The incomparable Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) shared a birthday with Jesus and was played by John Hurt in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, adapted from Crisp’s memoir of the same name.
The Queen of interwar Old Compton Street, he starred with Helen Mirren, among others, on the London stage before moving to the United States where his dinner parties became legendary. He played Queen Elizabeth I opposite Tilda Swinton in 1992’s Orlando and appeared as a party guest in a scene of the same year’s Philadelphia.
Imperiously disparaging about everything from AIDS (”a fad”) to Princess Diana (”vulgar”), he wrote a classic series of film reviews for Christopher Street magazine,some of which are republished here on Outrate. For more information, please visit the Quentin Crisp website, or purchase the anthology of Quentin Crisp film reviews, “How To Go To The Movies”, here.
Director: Salvatore Samperi
Stars: Martin Halm, Turi Ferro, Michele Placido
Available on DVD - order here
This movie contains the most romantic love scene ever depicted on the screen. It is more poetic than Lord Tennyson’s description of Mr. Lancelot’s adultery with Mrs. Arthur, more lyrical than the duet sung by Lieutenant Pinkerton and Miss Fly, more beautiful than the famous kiss sculpted by Monsieur Rodin.
We watched Ernesto in the very pleasant 8th Street cinema, where some months previously we had seen The Hunger. At that time, the events taking place on the screen did not hold your Mr. Steele’s attention completely. When someone stole his briefcase, he was instantly aware of the theft and rushed in pursuit of the culprit, but during the present film, if anyone had asked him, he says he would have given him the briefcase rather than take his eyes from the picture.
The amorous sequence about which I am rhapsodizing takes place during the first twenty minutes of the film. Both aesthetically and for reasons of realism, this is too soon. The story never again reaches such a high level of intensity. Worse, the speed with which Ernesto and his lover arrange to consumate their desire makes the situation seem slightly facile. The boy is so young that he does not need to shave, while his lover is over thirty; the boy is Jewish, wheras his friend is Italian; the boy is middle class but his friend is a manual laborer. These barriers would not be easy to cross now when all our values have collapsed. Seventy years ago, they would have been impassible.
To some extent, the love scenes depend for their special quality on the photography. The laborer is extremely handsome but does not appear to have been technically idealized by soft-focus lenses and rosy lighting. The incident is also enhanced by the way it is prepared for the screen. The embrace can be seen to be sodomitic but you know what is never shown. However, the essential luminosity of this sequence emanates from the acting of Mr. Placido.
In a sexual encounter, there is a moment, which most people never experience, in which the orgasm is followed by a lull of sad but transcendental peace. It flows out of every pore of the body in a surge of gratitude to the love object. It is this blend of triumphant joy and humility that the actor manages to convey to his audience.
This episode is vastly different from the parallel incident in Querelle. There, the divine Mr. Kaufmann was in no way beholden to Mr. Davis, who, in turn, had no wish to gratify anybody but only to undergo the pain and degradation that to Mr. Genet represented the guilt and atonement with which he was so ludicrously obsessed.
To this extent, Ernesto is more pornographic than Mr. Fassbinder’s work. The Italian picture does try to sell sex to us for more than it can ever be worth. Mr. Samperi can be accused of the same sentimentality that weakens Mr. Forster’s novel Maurice. You cannot go and live forever in an English wood with a gardener (what would your mother say?) and, similarly, there is no such thing as a romantic Italian labourer.
I myself have never visited the Mediterranean but I once had a friend who spent most of his holidays in Sorrento. Concerning the sexual climate of that terrain, he said, The thing about Italy, my dear, is that you can’t make a mistake.” He meant that no advancement made to a native could ever be unwelcome; at worst, it could be inconvenient. I also questioned a woman about her experiences in Rome. On one occasion, she had gone with a flock of tourists to marvel at the interior of a church. When, for a moment, she strayed from her companions, she was approached by a man whom she mistook for a church official. She assumed that he wished to show her a sacred relic and, in a way, he did. To her maidenly protests against his private exhibition, he only replied, “It won’t take long.” This my friend told me was no recommendation. From this assorted information we may conclude that Italy is the land of instant sex - not of the Anglo-Saxon stuff you have to peel and bring to the boil.
Ernesto is also involved in a deeper lie than any arising from mere nationality.
The sexual relationship upon which this film dwells is the initiation of a teenager into sodomy. He is seen to experience discomfort, but this situation is hardly realistic. As every schoolboy knows, the first time he is in this situation, it is like undergoing a colostomy operation without an anesthetic. Even women, when initially subjected to sexual intercourse, have a terrible time. In one of Mr. Cassavete’s movies, a deflowered virgin, lying beside her seducer says, “I never dreamed it could be so awful.”
The happiest moment in any affair takes place after the loved one has learned to accommodate the lover and before the maddening personality of either party has emerged like a jagged rock from the receding tides of lust and curiosity. Even then, for homosexual men complete fulfillment is very rare. Where only sensation and frequency of sensation are the point, monotony rapidly leads to experimental extremes, in the hope that variety of circumstances will add spice to the chore of several orgasms a day, but, in fact, sex at the back of a classroom or in an elevator between the mezzanine and the second floor is more enjoyable in the recounting at parties than at the time when it was experienced. Those who avoid these smash-and-grab raids are really hardly interested in physical sensation at all. They merely long for a Pepsi-Cola model with whom to be seen arriving at or, better still, departing from some fashionable bar.
People are forever objecting to sexual acts between men on the grounds that they are sinful or dirty or anatomically harmful, but the real trouble is that they are contrived. In the early stages of an affair between a man and a woman, it can at least be hoped that their union can be taken for granted - that they can merge in it almost by instinct. This can never be the case for two men; before they get into bed, they must have a board meeting. The soul doesn’t have a chance.
Apart from the great love scene, Ernesto is, I regret to say, an unsatisfactory film because its hero is such a trivial creature. He is a middle-class Jewish teenager employed (more out of pity for his mother than for his usefulness) to supervise the piecework of his boss’s carters. He is lazy and impertinent to his benefactors, nags his mother for money and, worst of all, is capricious with the adorable Mr. Placido.
He spends the traditional afternoon with a prostitute who refuses to accept all the money he offers her (how golden-hearted can you get?) ad finally becomes betrothed to a girl when it really her brother that he fancies. At the end of this sordid tale, we leave him socially elevated, financially secure, and invincibly smug.
As this movie is called Ernesto, we do not really have the right to expect anything but what we are given. The picture is consistently well acted, beautifully photographed in the green-gold light of a painting by Mr. Vermeer and attractively costumed in the period of 1910. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help longing for the narrative to not be about a young bourgeois’s ignoble dash for cover but about a bautiful Italian workman’s broken heart. Because I was brought up on film’s featuring Monsieur Gabin, there were times when I thought the lover might stab his little friend. I would have liked that.
Quite often, when reviewing movies, I have found that apparently my heart was not in the right place and I have known at least one other person who suffered from the same feeling of displacement. I took him to see King Kong (the first time round). During a dramatic episode in which a certain Miss Wray lay gibbering across Mr. Kong’s wrist, my friend, in a voice shrill with irritation, cried out, “I can’t think what he sees in her.”
Quentin Crisp’s erudite movie reviews were originally published in Christopher Street magazine then presented in a now out-of-print anthology titled “How To Go To The Movies” that was published in 1988 by St. Martin’s Press (purchase a copy here).
His reviews of gay-themed films are reprinted here on Outrate in the hope that they may be shared with a new audience. Every effort has been made to contact the relevant publishers and copyright stakeholders.