Thursday, March 2, 2023

Zelda (1974)

“You came to watch this movie just to see two naked women… You have a colonialist mentality.” – Alberto Cavallone on the ending to Le salamandre*  

“I would like, as I said, for the lover’s place to be in the middle of the couple.” – Emmanuelle Arsan**    

Alberto Cavallone’s films are not fun. I can’t think of one I’ve seen that does not have a depressing ending. Whether or not they are entertaining might depend on the viewer’s mindset, but they are almost always enthralling in a way. You might think you’re being lured in for an erotically fun time, with films like Le salamandre (1969) and Blow Job (1980), or a film with a notorious reputation that precedes it like Blue Movie (1978), but that’s just to get you in front of the screen so the film can put a mirror in front of you, whether or not you realize it, and call you a colonizer or a degenerate (who Cavallone referred to as the “raincoat crowd”), crudely interrupting your titillation. Basically, if the film upsets or antagonizes you, then it was made for you. What’s fascinating is that the films nevertheless did well with the audiences Cavallone was hoping to annoy.  

Cavallone dismissed his own erotic thriller Zelda as a commercial effort, lacking the sociopolitical content of his previous films. On the surface, the movie does have an erotic pull to it, with the promise of interracial lesbian scenes, in a manner similar to Le salamandre. Like Le salamandre, the erotic pull ends up not being the main point of the movie, and with Zelda, Cavallone is critical, or at least dreadfully pessimistic, of the loose sex lives of married couples and the en vogue erotic film of the era while also making his film look very much like one.


Zelda is largely a flashback story, with the narrative focusing on events taking place before and after the apparent double murder of two characters: paralyzed ex-racecar champion Henry Davis (Nude for Satan’s James Harris - born Giuseppe Mattei) and his supposed mistress Clarissa (Halina Kim). The dead bodies are discovered next to one another by the horrified servant, Alfonsina (Giovanna Mainardi), one morning in Henry’s mansion. A news broadcaster announces the murder and mentions that the police are investigating. Fortunately, this film isn’t heavy on police procedural at all, as it instead explores the life of Henry and all the individuals who were involved with his life during the time leading up to his murder. The film’s story is also done partially in whodunnit fashion, but the mystery element is downplayed a bit in favor of sexual drama, lots of stock footage, and the psychological games played by Henry’s wife Zelda (who is played by Cavallone’s wife Maria Pia Luzi, credited under her acting name Jane Avril).


The character Zelda has the appealing look of the gothic horror heroine, and that’s not just because she is introduced dressed in black for her husband’s funeral. 

"Don't you think it's ridiculous, dressing in this way?" asks Zelda's daughter Ingrid (Franca Gonella).

"People expect widows to be dressed in black," Zelda replies. 

Ingrid reminds her mother what she already knows, "but you couldn't care less about Dad's death." 

"Sometimes appearances are important," Zelda states indifferently. 

Either this is a strange way for Zelda to cope, or there was obviously no love lost between the couple, but after we get to know Henry and Zelda more, through backstory, it starts to become apparent that Henry may not be entirely to blame for Zelda’s coldness.

The cast of main characters, who also include Henry’s racing buddy Christian (Debebe Eshetu) and another mistress Ursula (Margaret Rose Keil), gather together during Henry’s and Clarissa’s funeral before the film flashes back, before their demises, to the racetracks.


As for a pro-polyamory film, my personal gold-standard is Emmanuelle Arsan’s Laure (1976), starring Al Cliver and Annie Belle, which depicts erotic relationships in a spiritually and philosophically healthy way. Zelda is on the exact opposite end, as it does not have good things to say about polyamorous relationships. Viewers might think they are in for some hot and steamy menage a trois, but what unfolds is a bad faith cautionary tale. Being an erotic thriller, this is fair enough, but the hazards that seem to come with the sexual freedom of certain characters in Zelda is a depressing reminder of the myth of free love, right in the middle of the ‘70s when the dream was so beautiful, too.


My favorite erotic philosopher Emmanuelle Arsan (Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane) believed we as humans, in order to escape the “childhood of humanity,” must begin to fully embrace the possibilities of eroticism. To quote the character Jean from the book Emmanuelle 2, when he is referring to his wife Emmanuelle’s lovers, “they are only expressing their love, and they aren’t my rivals, they are my allies.” In the philosophy book L’hypothese D’Eros, Rollet-Andriane argues (among many erotic arguments) that a third person in a relationship is beneficial in preserving it and can even help couples find greater happiness, particularly in the chapter titled Six Feet on Earth. Here in Zelda, it’s almost like the movie is saying, ‘you’re deluding yourself if you believe that.’ This sort of transgression takes its toll on Henry mentally, causing him to want to disappear, but Henry has a hard time resisting the temptation of that third beautiful lover his wife continues introducing into their marriage.


The sinful trap of libertinage is represented by the insatiable Zelda, who seems to be the driving force in maintaining the threesomes between her, her husband, and an extra woman. We’re not sure how long this has been going on, but the first woman in the story to be brought to bed with them is the coquettish Ursula. While initially welcome into the bed of the married couple, the third partner in the threesome is ultimately seen as an intruder to be shamefully sent away, as soon as Henry starts to express a desire to return to normalcy (not to mention the shame he feels for the effect it must be having on his daughter Ingrid, who is privy to her parents’ deviant sex life). After briefly escaping his perceived debauchery by throwing Ursula out, so he can be alone with his wife, as he puts it, Henry makes a brief return to tradition where he can be more in his element. Henry is kind of the “competent man” stock character; he hunts, he finances race car drivers, he drives race cars, he scuba dives, and he can pilot a glider plane.


It isn’t long after Ursula is ousted that Zelda fully recruits Clarissa, Christian’s wife, into their love life. Henry can’t help but continue to return to the decadent threesome with his wife, almost like an addict, and this makes him ominously foreshadow his own demise. “At a certain point you have to have the courage to go away forever…” Could this perceived toll that libertinage has on Henry be deliberate? 

Henry’s survival from his suicide attempt that leaves him paralyzed is farfetched. While piloting a glider plane by himself, in mid-flight, he shoots himself in the head and later wakes up in the hospital with the lower half of his body paralyzed. Zelda still maintains a third lover in Henry’s continued misery as the film moves along towards its lowkey and dark denouement.


Zelda has an absolutely evocative close out scene, with the camera slowly roving over what appears to be nude bodies in an orgy, with unfamiliar actors, but no one looks like they are having fun. Rather they look like they are suffering. The tired gazes and lethargic motion of the entwined lovers almost suggest that eroticism is ultimately empty and like a prison or almost like one of the seven circles of hell instead of a place of sexual bliss and freedom. It also looks really cool (and reminds me a little of the sexual dystopian artwork of Serpieri) and kind of gives the closeout a little more of a punch with the help of the synth and percussion heavy Henry Theme by Marcello Giombini. Zelda Theme is also an ethereal piece that works really well with the filtered stock footage of galloping horses in the film.


There’s more going on than just Henry’s threesome depressions, as Zelda is a bit complex, with a whole lot of stock footage; apparently over 30% of the film is stock footage, which pads it of course but didn’t seem to drag it down too much for me. I did sometimes get confused as to whether the narrative was supposed to be in the present or the past at certain times, and I had trouble keeping up with all of the characters too at first. It does take more than one viewing to resolve and figure out what’s going on and take in the movie’s themes, which made me happy to decide to review it, because there’s a surprising amount of depth to it. 

As an eroticism enthusiast, I’ve come to realize that I’m part of the target audience Alberto Cavallone was hoping to annoy with a film like Zelda. And weirdly enough, it’s become one of my favorite movies. 

© At the Mansion of Madness  


* Curti, R., (2018). Mavericks of Italian Cinema: Eight Unorthodox Filmmakers, 1940s – 2000s. McFarland & Company, Inc. 

** Arsan, E., (1974). L’hypothese d’Eros. Editions Filipacchi.


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