Monday, 1 September 2008

The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970)

The Secret of Dorian Gray (also released as simply Dorian Gray) is a 1971 eurotrash updating of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The plot adheres fairly closely to Wilde’s novel. I have no objection in principle to updating classics to modern settings, but this is one of those rare cases where the updating not only works, it works perfectly. Dorian is entirely at home in the world of wealthy, jaded, elegantly decadent late 60s jet-setters, and he rather enjoys the Sexual Revolution.

Being 1970, Dorian is allowed to indulge in actual debauchery and sexual excess, rather than being just the slightly naughty boy of the 1945 version. And indulge he certainly does. The version I saw appears to have been heavily cut, so it’s impossible to judge just how far director Massimo Dallamano actually went. There’s no doubt though that the more grownup attitude towards sex (a grownup attitude sadly not shared by film censors) was a huge advantage. It allows full play to Dorian’s destructive seductiveness, to both men and women. Dorian’s bisexuality, and Henry Wotton’s homosexuality, are made quite explicit but without being over-stressed. Even the lesbian love scene between two of Dorian’s admirers (obligatory in a European movie of this era) is not merely justifiable but serves a very definite purpose. And for once it involves two women whom one can actually imagine having lesbian sex.

The biggest plus is the casting. Helmut Berger was born to play Dorian Gray. He’s drop-dead gorgeous and sexually ambiguous, with just the right mix of innocence and depravity, of shallowness and self-absorption. Herbert Lom is equally good as Henry Wotton. The supporting cast is generally excellent. Marie Liljedahl is perhaps the weak link, as Sybil Vane, but even her slightly vacuous performance works in the context of the film.

The movie is worth seeing just for the costumes. Dorian in his latest Carnaby Street threads, looking utterly outrageous but he wears them with such a sense of style that he never looks ridiculous. His groovy 1970 bachelor pad is also a sight to behold. Visually the film has a slightly similar feel to Radley Metzger’s wonderful Camille 2000, and like Metzger’s film it manages to go completely over-the-top without becoming overly camp. For all its sex and style it’s a perfectly serious adaptation of Wilde’s masterpiece (just as Metzger’s movie manages to be both a perfectly serious adaptation of Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias and a skin flick).

This may in fact be the definite movie version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Helmut Berger is unquestionably the definitive Dorian Gray. It’s trashy, but it manages to be classy and arty at the same time. The eurotrash/eurosleaze ambience just seems so right. This movie definitely requires the Blue Underground treatment. Released by a company like that, uncut and with some worthwhile extras, this movie might finally get the recognition it deserves.

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