Missed opportunities are practically all that remain in helmer John Irvin’s bland reduction of a 19th century novella steeped in psycho-sexual undercurrents, “The Fine Art of Love — Mine Ha-Ha.” Rather than honing in on decadent elements informed by Sade and Freud, Irvin neuters the metaphors as well as the guilty attraction of titillation, leaving an unexciting Gothic-inflected tale of trapped girls on the brink of womanhood in a harsh boarding school. Even the bad dubbing could be forgiven if Irvin understood his material. Box office may start respectably, but won’t be sustainable.
Nearly 20 years ago, the late scripter Alberto Lattuada wrote a treatment based on Symbolist author Frank Wedekind’s rich distillation of the fin-de-siecle burgeoning understanding of psychology, decadence and the power of sexuality. Actress/producer Ida Di Benedetto resurrected the screenplay a few years ago, brought Irvin on board and hired more writers to tweak the material. The results don’t remotely approach the mysterious hothouse quality of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s pic “Innocence,” adapted from the same material, which preemed at Toronto last year.
In an unspecified Central European locale (shot in the Czech Republic), a headmistress (Jacqueline Bisset) runs a vast girls’ school whose students arrive as infants and never seem to leave. Mostly unwanted babies, they’re trained to be ballet dancers — delectable treats for the prince (Urbano Barberini) and his lusty courtiers. A thunderstorm, replete with panting, over-excited pubescent girls, is the overdone symbol of their sudden sexual awakening.
Hidalla (Mary Nighy) and Irene (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) join mischievous Vera (Natalia Tena) in entering the locked library, where they discover a hidden chamber containing the details of their pedigrees. Vera gets locked in, and Bisset’s cruel punishment leads to tragedy.
Inspector Gruber (Enrico Lo Verso) makes enquiries, but he’s quickly transferred by the powerful men protecting the school. Meanwhile, Bisset is clinging to her position in a jealous rivalry with Lady Helena (Galatea Ranzi), although what advantage the latter would attain by taking the helm of this prison-like environment is never clear.
Subtlety is not Irvin’s strong suit, but neither is an understanding of how to use the text’s rich symbolism to further a commentary on sexual desire and suppressed freedom. In a scene that could have been reminiscent of “Salo,” an elderly female aristocrat touches two of the undressed girls, but the montage fails to make any extra-textual comment. Add to that such Gothic elements as a couple of lascivious lesbian servants, and the poignancy of “Maedchen in Uniform” appears increasingly affecting.
Performances tend toward the bright-eyed and giggly, almost a parody of itself, with girls either practicing their jetees or decoratively lounging by a waterfall in white undergarments. Bisset’s repressed headmistress, miserly smelling her wads of cash and later turning into a raging Gorgon, has all the excesses of similar scenes in “The Magdalene Sisters.” Dubbing of Italo thesps was unnecessary and stilted.