Ecstasy (1989)

Bellezza prorompente e maliziosa, biondo desiderio che esplode dalle copertine delle riviste, dalle locandine dei cinema, dai cartellon dei night club e anche (quando la censura lo permette…), dal piccolo chermo televisivo. Con Moana Pozzi, diventata ormai un “mito”, il cinema erotico italiano si è conquistto un posto d’onore accanto alle produzioni internazionali più importanti. Moana è sensualità, irruenza, genuinità. Moana è… ecstasy. Chi è sensibile alle sue grazie non dimenticherà faclmente questo concentrato di sogni…Beauty, breathtaking and mischievous, blonde desire exploding from magazine covers, movie posters, night club billboards and even (when censorship allows…), from the small television screen. Starring Moana Pozzi, who has now become a “myth,” Italian erotic cinema has won a place of honor next to the most important international productions. Moana is sensual, impetuous, genuine. Moana is… ecstasy. Those who are sensitive to her graces will not easily forget this concentrate of dreams….
Back cover text on the 2009 Minerva Video DVDEnglish translation

In the mid-1980s, Italian actress Moana Pozzi became a sensation for her adult films, brazen nudity on television, and her intelligence and outspokenness on sex and sexuality. In the 1990s she became a published author and political candidate, co-founding the Partito dell’Amore (“Party of Love”), which campaigned on a platform that included better sex education and legalization of brothels. While Pozzi never achieved any real political power, it added to her growing status as an Italian icon of the adult film industry. In 1994, Pozzi would die relatively young from liver cancer, leaving behind an enduring legacy—including inspiring the 1999 film Guardami and being the subject of the 2009 biographical docudrama Moana. Her name recognition was such that even in 2016, the Disney animated film Moana had to be marketed under the alternate title Oceanica in Italy.

Buried in Moana’s filmography is an odd gem: the relatively obscure Ecstasy (1989), which was very loosely adapted on Welsh author Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the White Powder,” one of the episodes in his picaresque weird novel The Three Impostors; or, The Transmutations (1895). Machen, for all his fame as a writer of the weird and an inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft and others, has very rarely been adapted to film or television. Yet in the late 1980s, Moana Pozzi and director Luca Ronchi gave it a shot:

la storia è liberamente ispirata al racconto “Polvere biance” di ARTHUR MACHEN (1984)the story is loosely based on the short story “White Powder” by ARTHUR MACHEN (1984)
From opening credits of EcstasyEnglish translation

It isn’t exactly clear which text/translation that the filmmakers were drawing from but it seems likely to be Giuseppe Lippi’s translation in Il gran Dio Pan e altre storie soprannaturali (1982). Whatever the case, the approach to adapting Machen’s story was very “liberamente,” taking broad inspiration but telling its own story:

[…] con Ecstasy di Luch Ronchi (’90) nel cui cast figura anche il pornodivo Rocco Siffredi (vero nome Rocco Tano), qui in veste soft. Storia onirica, molto liberamente tratta dal racconto “Polvere bianca” di Arthur Machen, scrittore inglese di fine Ottocentro, basata sui poteri di una misteriosa droga che esalta, ma allo stesso tempo uccide, Ecstasy offre a Moana Pozzi una chance che lei non riesce a sfruttare appieno. Del resto la Pozzi dichiarava allora, in un sussulto di autocoscienza: « Sia chiaro, io non sono un’attrice sono una che cerca di interpretare se stessa in tante situazioni diverse».[…] with Ecstasy by Luch Ronchi (’90) whose cast also includes porn star Rocco Siffredi (real name Rocco Tano), here in a soft role. A dreamlike story, very loosely based on the short story “White Powder” by Arthur Machen, a late 19th-century English writer, based on the powers of a mysterious drug that enhances but at the same time kills, Ecstasy offers Moana Pozzi a chance that she fails to take full advantage of. After all, Pozzi declared at the time, in a jolt of self-consciousness: ” Let it be clear, I am not an actress I am someone who tries to play herself in many different situations.”
Moana e le altre: il cinema pornografico in Italia 39-40English translation

In Machen’s original, the scene is 19th-century England, where a sister worries about her brother’s ascetic habits. The family physician suggests a medicine—an innocuous white powder—and at first it seems to have positive effects, making her brother more social, outgoing, and forgetting his cares. Too soon, however, things take a turn for the worse; the drug had deleterious effects, yet the brother cannot cease taking it—and a trifle wound on the hand becomes something profoundly worse. The physician discovers it was not what he had prescribed at all, and its effects finally lead to a fate worse than death for the poor, afflicted brother.

Keeping in mind that Machen was writing a little less than ninety years before D.A.R.E., the parallels with drug addiction and “scared straight” drug literature may seem overly obvious in hindsight, but “The Novel of the White Powder” isn’t really an anti-drug story. The Victorians were well aware of the addictive possibilities of drugs like opium in the 1890s, but the white powder that the brother takes isn’t just a chemical pick-me-up:

By the power of that Sabbath wine, a few grains of white powder thrown into a glass of water, the house of life was riven asunder, and the human trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and clothed with a garment of flesh. And then in the hour of midnight, the primal fall was repeated and represented, and the awful thing veiled in the mythos of the Tree in the Garden was done anew.

Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the White Powder”

This is how Machen took a familiar story and turned it from a familiar tale of dissolution into something infinitely more suggestive and supernatural.

In Ecstasy, the setting is moved from the 19th-century United Kingdom to Italy in the 1980s. Moana Pozzi plays a version of herself, an outgoing adult film actress named Moana. Her younger sister Anna (Carrie Janisse), is the opposite of her outgoing sister: reclusive and given to watching horror movies, living in the shadow of her more glamorous sister. Moana provides Anna with a strange drug (ironically, a grey powder). Moana narrates as her sister Anna slowly comes out of her shell…and then spirals into drug abuse and degradation. Despite a brief flirtation with witchcraft imagery at the beginning and the end, and Anna suffering a similar hand injury, there isn’t much in the way of Machen’s original idea for the drug or its effects….and it is these brief flourishes that are as near as the film ever approaches to horror in the traditional sense.

Ecstasy was evidently never intended as a straight adaptation of Machen’s story, but even so, it feels like there’s a lot of missed opportunity here. The film neither draws on the rise of cocaine or club drugs like MDMA (popularized with the street name ecstasy) in the 1980s, nor on the more overtly supernatural dissolution in “The Novel of the White Powder.” As such, there’s no explicit social commentary, and no horrific spectacle at the end. We’re left instead with a film that hovers between hardcore adult film and erotic thriller, never quite being one or the other. Sexually explicit, and yet not simply a succession of sexual encounters; being more dreamlike in tone, dominated by an overarching narration.

As a work of cinema, Ecstasy is hard to pin down. A good deal of European horror during the period was heavy on blood, nudity, and atmosphere, but there were often lines that still weren’t crossed—explicit sex and genitalia, for example, were not common features of anything except the sleaziest of the Eurosleaze during the 1970s and 80s. By the same contrast, adult films, even when they had a plot (this was not long after the Golden Age of Porn in the United States), rarely addressed anything like a drug theme in a serious way. Ultimately, the film is almost narcissistically focused on Moana herself; even her sister’s suffering is a story that happens within the context of Moana’s life, work, and her sexual encounters. Anna’s story lives in the shadow of Moana’s throughout the film, and that feels like a deliberate choice.

Ecstasy seems to walk this tightrope, being more restrained, artistic, and plot-driven than the typical adult film, and yet more sexually explicit than more overtly transgressive European horror films of the period. From the moment that Moana rubs a piece of banana on her bare vagina and offers it to the man she’s having a conversation with, you know that you’re watching a film that is transgressive in ways that your typical 1980s horror film couldn’t be, for fear of never getting distribution.

While working with a relatively small cast, and presumably a small budget, the film makes the most of what it has. The cinematography is surprisingly solid, especially the night shots of Rome. The film’s quasi-biographical aspect is an asset as well, taking advantage of Moana’s widespread publicity in showing magazine covers, glamour shots, fumetti, and pinups. The soundtrack is nothing special but doesn’t detract from the overall atmosphere either; simple synth-and-drum-machine pieces, neither corny nor overly dramatic, but oddly fitting the overall 80s aesthetic.

If there’s a charm to the film, it is how so very 1980s it is, from the teased hair to the technology, all instant film cameras, walkmans, telephone booths, and CRT televisions; the utter ubiquity of trash and cigarettes, the boxy Italian cars on the roads and the discotheque. So too, there’s something oddly endearing about how utterly blasé the adult film actors are in their skimpy outfits on the sets, the utter ambivalence they express to casual nudity and even foreplay. The conscious artifice of it all is at once a glamourization of the lifestyle, and highlights how fundamentally silly a lot of adult filmmaking really is, looking at it from the outside.

Ecstasy has never received an English-language release. The 2009 DVD is out of print, which makes this a relatively scarce and obscure film, especially for those obsessively interested in Machen’s rather limited filmography.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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