Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg wrote the novel Candy for the infamous Olympia Press, a Paris-based publishing house that printed erotica and art with equal zest, as an outright project in proto-punk smut. The freewheeling, bilious, alternately crude and sly tone of their writing took aim at the corrupt and corrupting id of atomic-age America, and Candy, an (accidental, according to Hoffenberg) updating of Voltaire’s Candide that turns the hapless young wanderer figure into a shapely girl, takes aim at the clasping, barely constrained sexuality lurking under the seemingly upright, technocratic, moralising citizens of the age. Initially banned in some quarters, the book became an underground hit, and Southern followed it up with The Magic Christian, formulating a brand of aggressive, bawdy, ink-dark satire that burgeoned during the 1960s, and still inflects a lot of contemporary comedy. Southern also helped make several signal films of the period, particularly Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Barbarella (1968), and Easy Rider (1969). The attempt to turn Candy into a movie came a couple of years too late to really catch the zephyr of the countercultural zeitgeist, especially as the novel was a burlesque on the already historical-seeming Eisenhower years, and translating such freeform filth into a mainstream movie a tall order. French actor Christian Marquand was the one to try it, in concert with screenwriter Buck Henry, straight off huge success adapting The Graduate (1967). Thus Southern and Hoffenberg’s all-American ferocity met Henry’s wiseacre lilt and Marquand’s effort to coat the project in an airy gloss of Euro-cinema artiness.
The basic joke is pretty basic: young Candy Christian (Ewa Aulin), a normal, if dewy, inexperienced American high school girl, finds herself plunged into the world thanks to a series of snowballing circumstances that bring her in contact with men who represent various social blocs. Their protestations of high-minded wisdom and necessary guidance all quickly give way to rank lust, using their elevated pronouncements to get her in the sack or on whatever surface is handy. Candy’s father T.M. Christian (John Astin) is also her teacher, whilst his twin brother Jack (Astin again) is a professional lecher and tycoon from New York, armed with a swinging, sexually omnivorous wife, Livia (Elsa Martinelli). Trouble starts when the much-admired, faux-revolutionary poet MacPhisto (Richard Burton) gives a recital at Candy’s school and quickly marks her as the ripest plum. He lays his practiced moves on her when she invites him to her home, but his art is complicated by Emmanuel (Ringo Starr), the Christians’ gardener, who gets worked up by MacPhisto’s pep-talk and tries to ravish Candy himself, whilst the liquored-up bard makes do with with snogging a mannequin. Her father and a posse of blue rinsers stumble in on this unwitting debauchery and T.M. decides to pack Candy off with Jack and Livia, who are all too happy to facilitate Candy’s further education.
But departure is complicated when Emmanuel’s sisters, a trio of motorcycle-riding furies determined to avenge their brother’s despoiled chastity by killing Candy, chase them to the airport, and T.M. is put in a coma by a head injury. The Christians make it to New York thanks to an encounter with loony-tunes army man Smight (Walter Matthau), who has been flying about with his men for years ready for quick deployment and who decides he wants to have a son with Candy before leaping out of the plane without a parachute. Once they touch down in the Big Apple, T.M. is operated on by Dr. A.B. Krankheit (James Coburn), a surgical superstar whose operations combine spectator sport with dramatic improvisation, whilst John Huston turns up as Krankheit’s bureaucratic adversary. Candy goes on the run as Krankheit tries to add her to his harem of slavish nurses, encountering a cinema verite filmmaker, Jonathan J. John (Enrico Maria Salerno), and eventually gets guilt-tripped into sex by a grotesque hunchback (Charles Aznavour), who runs a gang of thieves that breaks into an uptown mansion. She finally ends up as the acolyte-cum-odalisque of a travelling guru, Grindl (Marlon Brando).
A stranger by-product of ‘60s cultural climes than Candy is harder to imagine. The result isn’t a riotous success or a grinding failure. There’s just enough wild, impudent humour and occasional islets of inspired cinema and off-kilter surrealism to make the experience worthwhile. But it’s also way overlong and beset by the repetitious structure of skit-like episodes. Marquand had only directed one prior film, Le Grands Chemins (1963), and his grasp on the pacing of Candy is a problem: what might have been a madcap 90 or 100 minutes lopes along at nearly two hours. The result also has an aura of classiness that often clashes with the scabrous material, particularly as Marquand can’t properly engage with the sexuality at the heart of it all (probably because Aulin was still underage when the film was made). Sometimes the film descends to a level of grab-ass naughtiness scarcely discernible from the drooling, institutionalised misogyny it’s officially making fun of. Ironically, the punchiest, most transgressive moment of sexuality in the film comes when a drag queen, rather than shrinking before a thuggish cop’s truncheon, demands a few more stiff ones. On one level, though, the lack of a real climax, so to speak, suits a depiction of a world where everyone lives in a state of pent-up need and self-perpetuating frustration. Like Dr. Strangelove, Candy eyes the most imposing works of super-modern America as mere expressions of that frustration, the whooping warriors and Frankensteinian physicians and God-and-country-preaching teachers all overflowing with backed-up spunk.
Aulin, with her big, sadly beautiful eyes, looks like someone took an innocent waif straight of a manga page and made it flesh, but too often seems rather doleful and drippy rather than merely naïve, and I can’t help but wish Jane Fonda, who did a great job playing the Southern-ised heroine of Barbarella, might have taken this part too: Fonda knew how to play naïve without being bovine. Nonetheless Candy is loaded with some impressive images and some solid laughs, many of which come from the cast of big stars making fun of themselves with just enough real art to avoid seeming like a Hollywood party game caught on film. Matthau has a ball as Smight, bringing his unmistakeable blend of slouchy pronunciation matched to hyper-articulate verbal fortitude to that most commonly mocked archetype of the period, the he-man American soldier. Burton is fun as MacPhisto, reeling off scads of pseudo-Dylan Thomas and bragging about bogus humanitarian adventures for the purpose of drawing young lovelies close to his erogenous zones. The role seems like it was written purely to lampoon Burton’s reputation as a poetic poseur with a fondness for the bottle and ripe flesh.
Coburn’s Krankheit parades into the operating theatre to bullfighter horns, his jabbing beard and mad gleaming eyes reminiscent of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. The film’s apotheosis comes when Krankheit commands his coterie of nurse-concubines to reveal where he’s branded their bodies as his property, scalpel lines scratched into their skin depicting his initials – a wickedly memorable flourish that identifies medieval perversity and sexual egotism underlying celebrity worship and the cult of modern medicine. Brando lends his presence as the guru who draws Candy into a titanic, soul-remaking session of tantric sex-and-worship that goes on for days inside a truck that roams highways and byways. This makes for perhaps Brando’s most overtly comedic character role, and indeed marks the first of his later run of grotesques, anticipating his similarly loopy, vaudevillian approach to more serious material like The Missouri Breaks (1976). On the other hand, Starr’s presence feels laborious, his Chihuahua-via-Merseyside accent probably a deliberate joke but still representing a descent into the worst kind of hipster sagginess.
Marquand displays a level of visual skill whilst ticking off the regulation Euro-auteur fetish points of the time, most particularly Fellini. Marquand borrowed Fellini and Luchino Visconti’s regular photographer Giuseppe Rotunno, and the quality of Rotunno’s shooting helps impose a level of discipline and beauty even when the film occasionally wrestles through uninspired patches. Something of the otherworldly strangeness Fellini and Rotunno found in the modern world for their great ‘Toby Dammit’ episode in Histoires Extraordinaires infuses Candy, whilst the final scenes suggest a test reel for the candle-lit mythical vistas of Satyricon (1969). But Marquand’s occasionally striking images sometimes seem closer in spirit to some of the odder continental talents of the time, including Mario Bava, in his delight in animate dolls, and Jess Franco, is the aura of near-dreamy, protean sexuality, an aura that doesn’t mesh well with the Benny Hill aspect to Candy’s adventures. The sense of the monstrous in the technocratic environs of the modern hospital detectable in the Krankheit sequences contains seeds for the labours of directors as diverse as David Cronenberg, Lindsay Anderson, and Jean Rollin. The ride of Emmanuel’s sisters seems like someone tried to film one of Bob Dylan’s most fetishist dreams. One bizarre set-piece sees Aznavour’s ranting, monstrous crime lord, escape pursuing police crawling up walls and over ceilings before leaping into a mirror that transforms into a pool, like a two-for-one lampooning of Cocteau and Franju. Another moment, when Candy passes by her father unnoticed as he’s wired up to a giant piece of equipment that resembles a piece of a nervous system, suggests a jester’s nod to Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968).
The finale, in which Candy passes through levels of cosmic awakening and finishes up in an ancient Indian ashram via a back alley in a Midwestern town, follows a dreamlike logic and concludes with a hint of the genuinely mystical that Marquand might well have followed more fruitfully given a different starting point. The absurdism of Southern and Hoffenberg’s novel made a final mockery of the idea of a spiritual journey as a mere labyrinth leading back to incestuous sexuality, but here this is tweaked as Marquand releases Candy into the zones of Elysian freedom where the stages of her journey are mapped out as symbolic way-stations inhabited by these ridiculous men, on the way into turning back into the free-floating expression of essential lifeforce she was at the start, and building to the seemingly inevitable moment in the closing scenes when Marquand and his crew as glimpsed in a mirror. It goes without saying that Candy sorely lacks a cinematic intelligence as purposefully contouring as Kubrick’s or as knowing even in self-indulgence as Fellini’s, whilst Robert Altman would soon find more fitting ways to film shambolic, panoramic black comedy. And yet as with many interesting messes, Candy feels rich in its very lack of coherence, its cornucopia an expression of an anarchic moment one feels nostalgic for if only because no-one could try such a stew today.