The 1960’s found mainstream cinema was ready to deal with the topic of S&M. As was often the case during this decade, European filmmakers led the charge in figuring how to handle such adult material in an artful style: films like Belle De Jour and Venus In Furs provide artful examples of this trend. The Slave is one of the lesser-known examples but is no less worthy than the aforementioned titles. In fact, it offers an ambitious and unique take on the subject of S&M that helps it stand apart from its competitors.
The Slave was adapted by Fellini collaborators Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi from Check To The Queen, a popular Italian novel written by Renato Ghiotti. The storyline follows Silvia (Haydee Politoff), a wealthy housewife who deals with her husband’s extended business trip by accepting a job with jet-set model Margaret (Rosanna Schiaffino). The job is no typical gig: Margaret basically wants a human plaything that will do her bidding without question. Silvia already harbors unusual fantasies about lesbian domination and she enters into the relationship with a fervor that surprises both herself and Margaret.
The Slave is steeped in the kind of casual decadence that defines erotic-themed Italian films of this era. Much of the film takes place in a lavishly decorated mansion, characters swan about in haute couture and the eroticism is of the cool variety where sexual encounters are interspersed with philosophical exchanges about the nature of desire. Director Pasquale Festa Campanile, best known to American viewers for the disturbing thriller Hitch Hike, gives the material an elegant treatment, using Roberto Gerardi’s ‘scope-format photography to caress the elegant surroundings and topping it off with a plush Euro-lounge score from Piero Piccioni.
However, the element of The Slave that truly distinguishes it from the rest of ’60s European S&M films is its ambivalent attitude towards its subject matter. While Campanile has no problem capturing the fantasy element of S&M on screen – Silvia’s sexual fantasies are filmed in a playful, lysergic style – he’s more interested in flouting the audience’s expectations about where these kinds of adventures lead. Unlike a lot of S&M films, there is no turning of the tables between master and slave or settling into a odd yet familiar sadist/masochist domesticity. Without getting to heavily into spoilers, the third act of The Slave suggests that fantasies aren’t meant to come true and self-knowledge is as important as acting on one’s desires.
This ambitious take on the subject works partly because the gutsy script and Campanile’s savvy direction but what truly makes the ideas connect are the lead’s performances. Schiaffino starts out in brash, gleeful “bad girl” mode but adds interesting shadings as she goes along, making us realize her character might have unlikeable elements yet deserves a certain respect because she knows exactly who she is and is unfailingly honest about it. Politoff offers an counterweight to Schaffino’s work, creating an internalized performance where she uses her passive nature and vacant gaze to manipulate others. On a side note, Italian exploitation fans will also be happy to see an early performance from Gabriele Tinti as a randy actor who works with Margaret.
To sum up, The Slave conveys the allure of its S&M theme nicely but makes itself more interesting by offering how challenging it can be to apply such fantasy-inspired sexual concepts to real life. As such, it’s worthy of study for any students of erotic cinema’s development during the ’60s.