HOUSE OF GUCCI
starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Al Pacino
screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna
directed by Ridley Scott
starring Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphné Patakia, Lambert Wilson
screenplay by David Birke and Paul Verhoeven, based on the book by Judith C. Brown
directed by Paul Verhoeven
by Walter Chaw Ridley Scott's second based-on-a-true-story prestige period piece of 2021 after The Last Duel takes place in the I Love You to Death cinematic universe, wherein formerly dignified actors affect ridiculous Italian accents while taking bullets from hitmen hired by their wives, ex or otherwise. Just the spectacle of watching Adam Driver do a scene with Al Pacino at an Italian picnic, the two of them talking like Mario brothers while a brunette Lady Gaga croaks in an accidental Russian accent is... And the soundtrack! George Michael, Donna Summer, New Order, the Eurythmics--it's all of it like a Nagel painting come to life: gaudy affectations of glamour and art for the bawdiest appreciators of unintentional camp. Indeed, House of Gucci is prime grist for the headliner in a midnight call-along, or the feature presentation in a future episode of "MST3K"--although, at two-and-a-half hours, I worry the same jokes would keep getting recycled, most of them about the accents, a few of them about sex-pest Jared Leto's turn as Paolo Gucci, buried beneath a ton of prosthetics that make him look on the outside what he is on the inside. (Here's the punchline: Leto steals the movie.) A deadly drinking game could be devised from the times Pacino's accent slips from hilarious Italian to Al Pacino to, during a weird funeral scene, Bela Lugosi Transylvanian. There's a scene in the last half of the film where Paolo groans into an airport payphone, "I got to wash! If you could smell-a between my groins, you'd-a unnerstan!" while Aldo makes the "c'mon" expression trying to get his attention, and then later Aldo gives Paolo, his little Fredo, the "you disappointed the hell out of me" kiss of death and, again, it's... Well, it's notably, spectacularly terrible is what it is. And I liked it.
It all sort of makes sense as a vampire movie, actually: this unimaginably wealthy Gucci clan, overseen by terrifying, bloodsucking patriarchs as they expand their ancestral interests to the New World. Or maybe another branch of Universal Horror in a scene where Gaga's Patrizia Reggiani consults fortune-teller Pina Auriemma (Salma Hayek): Because Gaga sounds 100% like Maria Ouspenskaya from The Wolf Man, I consoled myself for long stretches of this interminable film by imagining Patrizia telling her husband, Maurizio Gucci (Driver), that even though he's pure of heart, when the moon is full he's going to wolf the fuck out. House of Gucci is about a period starting around 1972 when Maurizio met Patrizia, fell in love with and married her, became estranged from his father Rodolfo (Irons) because Rodolfo saw Patrizia as a social-climbing golddigger, found refuge with his uncle Aldo (Pacino) in New York, and began a takeover of the family business engineered, the film suggests, by Patrizia's encouragement of Maurizio's latent greed and lust for power, Macbeth-style.
The whole thing plays like an event miniseries from the genre's glittery heyday. If this were 1982 instead of 2021, House of Gucci would star Richard Chamberlain and Nancy Dussault. It's a hundred-million-dollar Rich Man, Poor Man, a more overheated The Thorn Birds; I never said it wasn't kind of amazing. Maurizio serves divorce papers to Patrizia through an intermediary as he's off with his mistress/future-fiancée, doing an awkward photoshoot for VOGUE, and spending way too much money. This leads to a moment where Patrizia corners Maurizio and tries to give him a photo album full of pictures of their daughter, asking him, in her Boris & Natasha accent, "Do you like it? Do you like it?" Again, not good--appalling, in fact, by any objective measure, yet incredible in that it seems to have happened intentionally, given that it was neither rewritten nor relegated to the outtakes. Out of nowhere as well, that Tracy Chapman/Pavarotti duet from the "Pavarotti & Friends" concert in 2000 is on the soundtrack. There are no rules here. Up is down and black is white. It occurs to me that Pavarotti's eyebrows may have been the inspiration for Lady Gaga's in this film, so maybe there are rules not meant for us to know that we are only now beginning to understand.
Another example of this is how there is a character in House of Gucci named "Benedetto" (Vincenzo Tanassi) Patrizia hires to murder Maurizio on the steps to his apartment not long after Maurizio is forced out as the head of Gucci by longtime consigliere Domenico De Sole (Jack Huston) and up-and-coming designer Tom Ford (Reeve Carney). Dutch satirist and provocateur Paul Verhoeven's new film about a lesbian Italian nun in the 16th century who pretended to be a saint and then maybe was a saint but was denied martyrdom is called Benedetta. Coincidence? I think not. What I mean is that for as colourful as Italy's history of insanity appears to be, it's matched by this pair of "holy shit, what's in my eyes" masterworks by the old guard well into the last films of their storied careers. Because Ridley Scott has never been known to be intentionally funny in the slightest, the obvious presumption is that he doesn't know House of Gucci is screaming high camp, but I wonder if that's being unfair. Just because Scott has never had anything that could remotely be mistaken for a sense of humour, on or off screen, doesn't mean that... Yeah, no, he probably doesn't know, though I have a feeling Pacino and Leto know, and that Driver knows but is, between this and Annette, too professional to betray that he knows. Lady Gaga has no idea, meaning she's the straight person who doesn't know she's the straight person, making her the best straight person in a gag of this magnitude. House of Gucci is so ludicrous it touches on sublimity--a satire of the biopic directed by someone who doesn't know it's a satire. All of the emotions are spit-on-the-chin sloppy, the performances are out-of-control insane, it's an expensive and gratuitous presentation of expensive and gratuitous ogres, and it's a lot like a long fall down an endless staircase that ends up looking like it was on purpose.
Verhoeven, on the other hand, is very funny. He's scabrous and bitter, has a prurient fascination with women's bodies while being terrified of what women can make men do with them, and has consistently, for decades now, made socially-incisive work that's often underestimated in its time. Benedetta is, like House of Gucci, another based-on-a-true-Italian-story. It's about Benedetta Carlini, born in Vellano, Italy in 1590, the only child of wealthy parents who's sold at the age of 9 to a group of religious women, not quite nuns. Sufficed to say, it all gets extremely complicated and Catholic. What Verhoeven takes from the story is the absolute corruption of the Church and the (im)possibilities of making a modern nunsploitation flick worthy of splitting a bill with Ken Russell's The Devils. A younger version of Verhoeven would have made a more daring film, which doesn't mean that Benedetta doesn't take some chances. My favourite is its taking the biographical detail of Benedetta owning a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and having Benedetta's lover, Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), use some whittlin' to turn it into a dildo. Yes indeedy, this is the content for which we bought a ticket. While there's a good deal more than the "frottage" historical Benedetta goes to prison for, it's also not the full-on bacchanal the Catholic League got all up in their feelings about--sight-unseen, of course, as is their habit. (No pun intended.) In its place, Benedetta goes hard on the theory that Benedetta is a calculating fraud playing off the cynical political positioning of her male superiors and also favoured by God for her ingenuity and ultimate intention of closing off the small village where her convent is located, the better to avoid the Plague.
To give you an idea of what we're dealing with here, the story of a statue of the Virgin tipping over onto a nine-year-old, praying Benedetta (Elena Plonka) is embellished by Verhoeven to have the child suckle at the Virgin's breast while she's lying underneath it. Mmmm, that's good blasphemy. Better still is how the grown Benedetta (Virginie Efira, late of Verhoeven's Elle) has visions of a buff Jesus (Jonathan Couzinie), complete with vagina, who tells her stuff and beckons her to minister to him whilst on the cross. She develops stigmata, earning her the attention of the local Bishop and, eventually, the Papal Nuncio (Lambert Wilson). Because this is during the counter-reformation papacy, he judges Benedetta to be a fraud after coercing, through torture, a confession from Bartolomea. Benedetta disappoints expectations of the man who gave us Flesh + Blood, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls while providing exactly what it is that people respect about Verhoeven, sometimes decades after the fact. It isn't a particularly sexy film but it is extraordinarily curious--less the companion piece to The Devils and more the companion piece to Scorsese's Silence. The two films, Benedetta and Silence, even share an agreeably ambiguous ending where the question of faith remains a thing that is as profound as it is necessarily personal. Public considerations of faith are by their nature suspect and, accordingly, the picture cycles through every kind of false witness. For Verhoeven, the greatest sin is nursing unacted desires, and so Benedetta, with her intense focus on her clitoris and her evolving belief that her love of the orgasm is the precise reason the religious term "ecstasy" is now used almost exclusively when it refers to fucking. For Verhoeven, the first testament of God isn't the Bible, it's the body. Amen.
The Black Plague ravaging the country, afflicting the diseased with black buboes, is an expression, then, of God's work in Man, His love. Just as an ugly breast cancer killing sister Jacopa (Guilaine Londez) is His grace in giving her the suffering through which she might be inspired to more closely live in the imitation of Christ--the better to earn her reward in Heaven, you see. Benedetta's equation of suffering with holiness manifests in an undeveloped sadomasochism wherein she and Bartolomea share some arousal over the self-flagellation of Sister Christina (Louise Chevillotte)--a thread I don't think Verhoeven wants to pull because, at the heart of it, Verhoeven is a hedonist, not a liar. If the theology is half-baked, at least there's Charlotte Rampling's Mother Superior and Abbess of the Convent, a figure of absolute pragmatism who functions as Benedetta's most fascinating figure. She reminds of Maria Falconetti's Joan of Arc: calm in her responses to even the most calamitous affront, logical, devoted to an idea of God she does not see reflected in anyone around her. Not even her daughter, Christina. Rampling's character is magnificent--so much so that when she loses her way and brings the Plague back to the convent, the film loses its way, too. The greatest joke of Benedetta is a closing chyron that suggests Benedetta, for all her obvious lunacy and trickery, was a true prophet with a direct line to the Virgin. Whatever the rockiness of the last stretch of road to get there, Verhoeven's ultimate punchline is that God exists, and They're a huge fan of cumming. Can I get a hallelujah?