Caligula

Essential cinema
Released:
1979

Director: Tinto Brass, Bob Guccionie

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Peter O’Toole, John Geilgud

The Setup:

The legendary Penthouse Magazine production of perverted Roman Emperor Caligula’s life.

Discussion:

I had rented this years ago, like in college, watched 20 minutes of it and declared it garbage, and have barely thought of it since. So when my friend got it for Christmas and wanted to watch it, I thought “Okay, what the hell, I could sit through that.” Imagine my surprise to find myself ENTHRALLED FROM BEGINNING TO END.

Here’s the deal: This movie tells the story of Caligula, one of the later emperors of the Roman Empire, the one most noted for his sexual depravity. Apparently Gore Vidal had a script for a miniseries that he was having trouble finding funding for. He had the idea of approaching Penthouse Magazine founder Bob Guccione, who agreed on two conditions: that the script be turned into a theatrical sword-and-sandal blowout, to be called “Gore Vidal’s Caligula,” and that hardcore sex be cut in, to appeal to Penthouse readers. Then the fun began: they roped in big-name actors who were under the impression that they were making a serious film [which it is], but things started to awry between Vidal, the director, Tinto Brass, and Guccione, who had a totally different idea of what the film should be. It’s a long story [which you can read about on Wiki here], but basically, after principal photography was done, Guccione fired Brass and edited the film himself, including hardcore porn stuff he had shot himself. In the end Vidal sued to have his name taken off the production [he’d already been scarred by Myra Breckenridge], and McDowell, O’Toole and Geilgud expressing regret at ever appearing in the film. Then it faced all sorts of difficulties on release, was released in several different editions, and is now legendary, both for being a bad movie, and for being that sleazy movie with lots of sex and all sorts of perversion that you rent when you’re too afraid to get actual porn.

Now, my very first job in New York City was writing copy for Penthouse Magazine—but boring B2B ads, not exciting porn copy—and I have met Bob Guccione, several Penthouse Pets, and been in the Guccione mansion, which I was pretty excited about, as I could from then on say that I have been in a true PORN PALACE. Anyway, one of the original ideas of the magazine in terms of the articles [do I HAVE to make a joke about only reading for the articles?] was that since this is a porn magazine, and was outside of the scope of respectable journalism, it was free of the shackles of those respectable articles; it could talk about anything, take any angle, and not have to edit itself at all. So that’s pretty exciting, and I suspect that this movie came from the same place—the story already includes a lot of sex, and to include all that sex, making the film disreputable porn, means that it can go in any direction, explore any topic, without having to tiptoe around it. And the result is a movie that maintains an excitement throughout, because we are acutely aware that ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.

So we begin with a title telling us it’s Pagan Rome, 37-41 AD. We see Caligula and his sister Drusilla cavorting [one of those scenes that occurred later in the movie, but Guccione threw it at the beginning when he edited]. He is called to see Tiberius, the current ruler and Caligua’s adoptive grandfather, played by Peter O’Toole. He’s all pale and his face has bloody sores, seriously such a horrifying figure I was really hoping he would die sooner than later, because his presence made me so uncomfortable. He forces Caligula to “do your dance, boy” which Caligula resists. Tiberius makes him do it, and it’s this highly-stylized military thing that you can tell he’s been doing since he was five and finds horribly humiliating. However, we see the first glimmers of Caligula’s character when he snaps into this almost psychotic wide-eyed smile, seems to turn his mind off, and throws himself into his performance with maniacal glee.

In here we also find [through remarkably blunt dialogue] that Gemellus is Tiberius’ real grandson by blood, and if he had his way Gemellus, not Caligula, would be his heir. Caligula obviously can’t stand the boy, this annoyingly meek and pale thing, but affects everlasting affection. We also catch a glimpse of Claudius, this mincing queen with a hairdo that looks like one layer of a wedding cake, and John Giulgud as Nerva, Tiberius’ advisor. He takes Caligula on a tour of this huge set, starting with a guard who looks like he’s been drinking. He orders that the man be forced to drink, which they do by pouring a jug of wine down his throat [after tying a wire to his genitals, leading to an uncomfortable moment in which I thought he was going to be castrated]. Then we see all this crazy sex going on—including several shots obviously shot by Guccione and cut in—that features many a chick with dick and even some mutants. Then he comes back and disembowels the guard, causing all of the wine to pour out of his belly. Already we the audience are off-kilter, as not only is it difficult to understand what’s going on and who all these characters are, but the whole alien world of Ancient Rome, which results in the pleasant moviewatching experience of truly having no idea what you’re going to see next.

Knowing that Tiberius is going to die soon, Giulgud kills himself rather than exist under the rule of “that snake” Caligula. He has a long [and good] speech as he dies, and then Caligula annoys him during his final moments with questions about what it’s like to die. Can you imagine someone you despise plunking themselves down and annoying the shit out of you as you’re trying to die in peace?

SPOILERS > > >
In here we’ve already met the handsome Macro, whose wife Enya [not the singer] is fooling around with Caligula. Tiberius gives Caligula a speech about how awful life is when you know that someone, probably those closest to you [i.e. Caligula] are trying to poison you, and how Caligula will face this fate one day. Tiberius then dies, and after a few tests to make sure, Caligula takes the ring conferring his Emperorhood and struts around with it for a bit. But wait—Tiberius is still alive! Caligula has had enough, and he’s about to kill Tiberius [with a hand mirror?] when Macro stops him—and finishes Tiberius himself. Isn’t life nice when you have people to do the killing for you? With Tiberius dead, Caligula is now the Emperor.

In his first appearance as Emperor, he grants a general amnesty and orders money distributed to every member of the public in order to win popular affection—not too different from our current president’s tax cuts, which gave a $300 check to every taxpayer in the country. He makes a huge show of his affection for Gemellus, and pretty much officially marries his sister. This scene is important because we see that Caligula treats the ceremonies of leadership as a huge joke to be theatrically gone through [foreshadowed by his earlier dance], and that he understands the importance of a theatrical public gesture, like his exaggerated hug of Gemellus. He knows that the public will see the hug of this person and remember this gesture more than anything else—not unlike when the president gets a few black kids to stand behind him and smile while he’s signing some legislation that severely cuts funding to education.

Starting to worry that Macro is trying to get control of him the way [we are told] he controlled Tiberius, he forces Gemellus to identify him as the man who killed Tiberius, and sends him to be executed. Then Drusilla tells him that he needs to find someone to serve as a proper wife, and that “The Sisters of Isis are meeting at my house tonight” [I love the way it sounds like they’re coming over for some Tupperware party or something] and he should choose a wife there. He goes, and picks Helen Mirren as Caesonia, Drusilla’s last choice. She warns him that Caesonia is a slut whore [in so many words] and is constantly in debt, but Caligula wants her anyway, in part to pique Drusilla. We can see how he is turning on and beginning to distrust those closest to him, as Tiberius said he would, but Caligula is too gleefully evil about it to show much public concern—apparent in a scene where he tries to hit Macro’s head with tossed fruit as he’s in the path of a giant head-mower [you’ll see].

Then there’s a famous scene in which he fucks a virgin bride on her wedding night, in front of the groom, natch, then fists the groom [apparently he also fucked the groom in the original screenplay, but after some negative feedback all but the tiniest mentions of Caligula’s homosexuality have been deleted], cuts off his cock, and feeds it to some dogs. Yes, you do see close-ups of the severed cock and see the dogs eating it.

There’s a long sex scene with Caligula that is intercut with a lesbian tryst happening in the next room. This is the scene in which it is most painfully obvious that this footage had nothing to do with the original film, and was inserted later. Please do not fail to note how one of the woman’s long orgasm is accompanied by an extended burst of rolling thunder—it is SO Penthouse Video.

Then there’s this whole amazing scene in which Caligula arrests Gemellus while these many plates spin on rods in the background. Then Caesaria gives birth in public in this strange ritual, and Caligula officially takes her as his wife, declares his new-born son his heir, and strips Drusilla of the honor. Drusilla informs him that his new child is a girl, but no matter—Caligula publicly declares her to be a boy.

Drusilla gets sick and dies. It’s here that the incomprehensible editing of this thing starts to become a problem, as I was sure that it was Caligula himself who poisoned her and was just pretending to be all grieving—and the thing is, the movie supports both views. After she dies, Caligula upbraids the Goddess Isis for not listening to him [“I BEGGED you!”], and has a little necro action and a last, crazy dance with her dead body. Historically, Caligula killed Drusilla by performing an amateur Caesarian on her—a fascinating-sounding scene I would have loved to see, but alas, no.

Then for some reason that will remain forever unknown to the audience, Caligula goes into town disguised as a commoner. He sees this whole show that mocks him and his wife, throws a fit, and gets thrown in jail. I was fascinated with the idea of this emperor who gets thrown into a common jail, where no one would believe who he is, or think he was crazy if he told them. Unfortunately this is not explored, he just shows up back in his palace one day.

After forcing all of the senator’s wives to be whores, [which, in the Penthouse footage we see, they just LOOOVE], he builds this huge boat [the largest set built to that day] and proceeds to “invade Britain.” He calls a bunch of reeds across the inlet Britain, orders his troops to chop them down, and once they do he claims to have conquered Britain. This is immediately followed by the line “Be careful, he’s in a strange mood tonight,” which made me laugh for its ludicrous understatement. Anyway, his guards have been planning to kill him, and kill him they do, and Ceasaria, and his little girl. They crown Claudius emperor, we hear the same Mahler music used to such deft effect in The Honeymoon Killers, and we’re out!
< < < SPOILERS END

I fucking LOVED IT. It’s so rare to be watching a movie where you truly have no idea what you’re going to see or where it’s going to go next. That, with the completely alien world the movie takes place in—stranger than a great many science-fiction worlds—and it must be said, the bizarre and inept editing, combine to keep the viewer off-kilter and watching with keen interest for the duration of the film. The inclusion of the pornography allows the film to go in any direction it wants, as well as serving the invaluable function of livening things up where it might otherwise become boring. So, leaving the question of whether this film is GOOD aside, I think this is totally essential cinema simply because it bravely follows its own vision and you will never, ever see another film like it.

Aside from that, I found the story absolutely fascinating. The whole idea of this young, psychologically bankrupt little terror suddenly holding the most powerful position of the most powerful empire on Earth… You know how someone like Verizon screws up your internet service and you have to talk to three representatives, all of whom are giving you a totally different story from the others, and then they tell you that they’re NOT going to have to send someone to your apartment, and then a guy calls from your apartment wondering why there’s no one to let him in [all this actually happened, btw]… imagine if you could have them all executed? Or better yet, forced to become whores? Or you could wipe the entire company off the face of the Earth? And all this power and influence was put into the hands of a sociopath? In some ways, this exploration of what it’s like for a young, unformed person to come into great power and privilege is what Marie Antoinette tried to be about and failed.

And as he is conceived of in this film, Caligula is a fascinating character. I was totally engrossed in his conception of public and political appearances as theater, to be gone through with grand gestures that have almost nothing to do with one’s true thoughts. And then there’s the whole psychological interest of this milieu in which you want to kill the person ahead of you to claim their spot, which eventually leads to you descending into paranoia about all the underlings trying to kill YOU. Read the story of Caligula here.

McDowell is perfect for the role, as he so perfectly expresses a frightening steak of sociopathology with his too intense eyes and sweet voice tinged with contempt. Similar to his work in A Clockwork Orange, he seems coiled with anarchistic hatred for everything and everybody, only here it’s tempered with a childish vulnerability and lack of interest in the consequences of his actions on other people. Mirren, Guilgud and O’Toole are also perfectly cast to take advantage of their natural aspects. Mirren’s role takes advantage of that manipulative, hungry look she can have when she wants to, Guilgud’s role takes advantage of his wiser-than-thou air, and O’Toole’s Tiberius calls on his overarching air of giving in to depravity because the world is such an overall piss-pot.

Also on the disc is a making-of documentary entitled: “A Documentary on the making of Gore Vidal’s Caligula,” which was made, one suspects, before the release, as it contains interviews with Vidal, who is still behind the project, and the original title, before he took his name off it. One can imagine what a bummer it must have been for him to have something he obviously worked so hard on and might have been a real feather in his cap taken from him and turned into a national disgrace.

The doc supplies some real gems for lover of pomposity, from the narrator darkly intoning about how “the controversy [about the film] continues to this day…” uh, but isn’t it true that the film hadn’t even been released at that point? So how long did this controversy really continue? Then there’s an unintentionally funny bit in which Guccione answers the question of why they chose to film in Rome with a long-winded discourse on how Rome is where it all happened and all the artisans that live there, finally saying that there was an art director he particularly wanted and “He’s a strange guy. It’s VERY hard to get him out of Rome.” So is that our answer then? We also have footage of Vidal wandering around Roman ruins, unconvincingly attempting to appear as though he’s contemplating the rise and fall of empires past. There is a scene that was apparently excised from the movie, in which Caligula declares himself king of the Gods. Then the pomposity continues with McDowell interpreting the story as being, in part, about how “It’s impossible to destroy the bureaucracy… and I think that’s a very relevant point for modern-day audiences,” and, not too much later, the narrator comments on the power of the elite, saying “And here the film draws succinct parallels with Western society.” SUCCINCT parallels? You mean that the parallels it draws are very precise and brief? Or does someone need a dictionary?

So all in all, not the best film ever made, but one that is such a singular creation, so unlike anything else, one that tells a fascinating and rich story within a loose structure whose very lowness of execution allows it to fly off in directions unexplored in more reputable films—the combination of which can keep you on the edge of your seat. Citizen Kane, whatever. THIS is essential cinema.

Should you watch it?

Yes, I think you should see this at least once in your life.

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