Hungarian Director Miklos Janczo was famous for a style of filmmaking he called the “political musical.” This referred to his habit of mixing political commentary, period/culture-specific song and dance and sumptuous camerawork often built on long takes.
Private Vices, Public Virtues is a Janczo film from 1976 that finds him pushing this style to its extremes as he offers his own barbed interpretation of an infamous historical turning point. The springboard for its storyline is the Mayerling Incident, a the mysterious death of a Hungarian prince and his mistress that destablized European politics and set the stage for the incidents that would spark the first World War.
The protagonist is Crown Prince Rudolf (Lajos Balazsovits), a rebellious scion who lives a debauched, insular existence on his private estate with his lovers and accomplices. He decides to scandalize his father The King by holding an orgy-like party with the help of traveling circus that includes his new mistress, Mary (Teresa Ann Savoy). The scandalous results push the Crown Prince headlong towards a tragic fate.
Private Vices, Public Virtues is as much an experience as it is a narrative. Janczo’s approach both as writer and director is to submerge the audience in sensual, slow-moving spectacle as the audience follows the Crown Prince through his haze of childlike games, non-stop sex and lavish partying. Plot is reduced to a narcotized trickle that flows along in the background and characterization is primarily experienced through voyeuristic depiction of the characters’ vices or reaction to the vices of others.
If this sounds self-indulgent, it is – but it’s also not a flaw. This is Janczo’s deliberate design: he takes this approach to capture the carnal, drugged-out malaise of an empire on the verge of crumbling. His roving camera, ably helmed by Tomislav Pinter, brings beauty and choreography to even the most aimless ramblings of the heroes and the lavish score by Francesco De Masi captures the emptiness of the pomp and circumstance that defines the Crown Prince’s lordly alienation.
The spell of the world is brought to life in a convincing manner by a brave cast that commits to the debauched style. Balazsovits and most of the supporting cast spend a lot of time romping around half or completely nude and indulge in all manner of kinky games that generate the film’s mood of lazy-lidded eroticism. Euro-sleaze fans will be interested to see Savoy, who is every bit as uninhibited here as she is in her better-known Tinto Brass films Salon Kitty and Caligula. Without getting into spoilers, she also displays a unique attribute here you won’t see in her other work.
More importantly, Private Vices, Public Virtues makes it clear that the endless pursuit of rebellion the protagonists enjoy is alluring at first but ultimately numbing and self-defeating. By allowing the audience to experience that curve in perception, Janczo suggests that the hero and his court have reason to be defiant but they are also caught up in a form of rebellion that has no point. More importantly, the extremity of their hedonism makes them blind to the dark fate they are tempting, one that is much closer than they believe. When the bleak end arrives, Janczo doesn’t cop out on showing the grim price of their self-deception.
Thus, it is safe to say that Private Vices, Public Virtues is for a select audience but those who can get into its decadent, deliberately-paced rhythms will discover that it has more to offer than just bare flesh. Political commentary is rarely this alluring.