Private Goes Public in Miklós Janscó's 'Private Vices, Public Virtues'

by Imran Khan

14 November 2016

With this highly contentious erotic drama, Miklós Janscó fashions a most insular story of sexual freedom with an impenitent degree of self-indulgence.
cover art

Private Vices, Public Virtues

Director: Miklós Janscó
Cast: Lajos Balázsovits, Franco Branciaroli

US DVD: 8 Nov 2016

Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó’s odd, little-seen erotic drama Private Vices, Public Virtues (sometimes translated as Private Vices, Public Pleasures) proves an infuriating watch. Jancsó, a controversial filmmaker who was a regular nominee at the Cannes Film Festival throughout the better part of the ‘70s, fashions a most insular story here with an impenitent degree of self-indulgence.

A sexual libertine named Rudolf spends his days wastefully indulging in his most base desires on his sprawling lush estate, filled with young nubile and nude women and a plethora of randy, nude men. Rudolf’s sense of entitlement allows him to carry on heedlessly with his sensual exploits, much to the chagrin of his father, a fascist emperor whom Rudolf despises. Along with his half-brother and half-sister, he wreaks havoc upon the inhabitants of the estate, proclaiming free love and partaking in extremely open sex with a number of women at any number of times.

His father, who has heard about his son’s deviances and is none too impressed, rounds up an army of troopers to storm the estate and bring his reckless son to his senses. But Rudolph wants none of the political and social responsibilities that go with an aristocratic life—only the generous pleasures. When word gets out that the Emperor has become excessively angry with the irresponsible and careless display of debauchery (which threatens the family’s good name), Rudolph, his brother and his sister devise a nefarious scheme to embarrass the emperor and the rest of the ruling class, thereby shaming them out of power.

Private Vices, Public Virtues, a film in which a parade of nude men and women march through the scenery like a constantly turning scrim, set audiences and critics on edge when it was screened back in 1976. The film is meant to be a cautionary tale of political inversion, given a profoundly erotic treatment. The criticism of bureaucracy that the film slyly espouses, however, is highly obscured by matters of the flesh. Despite Jancsó’s insistence that there’s more to the sexual shenanigans present in the film, the carnal exploits are far too much of a distraction to believe otherwise.

Indeed, Jancsó was a craftily inventive filmmaker, who clearly took his cues from other similarly controversial directors like Walerian Borowczyk and Alain Robbe-Grillet. His work often explored deeply—with adroit fashion—the sexual proclivities of those in power and the resultant demolishing of political and religious faith (his Palme d’Or nominated Red Psalm is an excellent example). But here, those ideas are delivered superfluously, the designs never layered with meaningful content to provide the viewer with any emotional contact. Instead, Janscó practices an almost nihilistic form of erotic engagement; one that requires a kind of patience that would test an audience to insufferable limits. His aestheticism is always on-point (he envelopes the viewer in visuals framed like the Dionysian paintings by Lorenzo Costa), but his narrative structure hangs loose from the get-go, only to fall apart completely halfway.

What we are then subjected to is a pooling of mass images, where bodies are piled upon bodies and the vigour of sex and madness swells into uncontrollable hysteria. Commendably, Janscó doesn’t flinch away from such preoccupations, his intent surely to disarm the viewer of any chance to logically decode the image-saturation on display, but too often, the ramped-up anarchy is tiresome and silly. In one of the most intolerable moments of the film, we witness a series of sexual indoctrinations accompanied by a hideously off-key rendition of “Baa-Baa Black Sheep”. Neither funny nor clever, the scene sits pretentiously among the surrounding bravura as a childish appropriation of what both Robbe-Grillet and Borowczyk had managed to do far more successfully in their designs of erotic cinema. Janscó will always remain one of Hungary’s most candid and fearless provocateurs of film, but Private Vices, Public Virtues isn’t the best of introductions to his unusual and often divisive talents.

Mondo Macabro offers a transfer that is fully flush with vibrant colour. For the most part, the images are clean and clear and only in a few scenes do the saturations of film grain overtake more than they should. The film is dubbed in English (with the actors originally having spoken in Hungarian). Normally, dubbed films present a problem in that the dialogue is often stilted when translated into English, but here the dubbing is done rather well and not at all too distracting. The soundtrack comes through nicely, as well, with no distortion.

Mondo Macabro also delivers a healthy amount of supplements. There are three interviews presented here: one with the writer of the film, another with a leading actress in the film and one with a film historian. Each interview subject describes the significance of the film, the way they see it and provide many insights into the film that were undoubtedly overlooked, considering how the film was routinely dismissed by vast majority. A trailer for the film is also included. Rounding out the package is a 12-page booklet featuring an essay which details the controversies and difficulties the film faced with audiences and critics at the time of its release.

Mondo Macabro really went all out for those who are ardent fans of this film and Janscó’s work. This limited edition blu-ray release is packaged with a handsome slipcover featuring a groovy ‘70s take on Dionysian-esque paintings, kitschy, pulpy and gaudy—much like the film itself.

Private Vices, Public Virtues


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