Hot lesbian nuns and homoerotic cowboys go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Both BENEDETTA and POWER OF THE DOG deliver on their promise of eroticism and sexuality but that promise was just to get you in the door.
What makes this the perfect double feature is how both directors are like great magicians. Structuring their films more like a three act trick than movie.
"The first part is called the Pledge, where the magician shows you something ordinary like [nuns or cowboys]. They ask you to inspect it. To see that its real."
Both Verhoeven and Campion released films designed to take place in an era and setting where it would be the most titillating: an Italian monastery in the Renaissance, a ranch at the end of the Wild West.
We spend much of the beginning learning the rules of the lands, grounding them in a sort of reality, heightened though it may be, they are still something we expect of nuns and cowboys in film.
A nun, chosen of God, protected from harm in our titular Benedetta.
Phil, the stern asshole but incredibly competent and talented rancher, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Zoolander 2), trying to live up to his mentor, the late Bronco Henry.
Then, in a time when eroticism in film is dying, both of these features build the tension by exploring the eroticism inherent to both worlds.
"The second act is called the Turn. The directors takes the ordinary something and makes them something do something extraordinary."
Nuns, sworn to chastity by their vows to Christ, living together in intimate quarters often viewing each other's naked forms through thin curtains and fabrics. Each sister brides to God and bound by virtue. Many of these women lived horrible lives before coming to the God.
Suffering abuse, prostitution, destitution. And finding comfort in not just Christ, but each other.
Their affectionate dispositions turned to the closest outlet, their fellow nuns, sharing in everything from strict schedules to chores and recreation. A terrible plague is sweeping Europe and could come here at any moment, so seize the day.
Surrounded by imagery of sadomasochism, Christ nearly nude on the cross, and Mary with her breast exposed as she feeds an infant Jesus.
Bombarded by this imagery and tension until you're begging the screen for the moment of release. Its all so sacrilege and blasphemous, you feel damnation encroaching on you just for watching this but that only makes it hotter!
Cowboys, alone together for long stretches of time. No women or judging eyes of townsfolk for miles. Huddling together for warmth in the winter, bathing nude in the swimming holes together in the summer.
The natural pair bonding that occurs in the harsh terrain. Bound by common cause of survival and freedom. The wild west was about second chances. It didn't matter your past out here. We don't have time for it. We have to work together, hand in hand, to tame this land. Surrounded by wild and domesticated animals, representing both sides of the cowboy. Caressing the curves of a saddle as you clean it. The constant struggle between dominance and submissive between two cowboys, the experienced and the student, both covered in leather and rope.
There's so much work to do. There's an outbreak of anthrax among the cattle. People's livelihoods are at stake! Its all so insulting our cultural ideas of cowboys to see such degeneracy but that just makes it hotter!
Where both films part is where they follow the eroticism.
**SPOILER WARNING FROM HERE ON OUT**
BENEDETTA follows through with two graphic lesbian sex scenes. While its not inventive, its not supposed to be nor do they have to be. Both of the nuns are inexperienced and make love like the inexperienced.
Benedetta's lover Bartolomea is farm trash who came to the monastery to escape her rapist father so she has no reverence for the idols or symbols of the church. Her carving a statuette of the Virgin Mary into a dildo is almost innocent in a way.
She just wants to please the first person who showed her affection.
The courting they do before consummating their relationship is interspersed with Benedetta having visions of Christ asking her to be his wife. She receives the stigmata.
She becomes the abbess of the monastery when the priests and nuns think this to be a miracle. But the one she replaces doesn't believe it. The ousted Mother Superior spies on Benedetta and Bartolomea having sex and decides to take this and her belief that Benedetta faked her stigmata to a pampered and sheltered bishop.
This bishop comes to the monastery, accosted by plague bearers along the way, only to find Benedetta has promised that God will protect the town from the plague as long as she lives. But she has died. The bishop is allowed in the city and as he is delivering last rites to Benedetta, she miraculously returns to life begging Christ to spare her followers.
The Bishop coldly accuses her of blasphemy and homosexuality.
In the process of his investigation, he tortures Bartolomea into confession with horrific instruments. But he harbors his own secret: the plague. In his efforts to shut Benedetta up from her reformation efforts which threaten his status, he finds her guilty and sentences her to death by burning.
But the townspeople riot against this after Benedetta reveals new stigmata, allowing her and Bartolomea to escape in the confusion as the Bishop dies and also revealing that Benedetta gave herself the stigmata with a broken piece of a cup somewhat confirming that she did it to herself earlier in the movie.
In POWER OF THE DOG, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) starts with a harsh relationship to his new sister-in-law's effete son, Peter. Phil mocks the queer way Peter makes flowers out of paper, his lisp, and sashaying gait. Peter is antithetical to everything Phil views as what a man should be.
Phil is none too inviting of Peter's mother Rose either. He accuses her of being a gold-digger, only marrying Phil's brother George for his money. He's frequently abusive verbally to her, mocking her widow status and piano playing. He's so awful to this already fragile woman that it drives her to alcoholism.
Peter is gone for the first part of Rose's marriage to George, away in a boarding school hoping to become a surgeon one day. When he comes to the ranch for summer break, Phil is still an asshole to him. Driving away even the simple fun of playing with a dog as all the other ranch hands follow Phil's lead and bully Peter. That is until we finally see Phil at his most vulnerable.
Alone at a small private pond, he removes his clothes except for a scarf belonging to his mentor, Bronco Henry. He lets it flow in the wind and moves it gently across his own naked body. We see how his relationship to Bronco Henry was not just teacher and student.
While we never find out how deep their relationship went, its clear that Phil was in love with Bronco Henry and fetishizes his stature as the ideal man. Peter stumbles across Phil's hideaway, finding gay magazines with Bronco Henry's name branded on the front.
When he spies on Phil for a moment, Phil catches him and explodes with anger chasing him away.
But in this moment, Phil feels freed. Peter knows his secret now and Phil tries to change his ways with the boy. It starts simply enough with wanting to make a rope for Peter. Each length representing their growing bond with each other. He insists Peter call him by his name instead of "sir".
He takes Peter under his wing and makes him his student, much the way he was with Bronco Henry. Phil was Peter's age when he first met his late idol, so in a way he can keep Bronco Henry alive.
They begin to spend more and more time alone together, much to Rose's dismay. One day while they're out together and Phil cuts his hand chasing a rabbit, she gives away all of Phil's hides to a native American family against his wishes.
When Phil and Peter return, Phil once again explodes with anger. He screams at George about Rose, and George is confused because Phil normally just burns the hides. But Phil is so angry, screaming that he needs them. George begins to understand and Peter does too. He needs them to finish the rope he's been making for Peter. Phil needs the hides to consummate his relationship with Peter because the summer is over and Peter would be off back to school within a few days. Peter, in an attempt to calm him, shows Phil some rawhide straps he'd been collecting.
They spend the night together in the barn. Phil washes the rawhide and strings it into rope despite his cut, drawing it tight across his hip with each knot. Peter asks questions about Phil's relationship to Bronco Henry.
Phil reveals Bronco Henry saved his life by holding him as they slept in the cold of the mountains. While rolling a cigarette, Peter asks if they were naked. Phil simply smiles and chuckles it away. In this moment of pure tension, Peter lights the cigarette between his fingers and takes a drag. He then puts it to Phil's lips, who takes a drag.
This flirtation finally coming to a head they share a cigarette between them, it never leaving Peter's fingers and Phil never stopping his work on the rope.
"But you wouldn't clap yet, because making something gay isn't enough. You have to bring it back. And that's the hardest part. The part we call the Prestige."
If you stopped watching the films there, they'd feel complete. Rote, but complete. Lesbians persecuted by the church run away as the town rots behind them from the plague, living happily ever after. A gay cowboy who spent his entire life hiding who he really is and then dies before he can share that part of himself with the one person who he thinks is like him, a tragedy we've come to expect.
The final scene of each has one last reveal for us that recontextualizes everything we've seen previously.
Benedetta and Bartolomea wake, naked, in an abandoned farm outside the city from the church bell the day after their escape. Benedetta feels the bell is calling her back where she belongs, at God's side protecting the city. Bartolomea is distraught. She confronts Benedetta with the broken shard and Benedetta dismisses her proof. She kisses her lover goodbye and tells her that soon she will no longer doubt her. Benedetta leaves Bartolomea naked and screaming that they will burn Benedetta alive when she fails, but Benedetta continues to walk, unabated and undeterred.
The final title cards tell us that Benedetta lived a long life in the monastery and that the plague never spread through the town. Just as Benedetta had claimed was Christ's decree.
Its in that moment that we realize, we were not watching a sacrileges movie.
All of those visions were not stress and repression induced hallucinations. They were real. Christ had indeed chosen Benedetta to protect the town so long as she lived. This film wasn't about the Church's homophobia. It was about how an institution so wrought with time, comfort, and corruption will ignore the obvious signs from God to protect itself from change, using any excuse it can find (such as Benedetta's lesbianism) to protect itself. But even then, the corruption doesn't matter to God.
He protected the ones that kept his decree that Benedetta is to be unharmed.
After the scene following the symbolic sharing of the cigarette between Peter and Phil, the movie cuts to the next morning, where Phil is suddenly very sick.
The cut on his hand is infected and he his near death. Delirious, he wanders the house to give Peter the finished rope as his brother George tries to get him to a doctor.
It cuts again, and Phil is dead, never having been able to consummate his relationship with Peter.
At Phil's funeral, the doctor tells George that Phil died of Anthrax. George says that doesn't make sense because Phil was always careful with diseased animals. And the movie has spent ample time showing us that Phil knows exactly what he's doing.
There's no way we are supposed to believe he just slipped up.
Then it cuts to Peter, not in attendance to the funeral. He is alone in his room at the ranch house, reading the following passage from the Bible: Psalm 22:20 "Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog".
He handles the rope Phil made for him with gloved hands before putting it under his bed. He sees his mother return with George from the funeral, happy and sober now that her tormentor Phil is dead.
Peter turns and smiles knowingly, ending the movie.
And suddenly your mind is racing. You think of all of Peter's odd behavior, the stuff you assumed was just him being gay.
You remember that he kills two rabbits in the movie emotionlessly, but you rationalized it at the time that he wants to be a surgeon and needed to study the first one while the second was suffering. He did it so easily that you remember his mom asks him to get the chickens for her earlier in the movie and you think nothing of it then realize, wait a sensitive kid like Peter is portrayed as wouldn't want to kill chickens.
Then you remember the dead diseased cow he found and begin to cut strips from. You thought he was just studying disease like when he dissected the rabbit. But no. From the beginning, Peter had all the power in his relationship with Phil. Peter was biding his time, getting closer to Phil. Waiting for the moment when he could finally strike with the last thing Phil would expect. A final insult, Peter infected Phil with Anthrax, killing both Phil the man and Phil the symbol.
Phil would be remembered as just another name that died in the west, if he wasn't simply forgotten as a statistic in the outbreak of that year.
The now understood sociopath Peter played into Phil's weakness (his hidden homosexuality) so he could get revenge for Phil's abuse of Peter's mother Rose.
Peter is her angel of vengeance, and there is no doubt that some day she and George will have a fight, and Peter will kill him too.
With both of these films, we thought we were watching a certain movie.
With Benedetta we thought we were watching a blasphemous erotic drama about oppressed sapphic nuns who run away from it all. But we were really watching a deeply reverent story of a saint about how God protects those who believe.
With Power of the Dog we thought we were watching a character study of how the closeted cowboy had to live his life, finally finding comfort in a boy who reminds him of himself and frees him of his own self-hatred. But we were really watching a horror film about how a serial killer chooses, stalks, and kills his victim.
Because that's what they were all along. At its core Benedetta is a film about a nun who is loved by God, just as it was in the beginning. And The Power of the Dog is a revisionist western, bleak and tragic as all usually are.
The eroticism and lesbian sex scenes were just a misdirection. A way to get you to buy the ticket. In an era of sterile and hollow art, Verhoeven and Campion play on our innate desire to see the closest form of human connection in sex. It turns off the thinking part of our brain and lights up the part that fantasizes about these things.
It's all an act to distract you from the truth at the center of these movies.
The answer was staring you in the face but of course you're not really looking.
"You don't want to work it out.
You want to be fooled."