Anyone who is a fan of Italian giallos, European art house fare and off the grid cult films is familiar with actress Mimsy Farmer. She left Hollywood in the late sixties after her “youth exploitation” days with American International Pictures in such films as Hot Rods to Hell and Riot on Sunset Strip. Relocating to Europe, she pursued film roles there for the remainder of her career. As an actress she was rarely drawn to mainstream commercial projects and a sampling of her eclectic filmography includes such diverse titles as Barbet Schroeder’s drug addiction opus, More (1969), George Lautner’s erotic melodrama Road to Salina (1970), Dario Argento’s 1972 murder mystery Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Taviani Brothers’ critically acclaimed Allonsanfan (1974) and Serge Leroy’s survivalist thriller, La Traque (1975). But one of her most obscure and unusual roles is Fabio Carpi’s Corpo d’amore (aka Body of Love, 1972).
Farmer has certainly carved out a niche for herself as a screen heroine who can be alternately vulnerable, adventurous, seductive and sometimes mentally unstable. Corpo d’amore, however, requires something different from Farmer which is not so much a performance as the personification of a romantic ideal for the two male protagonists, both of whom are named Giacomo.
Here is the setup: A professor/professional lepidopterist (one who studies butterflies) rents a villa at an remote beach resort to spend some time with his fifteen year old son whom he rarely sees. It soon becomes obvious that the pair are completely incompatible. Neither knows how to communicate with the other and part of the problem is that the father (Francois Simon) has spent most of his life absorbed in his work while his son (Giovanni Rosselli) has been farmed out to boarding schools (no mention is every made of the mother). Opting to end their vacation instead of trying to resolve their differences, they prepare to leave but stumble upon an unconscious woman (Mimsy Farmer) on the beach.
They debate over contacting the police and then decide to take the woman back to their villa so they can monitor her condition and nurse her to health. In time the woman (who is never identified by name) recovers but she speaks in a strange dialect that can’t be understood. Despite this, both father and son develop an obsession with the woman and agree to split their time with her; the son will take the “day shift” while the father claims the “night shift.” At first a rivalry develops between the two males but then they decide to work as a team with the son observing, “Together we make a normal man.” What transpires does not degenerate into a heated melodrama or a softcore menage a trois sex farce or anything approaching a conventional mainstream narrative. [Spoiler alert] There is a premeditated murder in the third act involving a stranger (Lino Capolicchio) who mysteriously turns up and can speak to Farmer in her own language but the crime is deliberately underplayed with little fanfare and is more about the murderers’ silent bond than the deed.
The bare bones premise of Corpo d’amore is simply a framework for director Fabio Carpi (who co-wrote the screenplay with Luigi Malaria) to explore several philosophical conceits such as man’s tendency to perceive women primarily as objects of desire and the latent competition under every father-son relationship. The movie, in other words, is European art house fare and not a genre film. It is primarily a cerebral experience where we are privy to the private thoughts of both Giacomos but the woman remains a mystery, an enigma. Is she suicidal? Is she playing a game? Why does she stay with them when she is free to go? The film’s ambiguous ending doesn’t answer any of these questions but it does suggest that father and son are both mirror reflections of each other at different stages in their life and that they actually do function better as one entity. Toward the end, the son says to his father, “We don’t even need to talk. We’re like two termites communicating telepathically.”
Language and communication between human beings is indeed one of the movie’s central themes and it is best expressed in one scene where the older Giacomo feels free to unburden himself with Farmer because she can’t understand anything he tells her. “It can be an advantage not speaking the same language, not understanding each other,” he says. “You avoid justifications, gloomy confessions, the pitfall of regret. Besides, words are only used to fill up the silence, the fear of silence and all our other fears. We talk when we’re not really living.”
It is easy to see why Corpo d’amore didn’t attract much attention outside of Europe or receive a distribution deal in the U.S. because it is too slowly paced and verbose for audiences expecting a more exploitable Farmer film like Autopsy (1975) or The Black Cat (1981). The film abounds in cinematic metaphors and is closer in tone to something like Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991) or Luis Bunuel’s Tristana (1970). The closest equivalent in American cinema would be something like Robert Altman’s dreamlike 3 Women (1977) or Frank Perry’s allegorical The Swimmer (1968), and neither of those films were successful with audiences despite some rave reviews from nationally renowned critics.
Still, Corpo d’amore is well worth seeking out for any Mimsy Farmer fan and for those who enjoy experimental, non-traditional character studies. For one thing, Farmer has rarely looked more beautiful or alluring (the stunning cinematography is by Vittorio Storaro who lensed Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor) and she lends an unexpected ethereal quality to her character that makes you wonder if she is real or an apparition. The film’s hypnotic, dreamlike mood is further enhanced by a non-obtrusive but hauntingly effective film score that samples Bach, Paganini and Zamfir. And the pristine desert island setting serves as the perfect fantasy playground for the film’s trio. No other people appear in the film until the 45 minute mark when the father takes Farmer to dinner at a seaside restaurant.
Farmer’s role in the film is pure fantasy, an idealized projection of the desires of the two Giacomos, and unlike anything she’s ever done before or since. Her own thoughts on Corpo d’amore were revealed in an interview in Video Watchdog: “The director, Fabio Carpi, was from Milano. He was an intellectual, a writer, and it’s a very intellectual movie, which means, you know…who understands it? [laughs] I guess you get the idea that he was talking about a generation gap….What’s wonderful about that movie is the photography; it’s really beautiful…Nothing happens in it, but it’s pretty to look at!”
Director Carpi has garnered many film festival honors over the years but he reminds relatively unknown on these shores. He has been much more active as a screenwriter than director, scripting more commercials offerings like Bandits in Rome (1968) starring John Cassavetes and Il Giorno del Cobra (1980), both in the Italian crime drama genre known as poliziotteschi. Of the twelve films and TV movies Carpi has directed, he is probably best known for Il Quartetto Basileus (aka The Basileus Quartet, 1983), which was a modest art house hit in the U.S. and was selected as 1984’s most foreign film by the National Board of Review.
Corpo d’amore is currently not available as a domestic release in the U.S. but you can find an Italian import version of it through Amazon or other sellers (but you’ll need an all region DVD player to view it). The version I saw was a DVD-R from European Trash Cinema and the quality was quite good (it’s in Italian with English subtitles) so that is another option for Mimsy Farmer completists.
Here is some intriguing behind the scenes footage of the making of Corpo d’amore –