Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 3 
17 Feb
2003

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Miklos Jancso's Vizi privati, pubbliche virtu (Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1975) HUNGARY
Private truths, public lies
Miklós Jancsó's
Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú
(Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1975)

Vizi privati, along with other Jancsó films made in Italy, has either been ignored or derided. Rolland Man argues that this is not just a "naughty" film but a compelling analysis of how rebels without a cause are doomed to fail.


The "Italian period" of Miklós Jancsó's output is very often ignored or treated in a few words by critics and analysts of his work. Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú (Private Vices, Public Virtues, 1975) is a case in point. The film has provoked outrage ever since its first screening at Cannes in 1976. Otherwise serious and perceptive critics have dismissed without a second thought my enthusiasm for Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú. More than once I have been told it is pure pornography with pretensions.

Despite the occasional good review or re-reading of the film, it remains one of the most obscure, neglected or completely overlooked works in the director's canon. Mira and Antonin Liehm do not mention it in their book on east European cinema, even in the augmented French edition.[1] Politely, Yvette Biro—in what remains the standard reference book on Jancsó—speaks only of his Hungarian films, one of the reasons for ignoring the others being that "his later works are without doubt the prelude to a new phase of his creation. One needs a longer distance in time to be able to find the keys to interpret them."[2] A poor excuse that doesn't stand up given that Szerelmem, Elektra (Elektreia, 1974) is analysed while the older La tecnica e il rito (The Technique and the Rite, 1971) is ignored. The French magazine Cinéma expressed outrage at Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú in 1979 (although a year later the same magazine hailed it as the start of a new creative period for Jancsó.) What is it that has made this film a commercial flop and a critical outcast?

Imperial cover-up

Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú is a reinterpretation of the real-life "Mayerling affair," in which Crown Prince Rudolph and his mistress, the Baroness Maria Vetsera, committed suicide because they were not allowed to marry. Jancsó, and his screenwriter Giovanna Gagliardo, suggest that this is just the "official version." According to their story, the lovers were assassinated by men working for Rudolph's father, the Emperor Franz Josef. The film also reveals the motive for these murders: Rudolph and his friends were planning to overthrow the Emperor's rule.

One of their plots to convince the Emperor his time was past—and that it was now the moment to allow the young to rise to power—consisted of attracting the children of the best families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to their castle, and involving them in giant orgies. Pictures taken during these orgies were sent to the Emperor, in order to blackmail him and convince him to let the new order rule. Ironically, the same process of photography is used in the end by the imperial forces, to "make up" reality and imply suicide. After the couple are shot by soldiers, their corpses are made up to suggest a romantic suicide pact—the final comment on a society obsessed with image.

Of course, the story in this film is an "invented" one—starting from a well-known recorded incident, the script continually re-imagines reality in a highly ingenious way. If in some of Jancsó's earlier films the search for authenticity was more poignant, in later works it becomes a pretext for a more personal approach, for a re-invention of history. As the director himself confesses: "We have known the falsification of history during Stalinism. The falsification is out there. We demand the right to imagine history. […] Our thesis is that we invent the real history."[3]

Revisiting the story of Mayerling, Jancsó replaces a romantic cliché with a modern politicised take on a particularly tormented period. This may be one explanation for the failure of the film with audiences. Romantic clichés tend to have a long life, and the story of this tragic love affair has been brought to the screen in several popular melodramas over the years. Maybe the public, their handkerchiefs full of tears from previous versions of the story, did not want to have their melodramatic view shattered by a nonconformist film-maker.

The naked and the nude

A great part of the film is occupied by erotic encounters of all types taking place in the castle, which seem to justify the epithet of pornography used by some critics—but only at an initial and superficial glance. Of course, the definition of pornography differs from one person to another, so it is quite possible that prudish natures were shocked by a frank depiction of sexuality in many aspects, from orgies to zoophilia, from incest to the revelation that the mistress of the Crown Prince is a hermaphrodite. This can be too hard to stomach for many, so instead of looking at what lies beneath that scandalous surface, they stopped short and were scandalised. Even the permissive culture of "make love not war" did not go as far in its claims as this film does. And if such acts were hard for modern society to accept, it was even harder to believe they could take place under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

Not that this was the first time Jancsó had used nudity in his films. In fact, nudity is a recurrent visual element. The director himself mocks his obsession with certain visual motifs by saying: "There are three things that never go out of fashion. First, there is the uniform; then nudity; and finally, horses. Maybe that's why I have used them so often. Together, in a way, they might represent eternity."[4] And of course, there are nudes, uniforms and horses in Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú, only they are used differently than in his other films.

Some critics may have been puzzled by this different use of nudity and sex. In Jancsó's earlier films, nudity was a sign of humiliation; in Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú, it is a sign of liberation. Already in Még kér a nép (Red Psalm, 1972), it seemed the main group of women had chosen nudity as a way to express their freedom, but now the director goes further. Here the nudity is erotic, and both sexes mix in a celebration of nakedness. They also perform all kinds of sexual acts in a state of joy and ecstasy, rather than because they have been ordered to do so. If, in his previous films, nudity was imposed by the forces of power, now it is flaunted by rebels as an act of free will—while those in power seem to want to cover every inch of flesh with as many layers as possible. Under the old regime, flesh had to be invisible. For the aspiring new regime, its exhibition is an act of rebellion. The unnatural uniform (army, clergy) is replaced by a natural uniformity: the nakedness of young bodies, all beautiful and at the same time different. The unease of the spectator in front of this abundance of beautiful nakedness may arise—in part, at least—because so much physical perfection makes us aware of our own imperfections.

In terms of theme and narration, Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú may show continuity with Jancsó's previous work, yet its aesthetic approach seems wholly different. It doesn't seem to match either his earlier or his later films. Despite a few elaborate shots, the famous long takes that became almost a signature of the director are less present. If in his best films there are only a few dozen shots, in Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú Jean-Pierre Jeancolas has counted a total of 343.[5] It should be taken into account that this film is not photographed by Jancsó's usual collaborators, János Kende or Tamás Somló, but by Tomislav Pinter. An excellent director of photography, but not one used to Jancsó's style.

Nor does the music fit Jancsó's usual approach. Most of his films contain only "source" music, consisting of original pieces from the period evoked. Here he uses both Viennese waltzes and revolutionary songs (La Carmagnole, for instance) but in the final love scene some conventional (and uninspired) film music is heard on the soundtrack. This fact, together with clumsy editing in many scenes, seems to indicate an intrusion by the producer—and maybe less artistic freedom due to contractual terms. However, it is unproductive to start speculating how this film might have looked had its director been given a totally free hand.

Revolutionary politics humanised

Despite these minor artistic flaws, the film remains a powerful work. It reflects not only the situation in Communist Hungary (and the Eastern Bloc in general) but also the situation in the Western world, where youth movements attempted a revolution in the 60s and 70s. However, it was a revolution where the rebels knew what they did not want—but were by no means sure of what they wanted. In this way, Jancsó proves to be a lucid analyst not only of history but also of modern society. If the young in this film hope they will make their voices heard, they are mistaken—as silence is preferred by those in power in order to maintain the social order. This order, however, is as arbitrary as the disorder in a society with too many restraints and rules. If the official ritual is based on randomly chosen elements, then the mock-rituals of the Crown Prince are as legitimate as the Imperial etiquette.

Yet can one define a new regime solely by opposition to an old one? What does not yet exist will not come to life by itself; even anarchy needs some sort of organisation. While it seems clear that Jancsó's sympathy lies with the rebels, it is also clear that he is warning against a rebellion without a programme. This kind of revolution is doomed to failure. However, his approach is not a neo-conservative one (why rebel when you are deemed to fail?) but rather progressive (rebel if you want to, but be ready to fail if you don't prepare your revolution well enough—and have as much fun as possible on the way). Of course, Jancsó himself passed through revolutions and was alternately euphoric and disappointed, so he knows very well what he is talking about. In Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú, the de-humanised politics of his earlier films have become human.

If anything, Jancsó's view of revolution has been reconfirmed by the post-1989 situation in eastern Europe, where one brand of conformism has been replaced by another. And Jancsó's films of the 90s seem to confirm this view. Is there any hope for non-conformity? Of course, we cannot answer this question without projecting our own interpretations—and thus our own limits—onto those of the filmmaker.

Maybe the critical reputation of Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú—or its lack thereof—is a consequence of the fact that the film appeared at a wrong time. The libertarian and progressive views of the 60s and 70s were already starting to fade and make way for the greedy 80s. It is not unusual for an east European director to fail to repeat his domestic success when he works abroad. One can think of Ivan Passer or Jerzy Skolimowski, to name just two brilliant directors whose careers never really took off after leaving their native countries.

In the end, what are we left with? An elegiac meditation on the limits of a revolution that failed to come to life. And also with a question: is our society, and are we ourselves, so far removed from the puritanical Austro-Hungarian world of the Emperor Franz Josef and its obsessively clean image? Vizi privati, pubbliche virtú is a lot more than a "naughty" film.

Rolland Man

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Also of interest
About the author

Rolland Man is a Romanian film critic based in Edinburgh, where he is completing his PhD thesis on Miklós Jancsó. He writes and lectures on cinema in both Romania and the UK.


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Footnotes

1. Mira Liehm and Antonin Liehm, Les cinémas de l'Est, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1989.return to text

2. Yvette Biro, Jancsó, Editions Albatros, Paris, 1977, p 137.return to text

3. Claude Beylie and Marcel Martin, "L'ideologie, la technique et le rite," (interview with Miklós Jancsó) in Ecran 72, no 10, December 1972, Paris, p 10.return to text

4. Michel Estève, Le pouvoir en question, Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1984, p 102.return to text

5. Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, Cinéma hongrois 1963-1988, Editions du CNRS, Paris, 1989, p 107.return to text

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