Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, Italian erotica director Tinto Brass, and writer Gore Vidal united eminent actors (including Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Peter O’Toole) and adult film stars for an orgiastic epic about the rise and fall of Roman emperor Caligula. Hardcore sex scenes, extravagant, handcrafted costumes, and elaborate sets didn’t save Caligula from the critics. The movie’s sleazy, taboo decadence was too much for most audiences, and it remains banned in several countries. Caligula is a dizzying spectacle of sex and death, made during an era of porno chic productions.
La dolce vita
Federico Fellini’s 1960 baroque fantasy explored the “sweet life” of bored socialites, ultra-modern hedonists, and debauched men in postwar Rome, where decadence doesn’t come without disappointment.
Valentino suits, Oliver Peoples glasses, bone-colored business cards with Silian Rail lettering — it’s the ‘80s, and you aren’t someone unless you’re eating at Dorsia with Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). The sociopathic investment banker has expensive tastes, and an unrelenting urge to kill, but he never misses an herb-mint facial mask, his 1,000 stomach crunches, or an appointment with his stylist. Mary Harron’s deadly satire mocks the gross excess and narcissism of yuppie culture.
A wealthy vampire couple spends their days teaching classical music in their elegant New York City townhouse and their evenings hunting for victims in downtown nightclubs. The award for best-dressed bloodsuckers belongs to Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, who exude sophistication and worldly charm, but hide their loneliness in their Manhattan mansion — essentially a massive tomb. Director Tony Scott’s slick direction and stylish sets make for a sumptuous visual feast.
La grande bouffe
Arthouse auteur Marco Ferreri’s grotesque parody of bourgeois decadence finds a group of friends readying to commit gastronomic suicide in a Paris villa. La grande bouffe is a plump allegory where social and sexual malaise is served with a side of scatological humor.
Věra Chytilová’s Czech New Wave farce invites us on an anarchic journey with teenage girls (both named Marie), who revel in the absurdity of modern life — their story framed by the turbulent ‘60s. An exhilarating proto-feminist examination of desire and identity, the Maries challenge and taunt those around them with a lusty appetite for food and a penchant for swinging from chandeliers and dancing on tables.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Terry Gilliam’s raucous adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel of the same name is a psychedelic, gonzo carnival that defines sensory overload. Oscillating between tedious and sardonic, Gilliam’s schizophrenic direction and the grand guignol character studies of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro are a perfect match for the drug-fueled voyage across the desert.
The centerpiece of Visconti’s grandiose tale of a declining aristocracy during the late 19th-century revolution in Italy is an opulent and “emotionally devastating” 45-minute scene in a ballroom. In his review of the 1963 epic, Roger Ebert stated:
The ball is a last glorious celebration of the dying age; Visconti cast members of noble old Sicilian families as the guests, and in their faces, we see a history that cannot be acted, only embodied. The orchestra plays Verdi. The young people dance on and on, and the older people watch carefully and gauge the futures market in romances and liaisons.
Set in the UK glam rock scene of the early ’70s, Velvet Goldmine is a glitter-filled saga of sex and self-destruction centered on a superstar musician (the fictional Brian Slade, who is shades of Bowie). In a 2011 interview, star Ewan McGregor revealed that the decadent lifestyle of the film’s characters carried over into real life:
There’s a scene where we’re shooting in this stately home. It was a post-orgy scene or something and I was lying between these two topless girls. I can’t remember what it was all about but one guy was leaning against the door just having a soft wank. . . . They put real joints and real champagne there, so everyone was off their tits, and I remember looking over and going, ‘I never saw that before on a set.’
While the 1968 student riots gain momentum on the streets of Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci’s cinematic chamber play simmers in a tiny apartment where a trio of friends disaffected by the goings-on bond over sex and cinephilia. Michael Pitt plays the wide-eyed American exchange student studying French, who becomes a plaything for obsessive, incestuous twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel) — “in the same way Henry James sacrifices his Yankee innocents on the altar of continental decadence.”
Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick’s final work follows a married New York City doctor’s guilty erotic odyssey into a strange underworld, the lushness of which is mirrored by Kubrick’s brilliant cinematography and design. All the decadent languor and self-indulgent sex games underline the isolation and modern moral dilemma of the film’s characters — whose icy regard cannot be masked in Kubrick’s dream-trip world. Their dearth of emotion is brought creepily into focus during the lavish costumed orgy — the faces of its elite attendees obscured by the blank, but terrifying expressions of their carnival masks.
A stunningly crafted, high-Gothic (and at times, camp), erotic fairy tale that makes drinking blood seem as sensuous as a mouthful of honey.
The Great Beauty
Peter Bradshow writes of Paolo Sorrentino’s “swooning love letter to Roman decadence”:
[La grande bellezza] is a compelling tragicomedy of Italy’s leisured classes in the tradition of Antonioni’s La Notte or Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It is a pure sensual overload of richness and strangeness and sadness, a film sometimes on the point of swooning with dissolute languour, savouring its own ennui like a truffle. But more often it’s defiantly rocking out, keeping the party going as the night sky pales, with all the vigour of well-preserved, middle-aged rich people who can do hedonism better than the young. It is set in Rome, populated by the formerly beautiful and the currently damned, and featuring someone who doesn’t quite fall into either category.
Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula
Hysterical depravity, ravishing absurdity, and explicit sex and gender subversion done Italian-style for unsuspecting Hollywood audiences.
A bikini-clad and bubblegum bacchanal that becomes “a funhouse mirror up to the face of youth-driven pop culture, leaving us uncertain whether to laugh, recoil in horror, or marvel at its strange beauty.”