In her heyday, Claudia Cardinale’s default was eroticism; in her movements, expressions and affectations, she titillated not as strategy but as a matter of course. Luchino Visconti took full lurid advantage of this fact in his 1965 postwar update of Electra, in which the Italian bombshell played a woman whose return to her family’s provincial Tuscan estate with her new American husband (Michael Craig) opens scabbed-over wounds and buried secrets. She’s never forgiven her now-mad mother for remarrying after her father was murdered in Auschwitz, and her rapport with brother Gianni (Belle de Jour’s Jean Sorel) is alarmingly intense.
Visconti’s approach is both classical and modern, etching tableaus of gone-to-seed opulence in high-contrast black and white while incorporating handheld camerawork, zooms and idiosyncratically framed shots. But mostly, he fixes on Cardinale, who’s often en déshabillé for little cause and pushing cinematic seduction to outright prurience. When she shares the screen with the ostentatiously beautiful Sorel, their chemistry is almost too potent to bear—which, considering they’re playing siblings, is precisely the point. Assertions that such passions are related to the state of their “race” are deeply dubious, but Visconti is ultimately after something more elemental: the glorious and fatal tension between uncontrollable desire and its necessary limits. In other words, pure cinema.
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