It’s always a pleasure to see the unfairly—and incomprehensibly—overlooked work of Lina Wertmüller receive some attention, and Swept Away … by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August (1974) is one of her best films. It’s not quite up to Seven Beauties (1975), but this unofficial—and more politically charged—variation on J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton doesn’t miss by much. Funny, sexy and with more than a little something on its mind, the film is perhaps—and unfortunately—known today as the original for the disastrous 2002 Guy Ritchie remake starring Madonna.
Swept Away is a socio-political work dressed in the clothing of a disturbing romantic comedy. The interesting thing about this is that Wertmüller’s film from 35 years ago can almost seem to be charting the course for the cruder romantic comedies that seem to be flooding theaters today. The difference is that her film is deliberately unsettling, isn’t meant to be romantic and is subverting the form in order to make a larger point. The concept is simple enough—a working-class slob, Gennarino (Wertmüller regular Giancarlo Giannini), is stranded on a desert island with a beautiful, but shrill and obnoxious upper-class woman, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato).
The basic idea is that Gennarino is resourceful and self-sufficient and capable of taking care of them both—and in turn, will knock her off her high horse and romance will follow. That’s also the basis of Barrie’s story and its various film incarnations. But Wertmüller is working in the 1970s and in a specific milieu and everything is taken to extremes. Rafaella isn’t merely snobbish and over-privileged, she’s nasty—as loud and uncouth in her own way as the lower-class Gennarino. Much is grounded in both the northern/southern prejudices of Italy and of the sharp political divisions there. Gennarino is a staunch communist. Rafaella is part of a much-despised ruling class.
Much of what Gennarino does to her is built on revenging himself on her whole class—a class he views not only as parasitic, but as perverted. (He’s quite obsessed with the idea that rich people have perfectly “unspeakable” sex lives.) Make no mistake, his treatment of Rafaella is frequently brutal and sadistic. His slapping her around and hitting her was alarming in the 1970s and is likely to look even worse today. Wertmüller, however, is banking on the political undercurrent and the innate appeal of her star—and his expressive, almost Chaplin-esque eyes.
How well that works is a personal call, and one that depends a good deal on how you read the film. If you take it merely as the macho communist who puts the woman in her place—at least up to the film’s final scenes—then you may well find the film appalling. However, if you watch the film carefully—and closely observe Melato’s performance—something different emerges. The question finally arises as to who is manipulating whom. I think you might find the answer to that a good deal more complex than it appears to be on the surface.