Sunday, 14 February 2010

Libido (1973)

Libido is an odd little Australian portmanteau film from 1973. As its title suggests it deals with sexual behaviour, but it’s not really a sexploitation movie. It’s an uneasy mix of art-house and sexploitation.

The movie comprises four short films by four different directors and four different writers, some now very well known (Fred Schepisi) and others of whom have now vanished into obscurity.

It opens with a segment called The Husband, a kind of contemporary erotic comedy about adultery. A very jealous husband has paranoid fantasies that his wife is having an affair, but is she really cheating on him or not? Both writer Craig McGregor and director John B. Murray are now completely forgotten, but it’s actually a reasonably stylish and amusing little episode. It benefits from excellent performances by Bryon Williams as the husband and Elke Neidhart as the wife. At only about 24 minutes there’s not much danger that it will wear out its welcome, it does have some funny moments. It also has some genuinely erotic moments, such as the husband’s fantasy of his wife having sex with about ten men at once, a scene that manages to be sexy in a fun way without feeling unduly exploitative.

Things get more serious with the second episode, The Child, which is a surprise since director Tim Burstall was best known for his sex comedies. It’s a coming-of-age story set in 1912, as a young boy encounters the adult world of relationships and sex for the first time, and does not deal well with the encounter. His mother is a widow but she hasn’t wasted much time finding herself a replacement man. While she’s having sexual adventures the boy is left in the care of a young woman named Sybil (Judy Morris). He develops a considerable crush on Sybil, but Sybil has her own romantic interests.

The crucial scene is rather shamelessly stolen from Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, but the piece is quite well acted and executed with surprising sensitivity. And the linking of the fates of the two men in the mother’s life is rather neatly done.

The third segment is from Fred Schepisi, and The Priest is a kind of warm-up for his 1976 masterpiece The Devil’s Playground. Once again his subject is the devastating effect of clerical celibacy on priests. The priest in this case (played by Arthur Dignam who built a whole career playing tortured priests) has not only fallen in love with a nun, he’s also lost his faith. And the nun, Sister Caroline, has fallen in love with him. They wish to marry, but there are even more complications than you might expect. She insists that they must eventually be married in the eyes of the Church, although she’s quite happy to live with him out of wedlock in the meantime. He is unwilling to submit to the authority of the Church, even to the extent of asking permission to leave the priesthood.

It’s a potentially powerful little story, weakened a little by an unsympathetic performance by Robyn Nevin as Sister Caroline and by a slightly excessive degree of talkiness. It still packs a certain punch.

The final segment is for me the weakest of the film. Written by celebrated Australian playwright/screenwriter David Williamson, The Family Man tells the story of a man who decides to celebrate the birth of his third child by going out with his best mate and getting drunk and getting laid, while his wife is still in the hospital. It tries to be a bitter and ironic commentary on Australian notions of manhood and mateship but it doesn’t come off. The writing is ham-fisted and obvious, and the acting is atrocious. Jack Thompson tries hard as the title character but never becomes more than a stereotype. Max Gillies delivers another catastrophically inept performance as his mate, while the two women they pick up are clumsy stereotypes of 1970s feminists.

Williamson is generally good with situations that escalate from good-natured drunkenness to out-of-control violence but the tone is too uneven. It’s too uncomfortable to be genuinely funny, and too broadly played to be genuinely disturbing.

On the whole Libido probably has enough interesting moments to justify a rental. It’s also an interesting look back at an era when film-makers were trying to handle sexual subjects both openly and seriously.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Very much enjoying your latest reviews--I'd never heard of this one, and now I need to see it as well. I hope there's an R1 dvd available! Otherwise I may have to get crafty to get my paws on it. ;)

dfordoom said...

Libido is definitely closer to art-house than grind-house, although it's art-house with fairly considerable helpings of sex and nudity.