Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Devil in the Flesh / Venus in Furs (1969)

Have you heard about the lonesome loser, beaten by the Queen of Hearts every time?” -Little River Band 

The book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch Venus in Furs (1870) is a great inspiration to those of us who wish to be better poets for the women we love, the women we worship, the women we want to be dominated and enslaved by in the bedroom. I found a lot to relate to from Masoch’s writing, but I was kind of bummed that the book turned out to be a cautionary tale in the end. (Way to kink-shame, Book.)
Massimo Dallamano, cowriter and director of one of the best gialli ever made, What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), directed a couple good modern adaptations of Victorian era books: the aforementioned Venus in Furs and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde. Dallamano’s Dorian Gray from 1970 really feels updated for its era, trying something a little bit different while remaining faithful to the spirit of the novel. The same could be said of the Dallamano directed Devil in the Flesh (aka Venus in Furs, not to be confused with the Jess Franco film of the same name, from the same year).

I had first watched Devil in the Flesh many years ago as part of the POP! EROTICA FEST DVD-set from Shameless, which also included The Frightened Woman (1969) and Baba Yaga (1973). With Devil in the Flesh, I mostly remembered it being some kind of subversive romance story about a guy, Severin (Régis Vallée), who meets an attractive woman, Wanda von Dunajew (Laura Antonelli), who embodies his “ideal.” He eventually marries Wanda while convincing her to oblige in his cuckolding fantasy, born from a certain childhood trauma, by making him her willing slave who consigns himself to embarrassingly pose as a chauffeur and serve her while also having to endure her being with other lovers. These lovers don’t at first know that the creepy servant hanging around is actually her husband. Voyeuristically watching Wanda with other men seems to torment him in a way that also kind of excites him too. She eventually hates him for it, and it ultimately becomes apparent that this relationship was a bad idea from the start.

It is not quite as inspirational and poetic as the book it is based on, but the film Devil in the Flesh is an interesting little curiosity from the sex revolution era that relies, I thought, less on the idea of worshiping and being-a-consenting-slave-to-one’s-lover, as in the book, and more on the extramarital sex aspect, particularly that of a man who consents to his wife’s affairs and loves her all the more for it. This kind of marriage/relationship dynamic was heavily covered and espoused in a lot of the writings by Emmanuelle Arsan (Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane) and framed by Arsan (as I remember and interpret it) as an iconoclastic ideal that could lead to a higher form of love and the end of jealously, war, and strife. For me, the theme was brought to beautiful fruition in the Rollet-Andriane written and directed Laure (1976) with Annie Belle. Other films such as My Wife, A Body to Love (1973) and Devil in the Flesh on the other hand seem, to me, to warn against permitting/encouraging one’s wife to take other lovers. In the former film, the husband who on the outside seemed accepting of his wife’s affairs, we find out, was on-the-inside jealous the entire time and eventually murders his wife’s lovers. In Devil in the Flesh, despite their “agreement,” the wife, Wanda, eventually loathes and hates her husband, Severin, for encouraging her to take other men and for what he’s made her into as a result.

Severin is a voyeur who falls for Wanda, before she even personally knows him, while spying on her from next door through the wall of her flat while she is undressed, draping herself in furs, or taking in a lover. She becomes his ultimate fantasy, one he can look forward to coming true.

Early on in their relationship and marriage, they shag on a regular basis. They like to get kinky in the bedroom, as Severin enjoys being dominated and whipped by Wanda. Severin also finds it more pleasing to take her immediately after she’s been with another man, a quick interchange after the first man is done, to which Wanda eventually replies to Severin, “you're right, I feel I’m yours all the more.” At first, Wanda just seemed to want a normal marriage, but Severin’s sexual proclivities bring out the tiger in her. He seems to regret the cruelty that results in her. She legitimately beats the shit out of him with the whip at one point, making Severin bed-ridden, after she unloads all of the pent-up hatred and aggression she accumulated for being something she never really wanted to be for him.

The idea of being a slave to one’s cherished wife sounds appealing as long as things don’t go too far or get too out of hand, which is where both the book and the movie take things, in that wife and husband start to actually become what they were only at first pretending to be. At the onset of things, Severin has expectations that Wanda will be cruel, and, like a despotic queen, dominate him without inhibition. He wishes for her to entirely consume him, but it's the age-old fable of be careful what you wish for.

Of course, Severin's only happy when Wanda plays by his rules. He only starts to show jealousy when she dares to do things her way.  

At one point Severin tells Wanda that she is free. But I often wonder if she really is free. She's led to believe she is free, but she is also made into what he wants her to be for him. I think it's apparent she may've never really been free at all but still under his control. In a way, even as her "slave," Severin still has the power in the relationship. That is until Bruno (Loren Ewing) comes along. 

Laura Antonelli is a fabulous choice to play, what is to Severin, a goddess figure to love and revere, so much so as to find pleasure in being a willing slave to her. Also, Antonelli’s performance with a whip/crop in this movie should be considered the stuff of legend. 

(Devil in the Flesh was one of a few films (see also Bali (1970) and Simona (1974)) Laura Antonelli starred in before her breakout role in Malizia (1973) that was rereleased/revived/revamped later under a different title thanks to Antonelli becoming an Italian sex symbol.)

The theme of pleasure through experienced pain and suffering in Masoch’s writing came to be the source of the term masochism. Masoch, like Marquis de Sade got a pain-related word named after him. While Devil in the Flesh does explore masochism, it does take a brief sojourn to the realms of sadism in a fever dream sequence that Severin has after he is bed ridden from Wanda’s vicious physical whip assault on him, suggesting that most masochists when pushed will ultimately tap into their heretofore unrealized inner sadist as well. 

Devil in the Flesh might come off as ridiculous to some or given the tone of the film also kind of funny. It’s also very beautiful and kinky. The playful and kitschy music (composed by Gianfranco Reverberi -The Reincarnation of Isabel (1973)) has an odd flavor but works and really transports you to the era. The whacky, rockin’ component to the soundtrack really “slaps,” especially during a very de Sadean scene that takes place towards the end, involving the dominant sadist Bruno, who was literally picked up off of the street to be one of Wanda’s new lovers. Bruno really stirs things up between the married couple. The ending does turn things around a bit without entirely undermining the point of the book.

I wasn’t really moved by Devil in the Flesh when I first saw it a while back. It was my interest in erotic literature that I developed, particularly the writings of Emmanuelle Arsan and Marquis de Sade, which eventually led me to Masoch’s book Venus in Furs, a book I savored and at least attempted to fully digest. While reading it, I was looking forward to checking out the film version directed by Dallamano again, and I have to say, I appreciated it more as a lover of erotica, particularly of the more poetic and philosophical kind. I think when I first saw it, I was hoping more for a giallo or something more on the exploitation side and was kind of let down by how tame and even kind of whimsical it came off as. I was not yet familiar with the charms of Laura Antonelli either. Recently, I came to notice and appreciate a lot of nice touches, particularly the rain storm that picks up during an outdoor love scene that subsequently dies out when the sex is over. I thought this was beautiful. I enjoyed recognizing little parts from the book that were at the same time quite different in the movie. I also liked the way the story develops like an experiment to test Severin’s theories about frustrations in monogamy. I don’t believe the story necessarily yields an accurate outcome, but it certainly is an entertaining one. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. Massimo Dallamano is one of my favourite directors and this is one of my favourite Dallamano movies. It's interesting that within a three-year period there were no less than three separate movies released with the title Venus in Furs. All of them weird and interesting and worth seeing.

    Apart from the Franco film there was Joe Marzano's 1967 sexploitation movie Venus in Furs which is incredibly surreal and brilliant in its own twisted way.

  2. It's the first time that I see Laura Antonelli and she's truly hot like hell here. Renate Kasché is very sweet, I have seen her before in 'Die nackte Gräfin' (1971) where her role was also episodic. Would love to see some movie where more attention is granted to her.

    Thanks for the hint about 'What Have They Done to Solange?', I will have to check this out one day.