Let’s talk about sex, or at least, the Canadian Film Development Corporation brand of sex; this adaptation of Stephen Vizinczey’s bestselling book, now sold as part of the Penguin Modern Classics range, took a whopping $20 million at the box office back in 1978, and yet has been completely forgotten by popular culture to the point where it’s currently sporting a grand total of, em, none critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. The death of Milan Kundera this week put me in mind to take another look at this picaresque series of romantic encounters against a background of the rise of totalitarianism; I was an impressionable 13 when I saw George Kaczender’s film on Channel 4, so what would just a ripe, potentially fetid text mean in the cold light of 2023?
Quite a bit, actually; ‘My life revolves around the women I have loved,’ says András Vayda (Tom Berenger) as he reflects on a series of sexual dalliances, some of which are problematic to our judgemental eyes these days. Separated from his beloved mother and his even more beloved religion during WWII, Vayda starts out pimping out women to GI’s on a military base, and begging for and getting his first sexual encounter with a Countess while still in tender, single figures. Vayda isn’t sure whether to be a ‘missionary or a martyr,’ but when women his own age don’t respond to chat-up lines like ‘Come with me to the casbah.’ Vayda humblebrags his way into the realms of Hungarian and then Canadian literary glitterati. ‘No doubt you’ve read my summary of socialist culture in peace loving nations?’ is the earnest chat that Vayda is keen to avoid, and one way out of being labelled ‘intense and obvious’ is to focus on learning about love with a series of older women.
Back in 1978, exuding sexuality wasn’t something that female performers were encouraged to feel guilty about, and Kaczender’s film has quite a roster of talents; Karen Black, Susan Strasberg, Helen Shaver, Alexandra Stewart and the great Alberta Watson, performing ‘Sailor, sailor, drop your anchor here’ in a knowing way that would make Sally Bowles blush. ‘An honest approach to sex gets you absolutely nowhere,’ says Vayda ruefully as another relationship collapses, but it’s not apparent exactly why he overtly begs every woman he meets for intimacy. Escaping from the Velvet Revolution in Hungary in 1956, Vayda is happy to be recognised as a philosopher, even a ‘Mad Magyar philosopher’; one of his teachers suggests that ‘I thought you Hungarians were real heroes in the battle between the sexes’ to which he evasively replies ‘I’m a pacifist’. ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom!” is Vayda’s own political and personal goal, but the tide of history is running against him and he heads for Montreal to escape violence in Hungary.
‘I would never accept that which the heart rejects,’ suggests an epiphany in Vayda’s life; his bildungsroman progression is presented with hazy sentiment, a ‘fabulous tourist map’ to erotic fulfilment, and it’s probably as well that ‘the adventures of a middle aged man are another story’ since the film’s coda seems to suggest that pursuing younger women would be a natural sequel. Vizinczey’s writing was praised by Graham Greene, not the kind of critic who spits out casual pull-quotes, and the dialogue is often smart ; ‘You’re a philosopher?’ ‘How did you guess?’ ‘Your socks don’t match’. The largely female cast all make something memorable out of well-drawn, salty-with-experience characters, and a pre-stardom Berenger is no slouch either. Yayda is defined by a scene in which he woos a potential mentor by reaching for a Cinzano ashtray while framed by a half crate of champagne bottles at a nightclub booth as violins swoon on the soundtrack. This is a romantic film in an old-fashioned sense, even when this brand of romance is out of fashion; to get to the version I re-watched last night, I had to navigate labels for ‘hot sex’ and ‘granny porn’; we seem to have swapped such honest public confessions from frenetic private vices these days.