In the late sixties there were a number of sun-drenched erotic romps from Italy filmed in picturesque settings around the Mediterranean such as Giuliano Biagetti’s Interrabang (1969) and Ottavio Alessi’s Top Sensation aka The Seducers (1969). Most of these promised and delivered sexy scenarios with abundant nudity (primarily female), murder and risqué situations for the sexploitation crowd. The Sex of Angels (Italian title: Il Sesso degli Angeli, 1968) comes on like the ultimate softcore fantasy but turns out to be a complete tease. In fact, unlike others of its ilk, The Sex of Angels is actually a morality tale about the consequences of hedonism as well as a critique of the free love generation.
This doesn’t make the film, which is directed and co-written by Ugo Liberatore, any less enjoyable but it does position it as a more serious endeavor, which is more in line with Barbet Schroeder’s More (1969), a decadent heroin addict romance set on the isle of Ibiza. The Sex of Angels may lack that film’s critical cachet but it still presents an intriguing portrait of white privilege, conspicuous wealth and moral ambiguity.
It all begins with Carla (Laura Troschel), who welcomes her two friends Nancy (Rosemary Dexter) and Nora (Doris Kunstmann), to her father’s sprawling villa on the coast near Venice. The plan is to take her father’s yacht (without his permission) and head for the Dalmatian coast of Croatia where they plan to party in style. When Carla’s boyfriend refuses to join the trio, Carla comes up with an alternate scheme. They will find a desirable male, kidnap him and share him as a lover over their weekend getaway.
At an outdoor dance club, the trio find their ideal boy toy in Marco (Bernard De Vries), a handsome medical student who is intrigued by Nancy’s seductive come-on. Despite the fact that Marco has a girlfriend, he agrees to meet Nancy the following day at a hidden cove for some skindiving. The ruse works and soon Marco is surprised and delighted to be shanghaied by three gorgeous women.
The fun and games quickly enter unchartered territory when Carla reveals their hidden agenda – to drop acid. To top it off, they plan to capture their experiences on a tape recorder and replay them later. [Spoiler alert] The group acid trip happens off-camera but we see the aftermath and Marco has a bullet hole near his abdomen with no memory of what happened. As he becomes weaker and weaker from his injury, the girls argue over what to do, fearing they could be blamed and arrested for the shooting. Will they rush Marco to a hospital or try to treat his injury on their own?
In one of the more surprising segments, Carla and Nancy offer themselves to a pharmacist in a port town in exchange for morphine for Marco. He refuses and says he gets plenty of sex from female tourists but he changes his mind when Nora, the virgin in the group (really?), agrees to seal the deal with the sleazeball.
You can probably tell where all of this is headed and it’s not in the fuzzy feel-good category. It’s true that none of the characters are particularly sympathetic or even likable but that doesn’t mean they are without interest. The often mysterious and unpredictable behavior of the three women keeps you engaged and asking questions. Why are they friends? They don’t seem to actually like each other. And what would have happened if Carla had brought along her fiance instead?
Marco is something of an enigma too. Why would he abandon his girlfriend to go off with three strange women? On first impressions, he comes across as an arrogant, self-absorbed male chauvinist, whose behavior is comparable to a teenager, not a college student. A typical example of his interactions with the trio are comments like “I always wanted to be a pasha with a small harem” or this exchange when he sees Nora sunbathing topless on the yacht deck.
Marco: I like my breasts well done.
Carla: For what purpose?
Marco: Like me to show you?
This is the typical of his response to everything, a kind of sexual bravado that comes off as infantile.
Another off-kilter element: the dynamic between the three women is often tense and competitive with Carla as the designated group leader. She is a spoiled, unsatisfied rich girl whose attempts to provoke others is often pretentious and laughable. Take, for example, her announcement to Marco that she prefers to have a black lover instead of him.
Carla: You’re shocked, aren’t you? That’s why it must be a Negro so everybody will be [shocked]!
Marco: I’m not shocked. My girlfriend’s a mulatto. If I worked on my suntan, would my chances be any better?
Political correctness doesn’t exist in the world of The Sex of Angels and some of the plot turns are ridiculous cliches such as making a big issue of Nora’s virginity. Equally absurd is Nancy’s slow emergence as a lesbian which is triggered by the LSD and ends in a sexual liaison with Nora. Of course, this is sexploitation filtered through the male gaze and all of this is orchestrated by director/co-screenwriter Ugo Liberatore, who was close to 42 years old when he made this (he was born in 1944). He was definitely not of the same generation as his young, twenty-something cast members.
If you view The Sex of Angels as Liberatore’s attack on the amorality of Italy’s youth, it becomes much more intriguing exploitation fare which mirrors the fears and prejudices of an older generation. Of course, it is one thing to condemn sociopathic behavior while exploiting it with plenty of topless female nudity but that is what makes this an enjoyable trashy B-movie entertainment. (The film is surprisingly discreet when it comes to sexual encounters or violence so enthusiasts of stronger stuff should look elsewhere.).
The film is also refreshing in the sense that the female protagonists are in control and calling the shots. Even if they are essentially bad girls, their pleasure-seeking exploits are preferable to so many genre films where men capture, torment and kill women. Think of The Sex of Angels as a gender twist on The Collector (1965) in which a butterfly expert (Terence Stamp) kidnaps and imprisons a beautiful art student (Samantha Egger) in his basement.
The film also shares some similarities to another 1968 film, Three in the Attic. In that film, a college Casanova (Christopher Jones) juggles three girlfriends at the same time but when they find out, they take their revenge by holding him captive and forcing him to have non-stop sex until he is physically spent.
But Three in the Attic was a comedy and The Sex of Angels is a quasi-thriller. What makes the latter work so well is that the star trio are served up as gorgeous eye-candy plus all three actresses possess enormous sex appeal and distinctive screen personas. The English-dubbed dialogue rarely adds any complexity to their characters but Laura Troschel, Rosemary Dexter and Doris Kunstmann reveal much more through physical gestures and facial expressions which mirror genuine anxiety, desire and guilt. It becomes a much richer film in your imagination than what plays out on the screen but the possibilities are there and it could be fine-tuned for a riveting remake.
As for Bernard De Vries, he is just as attractive as his co-stars with his dark blonde hair, blue eyes and sinewy physique. He shares some physical similarities to Viggo Mortensen and 60s matinee idol John Philip Law (Barbarella), who made his share of Italian genre films like Danger: Diabolik (1968) and A Whisper in the Dark (1975). Even if his character is a bit of a clueless stud, De Vries does manage to garner some sympathy as he is subjected to a slow, agonizing death. Prior to that, his masculinity is also challenged in subtle ways (the girls give him a woman’s bathrobe to wear and later a fur jacket).
The Sex of Angels marked Ugo Liberatore’s film debut as director but he had been working in Italian cinema since the early sixties as a screenwriter, collaborating with Mauro Bolognini (La Corruzione, 1963), Damiano Damiani (The Witch, 1966), and other renowned directors. He also co-wrote some iconic Steve Reeves sword and sandal epics (The Trojan Horse, The Avenger) as well as spaghetti westerns (The Tramplers, The Hellbenders). His directorial output was sparse in comparison – only seven features – but probably the best-known of the lot is May Morning (1970) starring Jane Birkin and Alessio Orano as an ill-fated, much harassed student at Oxford University, and Bali (Italian title: Incontro d’amore, 1970), an erotic melodrama about marital infidelity starring John Steiner and Laura Antonelli.
Of the three actresses in The Sex of Angels, Rosemary Dexter is probably best known to Italian genre fans. Born in Pakistan, the lovely brunette actress entered films in minor supporting roles (Casanova 70, Jess Franco’s Justine) before graduating to female leads in films like Come Together (1971), a menage-a-trois road trip drama, and the giallo, Eye in the Labyrinth (1972).
Lesser known is German actress Doris Kunstmann, who has enjoyed a long, prolific career in German television although she has had some relatively high-profile roles, most notably the giallo Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973), Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), in which she played Eva Braun to Alec Guinness’s Fuhrer, and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997).
The real standout among the trio, however, is Laura Troschel, who makes a convincing, cold-blooded blonde villainess. She has a tough, commanding demeanor but is also sensual, much like the British actress Shirley Eaton in her two dominatrix fantasies, The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967) and The Girl from Rio (1969). Also known as Costanza Spada, Troschel’s film and TV work has been relatively undistinguished but the Italian actress’s filmography does include supporting roles in Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s La Gabbia (1985), a tale of obsessive love.
The other major assets of The Sex of Angels are the stunning locations along the Adriatic coast, the cinematography by Leonida Barboni and a music score by Giovanni Fusco. Barboni collaborated often with Pietro Germi on some of his best films like The Facts of Murder (1959) and Divorce Italian Style (1961). He also shot Mario Monicelli’s The Passionate Thief (1960) with Anna Magnani, The Hunchback of Rome aka Il Gobbo (1960) with Gerard Blain as a resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Rome, and the lavish biopic El Greco (1966) starring Mel Ferrer.
Giovanni Fusco, a composer who worked on both art films and genre exercises, provides the perfect musical accompaniment to Liberatore’s erotic morality tale, one that mixes seductive melodies similar to Nelson Riddle’s score for Lolita (1962) with brooding mood music. I especially love the fact that Fusco would score low-budget actioners (Black Devils of Kali,1954) and peplum epics (Sandokan the Great, 1963) and then turn around and provide the music for most of Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpieces (Le Amiche, L’avventura, L’Eclisse, Red Desert) as well as two classics by Alain Resnais, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and The War is Over (French title, La Guerre est Finie, 1966).
The one question that remains about The Sex of Angels is the final scene. In the English-dubbed version I saw from European Trash Cinema (a fair to middling DVD-R transfer in an incorrect screen format, the original film was released in Techniscope), Nora rushes to the end of a pier, stares into the distance and then disappears. Did she jump in the water and drown? Perhaps the European cut is different. What complicates matters is the description in the massive tome, AFI Feature Films 1961-1970. The final part of the synopsis states, “Nora and Nancy coldly dispose of the body and once back in the resort of Caorle go ashore as if nothing has happened. Carla, realizing she was in love with Marco, rushes to the sea and waits to be swept away by the waves.” Huh? Either the writer got Nora confused with Carla or there is a drastically different version of The Sex of Angels out there.
Believe it or not, The Sex of Angels was actually released in the U.S. by United Artists in specific markets and then disappeared completely. UA also released several other international productions that year but they were all more reputable like Ingmar Bergman’s Shame and Claude Lelouch’s Life, Love, Death. Howard Thompson of The New York Times delivered a scathing review of The Sex of Angels, writing “To call this film tripe would be dignifying it, although it opened yesterday at not one but two showcases, the DeMille and the 86th Street East. Apparently Ugo Liberatore, who wrote and directed this English-language import, thought he was conveying the spirit of rebellious youth. It is a shuddersome thought that this foul-mouthed, unfeeling, flint-souled quartet of young people might typify anyone anywhere. The leading characters are Doris Kunstmann, Rosemarie Dexter, Laura Troschel and Bernard De Vries. Physically, they are almost as attractive as the radiant scenery, in good color, that they ignore. But should Mr. Liberatore ever propose another such movie, they would do well to run.” One wonders why Thompson even bothered to review it because he comes off like a pedantic prude but for a sexploitation flick from Italy in 1968, you could do a lot worse than.
There is no current DVD/Blu-ray distributor for The Sex of Angels in the U.S. but this is a film that deserves to be remastered by Cult Epics, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin Films or some other cult distributor for a future Blu-ray release.
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