a little fun. These particular scenes would have to be the most visually interesting parts of the film, which indulge on intricate and stylish shooting (this sequence was likely the result of Longchamps having been inspired from a time he was able to watch Federico Fellini work, where Longchamps claims to have learned more in a couple days by watching Fellini than from several years in school).

Being that Marcelle comes from an aristocratic family, the burial plot is grand and full of living statues, and the three eventually find themselves partying with a large group of newly arrived young people as well as the living statues (memorials of the dead), giving the impression of being outside of time, where it doesn’t seem to matter anymore if one is dead or alive. At one point, Simona and George shed the outer layer of their clothes, while at the same time different actors are seen in the background wearing these same clothes, creating a real disorienting effect.

During most of the party/orgy, Marcelle seems to watch on without participating, probably because the graveyard is the same place her mother was buried. After being disgusted with how everyone has profaned the sacred place, she retreats and locks herself in a wardrobe cabinet with a nude female torso painted on it, as she reverts to an infantile state.

The police show up to spoil the party and haul most everyone away except for the three main characters, who were fortunate enough to be hidden. It becomes apparent who called the police as Marcelle’s father and uncle arrive to pick her up and lock her away for good, in her father’s castle, for her disobedience.

Despite her being locked away, Marcelle, due to their spiritual connection, is still able to make love with Simona on what could be described as some kind of ether or spiritual plane.

Finally, Simona and George take it upon themselves to rescue Marcelle in the third act, which plays out like a horror movie with a gloomy conclusion.

Because the film ends with a quote from Italian author Alberto Moravia: “We can be Saints in a religious way or in an erotic one,” it is not far fetched to assume that the movie implicitly contains familiar Moravian themes such as social alienation and sexual communication.

I believe the main theme underlying the story is that of characters made incommunicable or taciturn, as a result of social alienation, and reestablishing a connection with reality through sexual intercourse.

Because of his obsession with preserving the past, Marcelle’s father alienated himself as well as his daughter, to the point of imprisonment. By losing touch with reality, Marcelle’s father, in a sense, froze time, trapping his daughter who is then unable to engage in life.

Simona and George represent a world to which Marcelle belongs, yet she instead suffers a static existence, not being able to propagate with the rest of the evolving world.

During her initial encounters with Simona and George, Marcelle is unable to communicate verbally, not because she can’t speak but because she has been rendered incommunicable due to her having been socially alienated.
Alberto Moravia said that "sex is the most primitive means of communication." 

When Simona and George spot Marcelle spying on their sexual escapade on the beach, they attempt to confront her, and instead of verbally communicating they become friends, or at least better acquainted, with her by having sex. Communicating sexually (as opposed to verbally) develops an instant connection between the three souls, establishing sex as a symbol of unity and a superior means of communication. Through sex Marcelle establishes her place in reality. The idea of humans developing a relation with reality through sex in this movie is symbolically illustrated with the copulating bodies of Simona, Marcelle, and George superimposed over the ocean.

Through sex, Marcelle has thus become a part of Simona and George, and without her a piece of them is missing. This unity is what propels them to try and rescue Marcelle from the time frozen mansion. It’s also like a battle between the young and the old.

The young and the old are often juxtaposed in the film, with the young having very little respect for the old or dead, expressing the idea that the old, like the dead, no longer belong to this world. The elder characters all seem to live an outdated, static existence with an inability to propagate with time and for all intents and purposes are practically dead.

Jokingly, in one instance that’s a little outside of the story, Simona places a picture frame over her elderly mother, who's holding an egg (a symbol of birth) while sadly reminiscing of a past time when her daughter was born. Simona says “rest in peace, mom,” and it becomes apparent that her mother now resembles an ancestral portrait, suggesting that, because they’ve been displaced by the young generation, the elderly are practically deceased just like ancestors who are memorialized with framed portraits. Simona and George, who only have a chief concern for the present rather than what’s dead and buried, show their irreverence for the memorialized dead by throwing eggs at several ancestral portraits.

Simona seems to be a major defiance of viewer expectations, not really being what it says on the tin as well as dabbling in numerous genres and influences and becoming a mixed bag as a result. It is definitely weird, whether or not in a good way will depend on viewers’ tastes. When I first watched it, I didn’t think the story seemed to matter that much since I was more taken in by the mood and plethora of provocative images, many of which include Laura Antonelli, but I’ve come to rather like the story, its flashback structure, and the themes underlying it. I never like to have to see the poor bull get killed during the epilogue, but I do like the way Simona becomes distressed during this part, giving it an impact and creating a strong feeling of irony as she relives her horrific memories while witnessing the bull’s defeat among a cheering audience, in what is referred to as “the moment when death was celebrating.”

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. A visit to the Mansion always feels like a master class in foreign film. The movies under discussion are often titles about which I was previously unaware, and I never have any doubt that the info provided is well researched, accurate, and thoughtful.

    I was sorry to hear of JD's decision to retire from blogging for the time being, but I certainly hope your affiliation with Blood Sucking Geek doesn't portend a pending retirement for you, as well. What the hell am I going to read then?

    Interesting and informative article, as always.

    1. Thanks Brandon! Your first sentence has inspired me to start one of those testimonial quote columns. Would it be all right if I quoted you? It’s definitely specific to this blog and feels like an accomplishment that I’m too humble to admit myself.

      In addition to being a great form of writing exercise, a nice way to give a little more meaning to my Eurocult obsession, and a creative outlet, I get a great sense of gratification with each post, so I don’t have any intentions to stop film blogging. There are still many more film articles/critiques/analysis/synopsis/personal reflections/opinions to come. I do love keeping this little place going.

    2. Your reasons for maintaining the Mansion sound familiar. I find it all pretty gratifying, too. Please feel free to kick off that testimonials column!

  2. This was beautiful... I was re-watching Spirits of Death and was inspired by the start where Ida Galli is trapped in her gilded cage of a castle and I realized that I needed to get around to Simona (which coincidentally also has a Fiorenzo Carpi score).

    I got a very metaphysical feel from this film. It even looked like a metaphysical painting. Though the characters occupy the same space, they all seem to exist in separate realities. e.g. Only Marcelle can see those Greek statues making obscene gestures, Simone's mother is lost in her own past, and like you mention, there's that sense of frozen time in the mansion. Even the uncle's flashback feels like a different reality with all those clothes hanging off the trees. My favourite scene would have to be the ether plane moment with Simone and Marcelle embracing. I was so breathtaken by that shot of the two women in lucent robes entering the lake at twilight. Reminded me a little of the silent film Rapsodia Satanica.

    It's interesting how it starts off frivolous and erotic but becomes increasingly fantastical and tragic. People expecting another Malizia definitely would've been in for a surprise (which probably explains the unfairly low IMDb score). I can't say I liked the ending but only because it made me feel really depressed. Really glad to have seen this thanks to your review! An underrated fantasia.

    1. Awesome comment, Terence! Thank you! I'm really glad you liked Simona; although that closing scene depresses me too. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't have known about Spirits of Death, which is so different than Simona overall but does have the similarities you mention.

      That metaphysical feel really is fantastic here. It is more than looking into a metaphysical painting but rather entering it and experiencing it, maybe even a little like Asia walking into a painting in Stendhal Syndrome.

      I didn't catch that only Marcelle could see the living statues, but I do see it now. I also saw it as a kind of merging of space and time, with a lost sense of past and present that might tie in to Marcelle's perceived reality given her gilded cage situation.

      Agreed that the ether plane meeting between the two female leads is breath taking, a display of their spiritual union.

      I didn't see Malizia until after this one, and the two films were so different, I don't even consider them a good double billing, despite Antonelli's top billing. I still enjoyed Malizia, a much more highly regarded film, but Simona is the one for me.