It would be hard to think of a European filmmaker who attained the degree of international heat that Lina Wertmüller enjoyed in the mid-1970s, and then — poof! — just like that, her moment was over. Early in “Behind the White Glasses,” a dutiful Italian documentary portrait of Wertmüller and her career, you get a taste of what that moment was like when John Simon, the much-feared film and theater critic who was Wertmüller’s most devoted champion, declares that she is one of the two greatest women filmmakers in history (the other, in his view, being Leni Riefenstahl). That’s the kind of sentiment that was floating around about Wertmüller at the time, but said now, as if it were a truth for the ages, it comes off as an extravagant overstatement.
Agnès Varda, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion (to name just a few): All have made films much greater than Lina Wertmüller’s. Yet Simon’s comment time machines you back to the whipsaw feminist-meets-postfeminist mystique that Wertmüller achieved. Her films were over-the-top, in-your-face, exhaustingly “emotional,” and defiantly incorrect before the term “politically correct” had even been invented. They were flamboyantly comic and bellicose finger-wagging Italian provocations. And the fact that a cinema of such perverse bluster had been created by a woman was a big part of their cachet.
In Wertmüller’s films, notably the Candide-lands-in-a-concentration-camp survival fable “Seven Beauties” and, most notoriously, the Marxist sadomasochistic desert-island sex parable “Swept Away” (or, as it was known at the time, “Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August” — Wertmüller favored long titles the way Donald Trump likes tall hotels), every relationship became an operatic power duel. That was Wertmüller’s Big Insight — that life was a battle, all about dominance — but it was an insight that always felt reductive, and that loomed large mostly in the context of the feel-good, easy-listening ’70s. Her films were a catchy over-correction, and that’s why her moment ended so decisively. They were of the moment, and then, suddenly, it was their power that began to seem facile.
In “Behind the White Glasses,” Wertmüller, her trademark cropped hair now white, comes off as a tough old bird with a gangster’s croaky voice and an approach to life that’s much like her movies. She pushes ahead — relentlessly, without second thoughts. She was a talented director, but she was never a reflective artist, and that hasn’t changed. She started out as an assistant to Fellini and has good stories to tell about it, like how on the set of “81/2,” Fellini and his alter ego, Marcello Mastroianni, had to keep undercutting each other’s egomania. Wertmüller struck out on her own early, directing her debut feature, “The Lizards,” the very same year. “Behind the White Glasses” treats that film as an early feminist anthem — though in truth it was a knockoff of Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” and intensely focused on men, which may have been one of the keys to how Wertmüller constructed her career.
Confronted with the entrenched machismo of Italian society, she didn’t create her own Anna Magnani or Sophia Loren. She created her own Marcello Mastroianni: the comically handsome matinee idol Giancarlo Giannini, who became her alter ego. Her period of fame was defined by four films — “The Seduction of Mimi” (1972), “Love & Anarchy” (1973), “Swept Away” (1974), and “Seven Beauties” (1975) — and Giannini starred in all of them, putting his elegant dog-faced hamminess, a kind of Mastroianni meets Chaplin, at the center of her brand.
Wertmüller was nothing if not a canny self-promoter, and those white-framed sunglasses, which she bought in volume (and still wears), were her signature. “Behind the White Glasses” doesn’t get too close to her personally. It discusses, in brief, her marriage to the Italian artist and set designer Enrico Job and spends several minutes gliding through their splendid country vacation cottage to the orgasmic strains of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” — a bit of real-estate porn that reveals, almost inadvertently, how far from the working classes a Euro anarchist like Wertmüller really was.
Her defining moment was “Swept Away,” and “Behind the White Glasses” captures the contradictions that made that movie explode (on screen, and in the world). Giannini played a hired hand who turned the tables on his rich-bitch overseer, played by Mariangela Melato with such vituperative energy that it’s a shock to see a clip of Melato being interviewed on the set, where she’s completely calm and meditative. In hindsight, “Swept Away” marked the birth of a certain transgressive strain of feminist masochism. The movie’s erotic politics made it an art-house conversation piece, but its political politics grew tiresome; it played like “Last Tango in the Post-Graduate Seminar.” Nevertheless, commentators like Martin Scorsese eloquently testify to what a subversive time bomb it was.
Coming on the heels of “Swept Away,” Wertmüller nabbed four Oscar nominations for “Seven Beauties” (it’s clear in hindsight that the Holocaust subject matter helped), but that triumph was the beginning of the end for her. Hollywood beckoned, as it had to a number of the great European filmmakers (Antonioni, Costa-Gavras), but Wertmüller was hamstrung working in English, and her big crossover movie, “A Night Full of Rain,” was a big washout. The offers stopped coming, and she slunk back to Italy, like a rock star whose intersection with the zeitgeist had reached its sell-by date.
She continued to make films, but even John Simon admits that he has barely seen her recent movies (and what he did see he thought was terrible). She now works like Woody Allen, treating the process of filmmaking itself as its own reward. Yet there was a time when audiences lined up around city blocks to see the movies of Lina Wertmüller. “Behind the White Glasses” lets you revisit a bit of that passion, without quite nailing what it was. There’s one moment, captured in photographs, where Wertmüller, in the mid-1970s, poses in front of several theaters on 42nd St. where films of hers were playing, and in a funny way that’s just where they belonged. She was celebrated as an artist, but by the time one of her movies ended, it left no room for respectability.