Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interrabang (1969)

Considering movies like Barbarella (1968), Top Sensation (1969), and Russ Meyer’s Vixen! (1968), it would seem that the late ‘60s, the peak of the sexual revolution in the western world, was a turning point for erotic movies. Sexually charged films from this era were not only challenging censorship but were also challenging the monolithic wall of puritanical behavior that associated sex solely with marriage, which also mirrored the changing attitudes towards sex during the revolution.

With both “the pill” and penicillin on the market, pregnancy and STDs were less of an issue, and a woman’s sexuality outside of marriage was becoming more widely accepted, unlike the vicious double standard from before when it was more permissible for unmarried men to have sex. Naturally, sex began to saturate the media, was used to sell products, and became a big part of mainstream culture. In addition, more and more married couples began experimenting with extramarital sex.

After the Hays Code was put to sleep in 1968 sexploitation cinema would really begin to thrive. With hopes of being free from the restraints of censorship, erotica would be used to explore new creative avenues of film making.

Inevitably, a lot of these so called sexploitation movies were taken to court, but a good way erotic filmmakers could get passed this was to not only make their movies sexually explicit but to make them intellectual and artful as well, which was particularly more common in foreign sex movies. On the VH1 documentary Sex the Revolution, John Waters said that in order to win in court you had to prove that a prosecuted sex film was socially redeeming, which would then make it acceptable.

While it really isn’t sexually explicit, save for a brief bit of nudity, the sunny nautical thriller Interrabang is still an interesting product of its time, with plenty of social commentary interlacing the dialogue and plot. If Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) foreshadowed the sexual revolution, Interrabang is one of its more obscure reflections.

A ritzy photographer, Fabrizio (Umberto Orsini), lives a luxurious jet-setting lifestyle with his wife and business partner Anna (Beba Loncar). The source of their luxury is pretty evident, as their profession seems to be sexy pinup and fashion photography in exotic locales. Their business trips aboard their yacht to scout for photography locations are naturally more like swanky vacations. It’s made obvious that Fabrizio likes to get intimate and physical with his model and muse, Margerita (Shoshana Cohen), something that his wife appears to tolerate. Fabrizio is definitely “la dolce vita” (the sweet life) type – a photographer, jet-setter, philanderer, etc. It’s hard to tell if he and his wife have an open marriage or if she reluctantly tolerates him. The two seem a little annoyed with one another, but it could be a love-hate thing.

Despite her knowledge of Fabrizio’s philandering ways, Anna still likes to tell herself that she thinks she loves her husband, professing that if she does love him then it’s for him and not his mind, which might suggest infatuation, but I think she is trying to say that it’s something deeper. Her reason for not being jealous is because she's certain that he loves her; she’s his "personal model" and the one he comes home to at the end of the day (interestingly enough, Margerita also refers to herself as Fabrizio's "personal model" later). It's like a kind of personal philosophy that makes their marriage work, supporting the idea that love can still exist even without monogamy, which is in context with the rise of extramarital sex during this period, something that was thought of as the solution to the problem of marital boredom, and both Fabrizio and Anna seem bored with one another. Later, Anna also proves to be somewhat adulterous.

Along for the trip is Valeria (Haydée Politoff), Anna’s sister and a second model for the island photo shoot. Valeria wears the titular interrabang symbol (a superimposition of an exclamation point and a question mark) around her neck, almost like a piece of trendy jewelry. She describes it as the new symbol of doubt and uncertainty in today’s world. She brandishes it like a fashion accessory, like something that’s becoming a cool new thing amongst the young crowd. It’s an appropriate symbol for the young and sassy Valeria, as there does seem to be something mysterious, uncertain, and ultimately alarming about her.

While on the boat ride to find a suitable place to do a photo shoot, a radio broadcast alerts of three escaped convicts, with two being captured and one still being on the run. The police are searching an island for the lone escapee, foreshadowing that our lead characters might be heading into a danger zone.

When they arrive at a suitable secluded island (the shoreline footage was shot at Monte Argentario), we get to see how Fabrizio works and how significant his camera is to his identity. His camera is like an extension of himself; he’s almost always carrying it and liberally taking pictures of everyone. Without his camera mojo he wouldn’t have much to work with anymore. His camera is his pride, power, and identity. He proves to have the sensibility of a frustrated artist and is the type of photographer who likes to get vibrant and demanding when he’s snapping his camera at his models. Once he starts shooting Margerita or Valeria, he feels little inspiration, seems annoyed and unsatisfied, like he’s trying to find that one realization or feeling to achieve orgasm and is having trouble finding it. Of course when Margerita invites him to do nude shots he's not as unsatisfied. Anna makes an almost sarcastic comment about Margerita being stupid as a woman but having value as a model, paralleling the criticism that female pinup and nude photography, which was exploding in the market in the '60s, only gives significance to females for their bodies and not their minds.   

When it is discovered that their carburetor is broken, the group ends up stuck until help comes, but no one seems too worried. When a small motor boat eventually comes along containing another attractive girl in a skimpy bathing suit, Fabrizio is all too happy to leave, presumably to get fuel and a carburetor, leaving the three ladies alone and to eventually meet with the lone man wandering around on the island, Marco (Corrado Pani).

The thriller element, itself rather marginal, is introduced with the presence of Marco, who claims to be staying on the island alone to write poetry, but he’s too suspicious to not most likely be the escaped murder convict previously mentioned on the radio, although he's quite friendly and personable. The writers could've taken a more straight forward route from here, but I like how odd and bewildering the movie gets at this point. Marco is not a flat one-dimensional antagonist; he’s actually quite the romantic poet and seems to be making the best of the situation of being on a secluded shoreline with three beautiful supermodels. Both Valeria and Margerita separately stumble upon the dead body of a police officer, but things get mysterious when Valeria doesn't seem to mention it to any one and when the body vanishes. Somewhat peculiar is that despite the risks, the ladies still take a liking to Marco and still take the opportunity to enjoy themselves, sunbathing at every opportunity.

Marco is romantic and full of profound wisdom. Although he lied about being a poet who’s retreated to his villa on the island, he’s still like a poet. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to feel intellectually stimulated from his words or if it’s just rubbish used to impress the ladies, because he’s also a kind of jokester too. He’s got this mysterious allure that the girls can’t resist despite their suspicions that he’s the one who might’ve murdered the police man.

There are two depictions of newfound-liberation on this secluded island that are subtly contrasted: that of Marco experiencing new freedoms (assuming that he's recently escaped from a dark prison cell to a sunny paradise) and that of newly sexually liberated women, who from a cultural viewpoint in 1969 had recently escaped the prison of sexual inequality. Women had overcome the "double standard" and now had the freedom to a sex life outside of marriage, just as men did before. However, there are repercussions to being irresponsible with sexual freedom. Margerita is shameless enough to be with Fabrizio in front of his wife. In addition she has a readily open interest in Marco. At one point she expresses protest for people thinking she is a nymphomaniac, but there would have to be a reason people think she is a nymphomaniac, and that might be apparent in her having a sort of sexual irresponsibility. Being liberated means new freedoms, and with new freedoms comes a need for new responsibilities, and without responsibility there are consequences. Before apparently killing Margerita, Marco tells her that he must kill her for everyone she made suffer, "for me it is like a clear order from those who've suffered," suggesting the idea that she is facing redemption for those who were affected by her irresponsibility.

Interrabang isn’t much of a thriller, although to be fair it doesn’t try to be. Its more stylistic and philosophic offerings override the thriller elements for the most part, which doesn’t seem to hurt the film too much in this case, because it still works on many other levels. It’s hard to tell at first, but the film is working towards a twisty conclusion that is perhaps its biggest strength as a thriller. It really isn’t an explicit movie and whatever sex there may be is implied, and the apparent murders are either tame or done off camera, but again this doesn’t really hurt the film.

Close to the end, a police man says, “I’m curious to know how this one ends,” which is practically channeling the thoughts of the audience. The first twist makes sense yet is somewhat predictable and not quite enough to make for a memorable ending, but the final twist is surprising and a little troubling to believe, definitely feeling at odds with everything that has occurred before, but it still works. It’s a terrific sequence and a final reminder of how great the film’s soundtrack is (Edda Dell’Orso’s voice can sometimes make an entire scene), as the truth slowly comes into view from the distance.

Interrabang is so very perpetually sunny, sexy, and conversationally deep, and I personally enjoyed every minute. However, anyone not caring much for the poetic and existential side of it, and only concerned with moving the story along, might find the film’s many conversations to be painfully slow, but the payoff will most likely hit the sweet spot for almost anyone. 

© At the Mansion of Madness



  1. In the immortal words of Paris Hilton: That's hot.
    LOL, seriously, the images you post are sexy. However, the review sounds like the movie is more than just that. I do like 'poetic and existential' movies, so I think I will check this one out. Thanks!

    1. Welcome! Thanks for reading! I'm glad you find the images sexy; I was shooting for sexy when taking screen shoots for this article, although the film is more than that, as you’ve gathered. I hope you like it if you do watch it.

  2. I liked this one too. And yeah there were a load of these around at the time- films that were nominally erotica, but 99% talkie dramas. Certainly they were far more innocent than the stuff Joe D'amato started cranking out a few years later. If for nothing else the film introduced me to the interrabang symbol and while I was not able find one on the keyboard I did cut and paste one into a review or two over the years :)

    1. Yes, there really needs to be an Interrabang icon for keyboards. I copy and pasted one onto a FB post that shows on my PC but not on my phone app. This film struck an emotional chord with me that I couldn’t put into words anywhere in the review, which is probably why I couldn’t say much else on certain points other than that it works. I overlooked Haydée Politoff a lot in the past, but I got attached to her here and subsequently checked out the French film La collectionneuse (1967) that she is great in..