Wertmüller made films that were both debased and staunch in their moral standing, condemned and adored, with pitch-black endings preceded by comedic beats.
The last two came from Wertmüller herself.
“I think I have two souls,” Wertmüller told Criterion in 2017 ahead of a retrospective of her films. “One is playful, ironic, with a sense of humor. The other is in contact with the dramatic face of life and human problems around the world. The two natures live in me and never abandon me. My films might reflect this personality unconsciously.”
Her films were divisive, but she found an international audience: She was the first woman to be nominated for a best director Oscar for her film “Seven Beauties.”
Her films were politically minded sex farces
Friends introduced her to the revered filmmaker Federico Fellini, with whom she worked on “8 ½” as his assistant director. She went on to shoot her first film, “The Lizards,” with many of the crew members she met on “8 ½.”
But it wasn’t until “The Seduction of Mimi” that her films began to receive international acclaim. In the film, a disenfranchised worker falls in love with communism and a woman who isn’t his wife, loses his politics along the way, commits adultery more than once and ends up single, the father (or father figure) of a few children. It starred frequent collaborators Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato.
Wertmüller told Bramesco in 2017 that “there’s no doubt that sensuality and eroticism are part of Italian cinema.” But she used sexuality as a lens through which to explore class dynamics and gender politics.
In 1974’s “Swept Away,” she pitted a wealthy woman on vacation against the shiphand who despises her politics, then reverses their power dynamic when the pair becomes castaways. The movie was later remade by Guy Ritchie, starring his then-wife Madonna, and widely panned.
In “Seven Beauties,” her international breakthrough set during World War II, a knave murders, rapes and escapes his way through the war to apparently save his family’s honor only for his efforts to come to naught. The movie earned her four Oscars nominations in 1977, including her historic nod for best director and best original screenplay.
Her characters were often people who lost their politics or morals or were willing to abandon them with little thought. That they were easy to poke fun at and often detestable (especially the chauvinistic men) was the point, she told Interview: “Irony is my faithful companion. It helps me to underline vices and defects of the human being.”
She courted controversy for difficult themes
“I can just say that many of my movies talk about social issues that are still present,” she said in the interview with RogerEbert.com. “That means that probably they could still speak nowadays.”
At the time of her 2017 interviews, she hadn’t made a film in over a decade, but she had appeared as the subject of a documentary released that year — “Behind the White Glasses.” She also directed a production of “Macbeth” that year.
In 2019, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and received an honorary Oscar.