The make-or-break sequence is the terrazzo dinner by candlelight between Elizabeth Taylor's Sissy Goforth and NoŽl Coward's Witch of Capri -- you either dub Taylor's medusa-chandelier headwear "camp" and call it a day (God knows, the critics did), or you suddenly understand the rich humor of a Zeami piece played by exiles on a windswept, Mediterranean rock. Before that, Joseph Losey turns a Panavision sprawl of the tumultuous beachfront into a sliver in the darkness by tracking backwards, locating the island's tantrumy queen, a widow six times over, on her belly grasping for injections. Her villa is one monstrous object d'art, with caged bird, pet monkey, sitar players and Easter Island heads lining the cliff; she coughs up blood and bellows at the Italian servants, Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus) is there to take dictation for the choleric Camille's memoirs ("I want to start this chapter on a more serious note: The Meaning of Life"). Il Angelo Della Morte (Richard Burton) is a poet and "professional houseguest," welcomed by the hounds unleashed by the heroine's dwarf bodyguard (Michael Dunn). The stranger is given samurai robes and sword and a roster of dead rich ladies in his black book, he's "a man who has lost many friends." The basis is Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, but it could also be Last Year at Marienbad or Poe's The Masque of Red Death, Pasolini shot Teorema around the same time. Burton gives Coleridge's Kubla Khan the full sonorousness it deserves, "Whaaat?" is his paramour's honking reply -- the deterioration of art and relationships is played to the hilt by a grand troupe of comedians (Taylor's performance in particular is extraordinary in its anticipation of Divine and Charles Ludlam), Losey frames the folia exquisitely and wonders how the hell we came to this. A brilliant film, or rather a brilliant "sen-sation," by erudite artists who heed the Witch of Capri's warning about "jokes taken too seriously." Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe.
--- Fernando F. Croce