The Borgias are having an orgy
Old master Abel Gance directed this juicy potboiler of family values run amok as a frankly commercial job to put baguettes on the table. A pioneer of montage, the always vigorous Gance had a special genius for depicting the sweep of history, but this bodice-ripper (released in 1935) did not have the budget to rival the monumental scale of his 1927 Napoléon. In fact, until its release by Image, this movie was barely seen in the United States: its scandalous scenes were whispered about and production stills surfaced in surveys of sex in the cinema, but this re-release is unlikely to enflame modern viewers.
Loosely framed around Machiavelli writing The Prince, the film immediately gets down to business with Cesare Borgia: this hulking lug literally rips bodices, wipes his greasy hands on his (equally greasy) hair, and stages impromptu orgies. As played by Gabriel Gabrio (who was Jean Valjean in a 1925 film), the character is virile, to put it mildly: lest we doubt it, Gance shows him waking up with four women in his bed. But it’s not all fun and games: Cesare also attempts to pull out a prisoner’s tongue, uses an unsuspecting old servant to test out a new poison (before administering it to a cardinal), and orders up assorted stranglings. As Gance presents him, Cesare operates from animal cunning: every new scheme seems to register on Gabrio’s face like a light bulb turning on. Strategy is not his strong point, which is why he keeps Machiavelli around.
To balance the strenuously carnal Cesare, Lucrezia is played by the glamorous Edwige Feuillère, elegant to her fingertips, even when topless in the Borgia backyard pool, then emerging to display her full monty, more or less. This is Lucrezia without poison rings: more sinned against, though decidedly sinning as well. She manages a stint in a convent while juggling various lovers and outliving several husbands, but she really wants to settle down. She ends up as a patroness of the arts because she enjoys posing for a nude statue (and seducing the sculptor).
The obstacle to Cesare’s political rise is their elder brother, who keeps an eye out for handsome valets while admiring the family brocades. The father cannot keep his offspring in line because he is too busy being Pope Alexander VI; in this role, Roger Karl radiates gravity but suggests a ham struggling to underplay. Gance pointedly shows this pope’s warring allegiances in a scene where Alexander changes out of his battlefield armor into his papal robes. However, the Borgia fruit has not fallen far from the tree: the pope also oversees the torture with red-hot pincers of a murder witness, urging him to “speak, son of a bitch!”
Also ending badly is Savonarola, played with fiery purity by Antonin Artaud, who denounces the pope before the court, and thus ends up at the stake (like Falconetti’s Joan of Arc, whom Artaud had recently defended in Dreyer’s classic).
The rest is plot/counterplot, as the rival Sforzas plot to seduce Lucrezia, and political marriages ensue. Though character development is at a minimum, the pleasure for the audience lies in discovering the extent and details of the Borgias’ villainy. Not idealized history, this film is a long way from Hollywood’s typical groveling when dealing with royalty.
Unlike Richard Oswald’s 1923 Lucrezia Borgia, which features spectacular battle sequences of attacking war wagons and catapulting fireballs, Gance’s budget apparently did not accommodate warfare. Still, he manages an impressive crane shot up the palace stairs and fills some elaborate sets with occasional pageantry (though Henry King’s Prince of Foxes uses authentic locations that look considerably more ornate).
Ultimately, the film stumbles to an unsatisfying resolution, with major developments rushed through offscreen, as if the producers ran out of money and the director had only a day or two to wrap it all up. However, these Borgias of the boulevards deserve their renaissance in film history, if not literal history.
The DVD also includes two rare shorts that better reflect Gance’s avant-garde credentials through his experiments with montage and distorted images: “Au Secours!” from 1923 (31 minutes) and “La Folie du Docteur Tube” from 1916 (14 minutes), the latter being an outright comedy (about sneezing powder!) from this usually intense director.