I’ve had a thing for the real-life Virginia Oldoini, The Countess of Castiglione (1837-1899) for a loooong time now. First, a gorgeous photo of her in stunning plaid with a crazy wasp waist turned up in a history textbook my freshman year of college. Later, I came across her fancy dress photos via their exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was hooked — and years later, I played her at the San Francisco Dickens Fair.
The Countess of Castiglione was Italian; she was married off at age 17 to the count, who was 12 years older. She was renowned for her beauty, which helped take her life in a couple of interesting directions. She got involved in the movement for Italian unification, moving to Paris in 1855 (initially with her husband) to try to gain political support from Napoleon III. She ended up becoming Napoleon’s mistress, and her husband separated from her. She became famous for wearing amazingly gorgeous and inspired costumes to the fancy dress balls that were then popular, and collaborated with French photographers Mayer and Pierson to create these insanely cool, artistic photographs of herself that were meant to recreate important moments in her life, many of which focused on fancy dress costume. She returned to Italy for a few years, then moved back to Paris where she lived in seclusion until the 1890s, when she did another series of weirdly arty photographs.
Now, the problem with the Countess of Castiglione as a frock flicks subject is that the two main movies about her are in Italian, and hard to track down. I recently stumbled across this 1942 version starring Doris Duranti as the countess on YouTube (the other main film about the countess is the 1954 The Contessa’s Secret starring Yvonne de Carlo; if anyone knows where I can watch it, let me know!). Now, the problem is the film is in Italian without any English subtitles, and my knowledge of Italian is limited to ordering food and booking hotel rooms. So, I basically got about 1% of the dialogue, and very little of the story, so it was basically like watching a beautiful silent film. So this review is basically going to focus on the visuals!
The film starts with the countess in her prime, at the opera, where everyone is dying over how gorgeous she is — with good reason:
She goes home and has some strained conversations with a man who I presume to be her husband.
The film then flashes back to Virginia’s youth, when she meets Some Guy Who Isn’t Her Husband who is involved in the Italian unification movement and who she falls in love with. According to a bad Google translate of the Italian Wikipedia entry,
“1855 . In Paris for a delicate worldly-diplomatic mission, entrusted by her cousin Count of Cavour to the court of Napoleon III, the beautiful Virginia Oldoini (known as Countess of Castiglione), meets a young Mazzinian carbonaro (an ancient flame of her’s), contrary to Cavourian politics. The meeting takes place precisely at the crucial moment of the countess’s intrigues at the French court, and seeing her ancient love rekindles in her the passion never completely dormant. But the alternative in which the lover (or he or politics) is placed will lead her to choose, albeit reluctantly, her patriotic task.”
There’s an unfortunately LONG TIME spent in this questionably costumed/haired period:
Finally we catch back up to the countess in her OH MY GOD THAT HAIR IS SO FABULOUS period:
There’s a bunch of scenes of her in 18th century fancy dress where she’s clearly deciding whether she can stomach taking one for the team with Napoleon III:
They do a scene in a dressmaking shop that is working on one of the countess’s costumes:
At one point she’s reunited with her lover:
And then in a euphemistic shot that completely reminded me of The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, she’s seen on stage — NO idea what’s up with that, as far as I know the real countess didn’t do any theater?? — in her 18th century get-up, swinging as Napoleon, Eugenie, and the court look on, in what is clearly a metaphor for “Ok I will shag this guy for Italy.”
Do you ever watch movies in languages you can’t understand?