Wertmuller’s women
Swept Away
by the usual destiny

by Tania Modleski

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 1, 16
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Imagine a movie about a Jewish landlord who charges exorbitant rents. One of the tenants finally rebels, installs the Jew in a concentration camp, and turns the gas up a little more every day until the Jew cries uncle, kisses the tenant’s hand, and agrees always to love and serve him. Now try to conceive of a review which would call the movie with such a plot a “wonderful political and pro-Semitic farce.”

Again, imagine a movie about a black man murdering whites who refuse his family lodging in certain quarters and jobs in various businesses. Some white men get angry, tease the black man with a noose, and force him to kiss their hands and to be a loyal and loving slave. Superb political farce about race relations in present day society?

Then think of a movie about a woman insensitive to the condition of the proletariat. One sexy worker, chafing under the woman’s scorn, physically brutalizes, mentally degrades, and almost rapes the woman. After that, she falls pantingly, desperately in love with him and begs him to sodomize her, so he will be the first, as it were, to “brand” her. Great political and sexual farce?

Maybe the women’s movement doesn't have a sense of humor.

But then again, some things just aren't funny.

Granted, the above three cases are not exactly parallel. But in each case, isolating the victimizer and the victim is not as easy as the hypothetical movies might seem to suggest. And in each case, the “weapons” used by the rebel(s) are so loaded with connotations of evil, oppression, and violence that using them to achieve comic effects would be a perilous undertaking.

The third case is, of course, not hypothetical. It is the plot description of Lina Wertmuller’s film, SWEPT AWAY BY AN UNUSUAL DESTINY IN THE BLUE SEA OF AUGUST. The Newsweek reviewer who praised the film for being a “political and sexual farce” says,

“In its most simplistic terms the plot is outrageous and an insult to feminists.”

Indeed it is, suggesting as it does the classic porno fantasy about the woman who luxuriates in her lover’s abuse and even surpasses him in devising more exquisite sexual degradations for herself. But this same critic (along with many others) feels that “beneath the easy reading, Wertmuller is giving us food for thought about the kind of society that breeds messed up characters like these,” and that she is “concerned with how sex and politics intertwine.” Unfortunately, the reviewer doesn't bother to give evidence from the film which would support this interpretation.

Let me try to help her out. Gennarino, the working class hero and crewman on the yacht belonging to Rafella—the capitalist “bitch,” “whore,” “pig”—finds himself stranded on a deserted island with her. He begins to insist that she understand what it feels like to slave for a tiny bit of food (some of the lobster he has captured). But, before you can say “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a concept which Gennarino takes too literally and too personally, he is gloating over his physical power and sexual superiority and forcing her to call him “Mr. Carrunchio,” “lord” and “master” (but she goes him one better by calling him “God” ). Perhaps, then, the film is about the hierarchy of victimization enforced by capitalist society: the system exploits the working man, and the working man exploits women. Or, maybe it isn't really about sex and politics at all. Maybe the sex in the film is only an allegorical means to convey the film’s Animal Farm message. Let’s consider this possibility first.

In the “comic and provocative reversal of roles,” says Benjamin De Mott, reviewer of the film for Atlantic, we learn that “the oppressed can't be expected to behave better than their oppressors.” This interpretation would suggest. that we downplay the crucial point that the oppressor, in the beginning, is a woman, the oppressed a man. And certainly Wertmuller glosses over all the complexities inherent in such a situation by making Rafaella an almost impossibly stereotypical virago. Consequently, by the time the pair gets to the island, we're happy to see her at least slapped around a few times.

It is easy for us to forget that, in real life, woman is powerless. She doesn't own the factories or formulate the economic laws which cause food to be burned rather than given to the poor. This truth is, however, latent in the film: Rafaella is mostly guilty of verbally humiliating Gennarino. The only power she has exists in the one-to-one relationship of mistress to servant. While this is clearly not a desirable situation, it ought to be clear that she should not be the prime target of a rebellion. Gennarino’s desire for revenge, then, while humanly understandable is, from a political point of view, misguided.

Furthermore, given these facts, no simple “reversal of roles” can possibly take place. Whereas Gennarino’s oppression on the yacht stemmed solely from his position as a worker, Rafaella’s oppression on the island is a result of her threefold powerlessness: as a rich person who has never faced any grueling tests of survival, as a woman who is expected to be inadequate in physical skills and feats of daring, and as a person always vulnerable to sexual assault. Gennarino takes full advantage. So even if Wertmuller wanted to convey only a political message, she has clouded rather than clarified the issues. She should have made both parties male.

Obviously, no analysis of the film can ignore or slight its attitude towards the sexes and sexuality. We return to the first interpretation I suggested: that Wertmuller wants to show women as the most powerless creatures in society and to deplore the macho qualities possessed, ironically enough, by people extraordinarily sensitive to (if not obsessed by) their own oppression. But I wish to show that the film, far from satirizing and challenging traditional sexual attitudes, upholds and reinforces them.

First, I deny that sexual violence is a possible subject for satire, especially if that violence is depicted in all its brutality. The would-be satirist must wind up defusing the subject and unwittingly defeating her/his purpose. (The same would be true, to use my opening analogy, of anyone wanting to satirize lynching and lynchers by presenting a lynching party on the screen.) The purported satire in SWEPT AWAY is clearly unsuccessful, as a glance at the reviews indicates. Stanley Kauffman, for instance, in the New Republic says that the “knockdown fights between the pair,” which putatively occur prior to the near rape, are “as rough and funny as any physical sex combat I've seen on film.” This incredibly obtuse comment completely overlooks the fact that at no point is the contest equal—Rafaella never has a chance. The “combat” is more like a slaughter. Apparently Kauffman needed to rationalize his desire to laugh by altering the plot.

But I don't believe Wertmuller even wants to repudiate the rape mentality. I cannot, for example, agree with Ms. reviewer Barbara Garson, who claims that on the island “sex roles and... class roles peel away” (or, we might say, are “swept away” ) and the basic humanity of Gennarino and Rafaella slowly emerges. Garson doesn't find the near rape offensive for the precise reason that it is only a near rape. Gennarino slaps Rafaella, chases her, strips off most of her already scanty clothing, thrusts himself on top of her, pins her down, and demands her to admit that she wants “it” badly (which she does). Then a surprising deviation from the classic porno scene occurs: he tells her she can't have it until she has fallen totally and passionately in love with him. This unexpected turn of events supposedly hails the beginning of Gennarino’s transformation from caveman type to tender admirer who acknowledges the all importance of devotion and caring. But does Rafaella come to love him as an equal and for qualities other than his sadism and his wanton and arbitrary exercise of power? On the contrary, she adores him exclusively for his brutality. She yields to her feelings for him after he has butchered a rabbit and prepares to roast it: “You're cruel,” she whispers seductively, and kisses his feet. From that moment on, the couple are lovers. Wertmuller, we can only conclude, has here effected a refinement on the male sexual fantasy. If the man were to give “it” to the woman first and receive her abject devotion after, she might be suspected of having, for a time, used him in same small way. This way, before he gives her anything, he must own her, body, mind, heart, and soul.

The next surprise, according to Garson, occurs when Gennarino finds himself loving Rafaella. It’s true that while he never allows her to call him anything but Mr. Carrunchio, the beatings become fewer and less severe (in this world, alas, women must be content with small favors). However, he certainly never loves Rafaella, person in her own right, but only her bondage to him and the creature he himself has shaped and molded. Right up to the end Rafaella is always in for a slap and a scolding when she uses her own judgment and free choice—for example, when she decides not to hail a passing ship.

Nothing in the film tells us that we should be offended by this state of affairs. Rafaella is clearly improved by her experience, at least in the eyes of the camera. No longer the shrill harpy talking “like a fascist,” she becomes tender, giving, soft-looking and soft-spoken. The camera lingers lovingly on her beauty—all taut lines gone from her face, a wreath of fresh little pink flowers in her golden hair. Close ups of the two smiling tenderly at each other are frequent. Moreover, the island which first looked formidable and ugly later appears paradisiacal, and there are long shots of the heavenly blue sea in August. The music, too, always one of the best elements of a Wertmuller film, changes from sharp and savagely satirical tones to light and almost sentimental ones. Even after the pair is “rescued,” and class roles supposedly reassert themselves, Rafaella is a changed and better woman. She has learned to cry, has learned to feel for others, has learned to shut up.

Not only from the change which takes place in Rafaella after her subjugation do we get a clear understanding of Wertmuller’s opinions about what women need and what they should be, but also from the contrast between the later Rafaella and Gennarino’s Sicilian wife, who appears on the scene after the “rescue.” At this point, I believe we can establish beyond a shade of doubt that Wertmuller has no political message, and certainly not a feminist one. Let me say bluntly (for there is no generous way of putting it) that Wertmuller despises women who are not beautiful. After watching so many shots of the lovely Rafaella, the audience can't help but guffaw at the sight of the overweight, slatternly Sicilian, with an absurd little top knot on her head, clumsily racing toward the reluctant Gennarino, greeting him too loudly and in an unpleasantly shrill voice. Gennarino’s earlier words about Sicilian women being on a perpetual diet due to their poverty, which seemed to introduce a political message, are effectually blotted out. The wife is used as a symbol of all the horrors to which Gennarino must now return.

A comparison with one of Wertmuller’s earlier films, THE SEDUCTION OF MIMI, is in order. Mimi, the hero, is driven to redress his lost honor by seducing the wife of his own wife’s seducer. We can apply the words of the Newsweek reviewer we quoted earlier to MIMI:

“In its most simplistic terms the plot is outrageous and an insult to feminists.”

There is a second level at which this works. Wertmuller is undoubtedly poking fun at the Italian male macho mentality. Here, the “cuckolded” hero has not only been unfaithful to his wife, but has set up house with his mistress and fathered a child by her, whereas his wife has only indulged in a one night stand after much persuasion and out of extreme loneliness.

However, a third level of interpretation brings us full circle and persuades us that as feminists we are indeed being insulted. For the satire is effected at the expense of the most innocent party, the woman through whom Mimi gets back at his wife’s seducer. She is a middle aged, overweight woman who at first repeatedly repels Mimi’s advances until he comes increasingly importunate and so convincingly persuades her of his desperate love that she finally yields to him.

The bedroom scene in MIMI is one of the most gratuitously misogynistic I have ever seen. The shots continually cut back and forth from the hero’s agonized face to the mounds of flesh which emerge as the woman slowly peels off her clothes. Then, as he lies quaking with fear, she lumbers towards him, her face contorted with lust, and falls heavily upon him. The audience goes wild. So here Wertmuller spoofs the hero’s extreme macho pride by showing how it lands him in bed with this monstrous grotesque. That the woman is a human being, that she is, actually, the most wronged person in the movie, are points disputed by the antics of the camera and lost in the raucous laughter of the audience.

As in most Wertmuller films, the cameras insistently stress the contrast between beautiful and ugly women—exploring as if in horrible fascination the bodies and faces of the pudgy, graceless “Sicilian types” that Wertmuller abhors, and then turning from such scenes to dwell long and voluptuously on gorgeous Mariengela Melato (the actress who portrays Rafaella in SWEPT AWAY, and the mistress in MIMI). For Wertmuller, physical beauty often seems to equal the good, and ugliness, evil. Particularly in SWEPT AWAY, the unlovely woman is scarcely more than a thing, an embodiment of the sordid reality from which the hero cannot, finally escape.

We have one further point to consider. In SWEPT AWAY is Wertmuller, as Garson suggests, criticizing Gennarino’s masculine pride when she has him insist upon leaving the island to put Rafaella’s love to the test? It hardly matters this late in the game. Our point about the film’s antifeminism is proved regardless of whether we condemn or condone Gennarino’s action. In either case we are presupposing his right to decide all by himself upon the proper course of his and Rafaella’s lives. Thus, if we say Gennarino is justified in wanting Rafaella to prove her love, then we must conclude that Wertmuller is not, even here, challenging the male’s prerogative to possess the woman totally. If, on the other hand, we feel Gennarino is wrong to risk losing Rafaella, we wind up agreeing with the film’s assessment of woman: Given free will, she will always choose the comforts of her position over the meaningful relationship the film tries to present (unsuccessfully, I hope I have shown). And so, following out the logic to its bitter conclusion, we would have to claim that Gennarino should not have given Rafaella the least bit of freedom, but kept her, isolated and in bondage, all to himself.

I probably would never have written this critique had I not been moved to do so by the incredible rave reviews SWEPT AWAY has received, many of them, to my dismay, extolling the film’s virtues on quasi-feminist grounds. Most, I suspect, were written in good faith, with the reviewers projecting their own feminist consciousnesses onto the work of the world’s most renowned filmmaker. But I fear that some of the film’s “feminist” defenses only indicate that we have developed more sophisticated means for justifying our titillation at seeing women put down.