A Portrait in Gold

A few weeks ago I had a couple of triumphs — I was able to procure for Chiseler scribe Jim Knipfel three films by his beloved W. Lee Wilder that he’s always yearned to see, and for David Melville Wingrove a copy of LA MESSE DOREE, a movie he’d been fantasising about since he was twelve. Read his report —

“We need to remember that we are still alive.”

Lucia Bosè, La Messe Dorée

The 70s were the decade that looked as if everything was about to change. For most of the much-mythologised 60s, a handful of rich and glamorous people hung out in exclusive nightclubs and talked about changing the world. By the dawn of the 70s, it seemed that people in increasingly large numbers were ready to do just that. Feminism, gay rights, Black Power, anti-war protests and burgeoning left-wing movements across the globe made it tempting to believe that bourgeois heterosexual patriarchy was well and truly done for. But what might the world look like once the end finally came? The cinema of the 70s made some bizarre attempts to imagine. The majority were less a case of Apocalypse Now and more a case of Apocalypse Yes, But Not Quite Yet.

Big commercial movies tried to reflect the anxieties of their audience with overblown epics of devastation and disaster – Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974) – where the sheer wretched overacting made you wonder if The End Of Civilisation As We Know It was really such a tragedy after all. The art-house took a subtler but no less apocalyptic view. The single most radical and uncompromising film of the 70s – Pier Paolo Pasolini’s stomach-churning yet wholly non-sensational Salò (1975) – showed the patriarchy fighting back against the threat of annihilation and doing so in increasingly perverse and brutal ways. It may be the one film routinely described as ‘pornographic’ that seems designed to put its viewers off sex for the rest of their lives.

Only one other film of the decade can rival Salò for sheer aesthetic and erotic boldness. It is a film so obscure and so difficult to see that it verges on being ‘lost’ for all time. It was made in France in 1974 by the Italian designer and artist Beni Montresor. Its title is La Messe Dorée. That title translates as ‘The Golden Mass’ and – as one might expect – it is lush, ritualistic and sensual, as mysterious and glowingly over-decorated as a Byzantine mosaic. Its star is the darkly glamorous Italian diva Lucia Bosè, who resembles Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in an unusually perverse mood. Watching from the shadows, in the subsidiary role of her husband, is the French actor Maurice Ronet – whose haunted face seems to hide wastes of depravity of which the Marquis de Sade could barely dream.

The action centres entirely on an orgy in their elegant Art Nouveau chateau outside Paris. Attractive young guests of both sexes are invited, there to indulge in various unspeakable acts. The parallels with Salò may seem too obvious to need pointing out. Yet the tone (and the ideological agenda) of the two films could not be more different. If Salò is the art of protest, La Messe Dorée is the art of seduction. In Salò we see a conservative patriarchal order (specifically, the Fascists of 1940s Italy) defending itself through acts of nauseating sexual savagery; in La Messe Dorée, we witness the defeat and dissolution of patriarchy itself. The father played by Ronet has become an irrelevance in his own house. Unwilling or unwelcome to make love to his wife, he gazes hungrily at the naked flesh of his teenage son and beds down at last (and, mercifully, off-screen) with his nubile 12-year-old daughter.

The real action is downstairs at the banquet. As the guests sit down to dinner, a glamorous lesbian (Stefania Casini) devours a chicken leg as if she were performing a full-on act of fellatio. Flouncing about in a voluminous red-and-gold kaftan, Bosè leads the company in a wild ritual dance. The women swoop and whirl about like Bacchantes while the men-folk, rather sheepishly, join in. Later on, the lesbian and her married girlfriend indulge in some surprisingly hardcore Sapphic action. The girlfriend’s strait-laced husband (François Dunoyer) watches them and masturbates helplessly in the doorway. His only way to join in is for the two women to tie him to the bed and torture him. As the S&M games grow more frantic, he screams out: “I want to die! I want to die!” When the two women leave the room, he is stretched out motionless on the bed. He does not appear at any point again.

Yet even this is not the climax. As the evening draws to a close, a young virgin (Eva Axen) is ceremonially robed and painted to resemble the Madonna. She is carried on a litter to the main hall, surrounded by guests with blazing torches, to the tune of Severino Gazzelloni’s incantatory score. There she is stretched out on the floor and ritually deflowered; as the whole company copulates around her, she penetrates herself with one finger. Orgiasts smear their faces with blood from her broken hymen. All of this proves too much for Bosè, who – as befits a star of a certain age – has presided with elegance over the kinky goings-on but, hitherto, has done nothing indecorous herself. Now, with a shriek of unbridled passion, she runs upstairs and becomes alarmingly intimate with her son. You may be glad the scene that follows is no more convincing than it is.

On its release in 1975, La Messe Dorée managed to shock the few people who saw it – in those few brave countries where it did not get itself banned. I myself first read about the film in a magazine when I was twelve years old. (Yes, I was that sort of child.) It has taken me the ensuing forty years just to track down a copy. That is not too long to wait for a dark and dreamlike fantasy on the breakdown of the heterosexual bourgeois order and the triumph of all things a therapist might label ‘polymorphously perverse’. The look and tone of the film suggest Beni Montresor was a homosexual aesthete in the High Decadent tradition of Oscar Wilde and Barbey d’Aurevilly. Yet, oddly, there is little if any sexual activity between men. La Messe Dorée is defiantly queer rather than gay. Complex and hard to pin down, it may never be reclaimed as a cult movie by one particular audience.

Beni Montresor, a lot like Oscar Wilde, may have lived in sheer terror of not being misunderstood. So we do La Messe Dorée a supreme honour if we do not understand a thing.

David Melville

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5 Responses to “A Portrait in Gold”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    And I had a LOT of fantasies when I was 12!

    Many thanks!!

  2. When I put ‘La Messe Doree’ into the Netflix search engine, their top three guess were: 1) La La Land 2) The Red Turtle and 3) LA Confidential. ‘Beni Montresor’ brings you 1) Monster High: Electrified 2) The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Special Edition and 3) Gods and Monsters.

  3. I think if you imagine this film as a combination of all of the above… it won’t get you on the right track, but it’s better than thinking of any of them individually.

  4. When I saw SALO the person in front of me noisily and enthusiastically ate popcorn all the way through…

  5. david wingrove Says:

    Yuck! If you ever see LA MESSE DOREE…take a bucket of KFC!

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