Fancy Lady Film Hour: The Leopard

by Carrie Hill Wilner


My pokey little hairpins! I was feeling bad about working you too hard the last few rounds. Villette was S-A-D SAD and Dombey and Son is sort of sad and also pretty long. I was going to slow our roll a little bit with an E.M. Forster-off this week (Where Angels Fear to Tread > A Room With a View), because they’re short and romantic and just good-sad not bad-sad.

But two puzzles confronted me.

Puzzle 1: I was trying to figure out how on earth A Room With a View even became a Big Deal, and thinking thinking thinking, oh right, Merchant Ivory, young Helena Bonham Carter*, no one probably even ever read the book and it’s still the more famous than a better book!

Puzzle 2: I think we need some Italy-by-Italians prep work before we dive into Italy-by-English people and/or Americans. Otherwise, the Italy-by-Anglophones novels all read like long unfunny Original Kings of Comedy routines: Italians, they have feelings like this, but Englishmen, they have feelings like THIS (none).

You guys. The puzzle pieces, in my mind, they come together, and it is beautiful. With one brilliant move, we are taking this book club to the next motherfucking level. Rook to F4, we sink your battleships. You see, Hairpin, the best period movie of all time is also the best movie of all time overall, and it’s also BY AN ITALIAN about Italian history.

Look, I know and you know that 90% of the reason anyone watches movies is to look at sweet gowns. But sometimes you can’t so much talk about that with other people. Sometimes you need a fancy lady to sit you down and tell you what’s what. If you are going to the Philharmonic on gifted tickets and your boxmates try to chat with you, you can never go wrong saying you preferred the Debussy. Also, there is free champagne in the Patrons’ Lounge. But, you cannot — CAN NOT — tell one more grown-ass human adult how much you enjoyed the Pillars of the Earth miniseries.** Stop it. Stop it. Right now. Stop it.

“But fancy lady,” you (I) whimper. “Two of my three favorite movies are The Little Mermaid and Zoolander, and I won’t even type the third because even I know how stupid it is. What do I do when I need to talk about film to get my free champagne?” The fancy lady’s face softens, and her sapphire rings flash as she takes your hand in her own. She leans in to whisper a secret that has been passed down for, well, I guess maybe two generations. The Leopard, she whispers. The Leopard.

The Leopard! The Leopard, The Leopard, The Leopard! RAAAAWWRR. This movie has the virtue of being both the best movie in the world to watch for funz, and of being crazy legit, all the film nerds will be like WHOA, and you’ll be all, that’s right. Also you have no excuse, because it is on Netflix Instant? Click it click it click it, like the cocaine-addled lab rats we all are. Mmmm dopamine.

To encourage you in your clicking, I present you with the classy/awesome breakdown forthwith:

Oh you fancy, huh?
The cinematography, the sweeping depictions of the barren but beautiful Sicilian landscape! [Ed. note to New Yorkers: Coincidentally, this movie also happens to be currently screening at the Film Forum.]

We lived in a one room rundown shack on the outskirts of New Orleans.
BUT SECRETLY: You know what shows up really good against the dried golden grasses of Sicilian hillsides? DRESSES AND SWEET MANSIONS. DO you know how sweet the mansion in this movie is? SO SWEET it has rooms that no one even knows what they are! Do you know what you do when you have a secret room like that? You put on a magenta GOWN and make out with Alain Delon in it. It could happen! It could happen to you. Maybe even today!

N-n-n-nails done hair done errrrything did.
The Leopard takes place in Sicily in the 1860s, and concerns the unification of Italy, also there is a duke? Prince? — I don’t even know, they call him prince, but don’t you need your own country to be that? — as he watches the world change around him and tries to make his peace with the new order. 1860s Italy is definitely a discreet, classy historical time/place to set a movie; for contrast see played-out Tudor England (JK Tudor England I love you, but not JK at all but I still love you).

We didn’t have money for food or rent, to say the least we were hard-pressed/Mama spent every last penny she had to buy me a dancing dress.
I’d say everything you need to know about Italian history to get fully in on this action is Wikipedia but even that is overdoing it. Here’s the Risorgimento for Dummies atcha:

(1) There was no Italy, just other, smaller places. Then Garibaldi (who is not in the movie, so who cares, but you know, if there’s a quiz later) was “let’s all just be from Turin yet somehow speak Florentine.” Mostly everyone was like AL-RIGHT! but some were not, so a war, and some of it — the parts we care about — in Sicily.

(2) Sicily (the best part of Italy, you know, like, the Villette of parts of Italy) was not just Sicily then, it was the Kingdom of Two Sicilies (I know, you can do that?), and the nobility was Bourbon, Bourbons used to be French, and I cannot figure out from cursory Googling what they have to do with the bourbon in Kentucky. The French were also fucking with stuff in Northern Italy/Not Italy at this time, they get a shoutout in the movie too.

(3) Somehow everyone got a country together, but to this very day, Northern Italians and Southern Italians spend 75% of each day making fun each other, and old ladies still only speak dialect. The prosperity and modernization that were supposed to come of unification worked out, uhhh, let’s say medium for Sicily, as you know from mafia movies/TV.

Here’s a picture of Italy, to help you:

In the mall steady racking up the air miles.
The Leopard is based on a book of the same name by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, a Sicilian noble himself. It is a classic of modern Italian literature, exploring decadence and decay, the beauty in venality and the venality in beauty.

…that had a split on the side clean up to my hip/ It was red velvet trim and it fit me good.
You do not have to read the book. Whatever, I mean, it’s a great book, go read it. But this is one of the rare adaptations where saying you didn’t read the book doesn’t get people looking at you like you straight up said you just can’t read. You don’t even have to read the subtitles if you’re tired! Even the dubbed version is totally legit, because Burt Lancaster’s dialogue was recorded in English and dubbed into Italian anyway, so part of the dubbed version is even MORE authentic than the Italian version. You found the broken slot machine, you can’t not win. The main thing I remember the book adding was like “and then all this stuff blew up in WWII,” which you knew anyway. Just remember it while watching the movie for extra pathos?

Say go Cinderella/Go Cinderella/Orgasm blush/Lipstick ‘n concealer.
The Leopard was directed by Luchino Visconti, the master who existed in an interesting dialectic with his neorealist contemporaries. (Neorealist e.g. = The Bicyle Thief, which personally I found manipulative, but I find the actual existence of trusting children manipulative, so that was lame out of the gate.)

I shivered as I watched a roach crawl across the toe of my high heeled shoe.
I would not watch, say, The Bicycle Thief again. I am glad I did, I guess, sort of, I mean, not glad like wheee, glad like I cried every day on the subway for a week. But if you said, “Carrie, here are your choices: you can either watch The Leopard over and over again until you die and the way you will die will be from not eating or drinking because you are just watching this movie, OR you can never watch this movie again,” I would really have to think about it.

Mature women with more than me were the first to tempt me.
The film features a stellar international cast, with some of the most compelling and unusual actors of its time time: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale.

She said, ‘Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, they’ll be nice to you.’
These people did not get famous for being ugly. Sweeeeeeetbabyjesus.

This movie is crazy-erotic, and I don’t think there’s any actual action more intense than a smoosh-face kiss. What? No bodices enripped? But check it: Angelica is the young bougie woman who is the standin for the Future of Italy. She is played by Claudia Cardinale.

There is one scene at a ball (that’s how you know it’s good) where she’s dancing with her betrothed, the young-nobleman-on-the-unification-bandwagon Tancredi Falconieri played byyyyy Alain Delon:

Super bonus: he has that eyepatch for much of the film. Oh no, I think he hurt himself! You guys, he needs you to take such good care of him, for so long. (Unbonus: he now has a perfume wristwatch line. Whatever, don’t even care.)

At the ball, his uncle, Old Italy Prince Don Fabrizio Salina cuts in — no wait, I think she asks him to cut in … anyway, Buurrrrrrttt Lannnncaaaster:**

You guys. I am blushing. I am blushing, in my house, at my computer, typing about people waltzing. I don’t even know how to talk about what happens in that scene because it’s not a sex thing there are words for. It’s some kind of crazy tag-teaming, except it’s all a metaphor, except holy shit it’s really not because it’s really real? Abundantly-clothed-Hegelian-zero-penetration-MMF? That.

Shout out to the homeowners/the girls that got diplomas/And enough money to loan us a little something extra/Should we ever need it.
In said ball scene, a whole new Verdi waltz was discovered and recorded, a musical-historical as well as a cinematic triumph.

Here’s your one chance, Fancy don’t let me down.****
Uhhhh this ball scene is fully one-third of the film, which is itself about three hours long. The percent awesome you think this is is exactly equivalent to the percent likelihood we are going to be best friends. Also! I remembered! This is why the movie is better than the book. During the ball the book is like, oh the prince thought this and this and this, but the ball is not about thinking. It is about us trying, from habit, to be elegant even as it sinks in that we are robots, and increasingly obsolete models at that.

* Def the fanciest actress to play Crockett’s girlfriend on Miami Vice.
** If you have not yet enjoyed it, you should presently. If you have yet enjoyed it, let’s talk about how we are going to all common-law-marry Tom Builder + live in a cave.
*** Bonus self-knowledge question: The first millionty times I watched this I was all about Alain Delon. All about him. All. Then something happened the last time I watched. I barely even noticed that goofoff when Burt Lancaster, aging lion, was in the room. Literally, Burt Lancaster could have been like, just stab that other guy, and I wouldn’t have even checked to make sure he was serious. I thought maybe it was because I was over self-absorbed youths, but you know what, the Principe is pretty self absorbed. I don’t know what it is! I am somehow convinced it is about becoming an adult, but I am not sure how. Is it just because he has a mustache? Nooo. That can’t be it. Can it? Did you know Burt Lancaster used to be a strongman at the circus? How am I finding being in the circus hot?
**** Somehow, the Drake “
Fancy”/Reba “Fancy” mashup is not a thing yet. Make it happen you guys. My friend who knows about this stuff was all blah blah BPM blah but come on, we can’t let that get in the way.

Previously: Great Expectations vs. Dombey and Son.

Carrie Hill Wilner loves to read watch movies.