Review: Private Vices, Public Virtues

The 1976 film by Miklós Jancsó, Private Vices, Public Virtues, is an under-appreciated gem from one of the most liberated and fruitful decades in the history of cinema.

The film takes place in Central Europe, and centers on the arrogant and free spirited heir to the throne – a young man named Rudolf.

At his beautiful country estate, surrounded by wealth and privilege, Rudolf decides to intentionally create a scandal in order to spite his hypocritical father and shake up the bourgeoisie. He ditches his wife and conspires with two of his best friends – an incestuous brother and sister – and together, they initiate a huge orgy. This isn’t just any orgy, however. It is to be populated with youthful aristocrats, who will proceed to indulge their most carnal desires after drinking champagne laced with hallucinogenic drugs.

Of course, Rudolf’s father catches wind of the sordid activities, and tragedy ensues.

This is the first Jancsó film that I have seen, and I certainly hope that it will not be the last. This is a film about a very specific time and place. The direction is meticulous yet free-flowing. There is an improvisational quality that allows for much fluidity, which gives the film a “you are there” type of feel. The soft lighting is simply gorgeous. The cinematography takes center stage here. It is a beautifully crafted film from the first frame onwards.

Much fuss was made about the admittedly graphic (and at times, unconventional) sexual content in Private Vices, Public Virtues, but it never feels pornographic. There is a definite statement that is being made by way of the nudity and the way in which it is placed on the screen. The trappings of privilege, along with the suffocating hell that is ultra-conservatism, can eventually lead to rebellion and death. That is the message which is conveyed here, and it’s hard to believe that it created such a scandal at the Cannes Film Festival.

For the film buff, this is a film that should not be missed. It’s a masterpiece in its own right, one that should be revisited time and time again.

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