Friday, November 15, 2013
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Salon Kitty
Here’s a fun game we can all play. How many films can you name where the mainstream press or the moral majority have trotted out the old “is it art or is it porn” rhetoric? Two points for each film. I’m going out for a couple of pints. I’ll see you at paragraph two in an hour or so.
Hi. Welcome back, everyone. How many did you get? Wow, that many! Okay, let’s throw something else into the mix. How many of those films have Nazis in them? Round of applause for everyone who said ‘The Night Porter’.
Who was that? Someone at the back? Several someones? Did I hear you say ‘Salon Kitty’? Come forward. Please. Make yourselves comfortable. You now have a front row seat to this evening’s review on The Agitation of the Mind.
The 1970s in European cinema was a time of the most sublime heights, and also of challenging and envelope-pushing provocation. Liliana Cavani’s 1974 controversy magnet ‘The Night Porter’ didn’t just push the envelope, it set fire to it and danced round the ashes with a pair of braces over its otherwise naked breasts wearing an SS officer’s cap and snapped off a Hitler salute every so often just in case someone hadn’t been offended yet. That ‘The Night Porter’ also happened to be a well-acted and profoundly serious examination into psychosexual dependency only made it harder to stomach. Oh, and that nice Dirk Bogarde was in it who’d been everybody’s heart-throb just a decade and a half previously.
Bogarde’s journey from b&w pin-up idol to art film dark horse took arguably its most pivotal turn in 1969 when he starred in Visconti’s ‘The Damned’ alongside Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger. Hands up everyone who can see where I’m going with this.
Fast forward to 1976 and Tinto Brass has presumably had a meeting with some money men and said something along the lines of “hey, let’s do a mash-up of ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’ but with loads more bouncing boobs and floppy phalluses” and the blank cheque was handed to him while “bouncing boobs” was still ringing in their ears and it was only later that one of the producers said “hey, wait a minute guys, did he say something about floppy phalluses? We’d better keep an eye on the rushes.”
Based on Peter Norden’s novel – which itself was based on actual events – the plot of ‘Salon Kitty’ can be summarised, without missing out anything in the way of narrative detail or political theorising, as thus: ambitious Nazi Helmut Wallenberg (Berger) is given the task of setting up a knocking shop for high-ranking officers, and to this end coerces famous Berlin madam Kitty Kellermann (Thulin) into relocating to premises he has an interest in and firing her exotic girls in favour of a retinue of Aryan totty handpicked by Wallenberg himself. Among the recruits is socially-confused poor little rich girl Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy), whom Wallenberg begins to obsess over. Margherita, however, finds herself caught up in a doomed affair with disaffected Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu), who is planning to defect Rudolph Hess stylee. Increasingly suspicious at Wallenberg’s machinations, Margherita discovers he’s using the brothel to strengthen his own power base, and she and Kitty join forces to turn the tables.
And that really is all there is to it, plot-wise. But, oh lordy, does Brass take his time getting there. In a director’s cut that clocks in at a frequently tedious 133 minutes, nearly quarter of an hour has elapsed before Wallenberg recruits his harem, 40 minutes before Kitty finds herself working for Wallenberg, an hour and a quarter before Reiter plans to defect, and somewhere around the hour forty minute mark before Kitty and Margherita team up to unmask Wallenberg. There are many things ‘Salon Kitty’ can be accused of. Narrative propulsion isn’t one of them.
‘Salon Kitty’ is overlong and deeply uneven. Intermittently, the script makes a stab at political commentary or philosophical debate. Periodically, Brass gets it into his head that he can direct like Visconti or Resnais and he tries, falteringly, for something visually majestic and aesthetically elliptical. Astoundingly, the odd bit of quality slips through, such as Margherita’s last day with Reiter before he returns to the front. For the most part, though, ‘Salon Kitty’ looks like what it is: a porno movie with a big enough budget for a couple of arthouse darlings in the lead roles and the services of a production designer (in this case – wait for it – Ken Adam).
But even if we just hang the “blue movie” tag on it and judge its merits solely on its success or otherwise as an example of said form, it frustrates. There is little that’s genuinely erotic. Sure, it’s sleazy – oh, you’d better believe it’s sleazy – but not in the guilty-pleasure/cold-shower-afterwards way that many exploitationers are. There’s a kind of despondency to the sleaze on offer, from the “auditions” that see the girls paired off with horribly unappealing partners, to the predilections of Kitty’s clients: a scene involving projected footage of Hitler and a loaf of bread in the shape of a cock and balls crests the peak of absurdity within moments and finds itself plummeting down the vertical drop of depressingly sad on the other side.
The tonal instability is perhaps best evidenced by an orgy near the start of the film: the girls picked by Wallenberg are marched into a gymnasium and ordered to disrobe. In the shower block of said amenity, a platoon of Nazi soldiers are similarly urged to get nekkid. The girls march to one side of the girl, all pert breasts and rounded buttocks, while the men troop in one behind the other, willies waggling all over the place as if they’re about to indulge in a National Socialist circle jerk, and all the while a sergeant is yawping “Links zwo drei vier, links zwo drei vier”. The chant put me in mind of the Rammstein song and for a couple of brief minutes the whole thing was so utterly ridiculous that I was grinning away and in very real danger of starting to enjoy the film. Then the orgy starts.
How can I describe it? Imagine an orgy where nobody really fancies anybody that much (subject of which, a late in the game sex scene between Berger and Savoy is truly compelling for no other reason than Berger’s almost terrified reaction at having a naked woman in front of him), where all of the body parts are mispositioned (unless “blow job” actually means having the lady’s head level with one’s belly button and said blowing effects fluff removal from said navel, in which case I’ve been asking for the wrong thing all these years), and the male-to-female ratio is one short on the lads' side necessitating one of the women to writhe around on her own and hope that nobody notices. It’s horribly shot, nonsensically edited and about as titillating as a party political broadcast.
‘Salon Kitty’ has a reputation as one of the key Nazisploitation films, and in some respects it’s well earned. Brass’s pretentions to artistic legitimacy – his next project would be the ludicrously ambitious and notoriously ill-fated ‘Caligula’, starring no less a phalanx of mainstream talent than Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud – ram it into place (fnar fnar) as some kind of squalid bridge between ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’ on one side and ‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS’ and ‘The Beast in Heat’ on the other. But it is, as the jaded reviewer desperately searching for a kiss-off line might observe, a bridge too far.