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.

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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.