British filmmaker John Boorman’s early career is dominated by intense action movies, from Point Blank (1967) to Deliverance (1972), but his initial output also includes some pictures so odd they approach surrealism. Leo the Last is the first such Boorman feature. Based on a George Tabori play titled The Prince, the film explores what happens when a modern-day European aristocrat returns to his family’s mansion in London after a long absence, only to discover that the streets surrounding the building have become a ghetto. The broad strokes of the storyline are simple: Prince Leo (Marcello Mastroianni) is a recluse who’s bewildered by the outside world, the craven machinations of his household staff, and the empty affections of his ambitious fiancée, Margaret (Billie Whitelaw). Therefore, Leo spends his days in an upstairs room, watching poor black neighbors though binoculars. Eventually, he develops sympathy for his neighbors’ difficult lives, so he leaves his mansion to offer assistance—an action that, naturally, upsets sycophants who value Leo’s passive status quo.
While the story is straightforward, however, Boorman’s execution is anything but. Seemingly intent on replicating Federico Fellini’s dreamlike visual style—the presence in Leo the Last of Fellini collaborator Mastroianni is probably not coincidental—Boorman fills the screen with weird imagery. At its most overtly Fellini-esque, the movie descends into a silly orgy scene with grotesque characters mugging for the camera. Similarly, Boorman spotlights a bizarre health ritual involving naked people bouncing up and down in a pool, and the director zeroes in on unattractive, undulating body parts photographed through the distortion of underwater lenses. The excess also manifests in offbeat subplots, with Leo’s mysterious aide, Laszlo (Vladek Sheybal), organizing some sort of militaristic cult in the basement of Leo’s mansion. (Radical politics permeate the film, which can be interpreted as a somewhat trite collectivist tract.)
Yet the movie’s oddest element is actually the protagonist’s characterization—Leo is one of those inexplicable freaks found only in the minds of overindulgent storytellers. Although Maastroianni’s handsome, healthy appearance suggests otherwise, Leo is portrayed as a terrified innocent who can’t communicate with other people, so Leo spends most of the movie looking perplexed when bad things happen, even whimpering impotently while observing assaults, a heart attack, and a rape. It’s therefore impossible to buy into Leo the Last as a credible narrative. Plus, with all due respect, Boorman’s admirable aspirations to metaphorical heft quickly descend into pretentious silliness. Nonetheless, some find greater virtue in this peculiar film than others; among other accolades, the movie received a Best Director prize at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
Leo the Last: FUNKY