A particular strand of science fiction is built upon a certain question: what would happen if society’s morality became unbound, creating a culture of legalised killing? In The Running Man (1987), the arena between life and death becomes state-sanctioned reality TV entertainment, with the garish aesthetics of a game show. Battle Royale’s (2000) mass violence restages this moral question as high-schoolers fight to the death upon an island, inspired by Kinji Fukasaku’s experience as a teenager in World War II. The Hunger Games (2012) situates itself as a futuristic, downtrodden dystopia, its young inhabitants randomly selected as tributes, but remains limited through its younger audience. But perhaps the most bizarre rendition of this question is The 10th Victim.
The 10th Victim is unable to escape its aesthetic; its aesthetic is its reason for being. The 10th Victim relies upon the garishness and absurdities that dominate late 60s cinema. Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) cradles a robot doll upon his chest. Bras conceal guns. An alligator is bathed in water. Saxophone plays stand motionless upon a podium, as action moves on around them. A house is surrounded by limbless statues. Part of the film’s joy is in its vision for the future, just as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) predicted the evolution of television. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) combines its 1960s fashions with tablets and modern passport control.
The 10th Victim delivers a futuristic vision, with white backgrounds, city steps and computers. Petri drowns certain shots in yellows. PanAm flights land upon American tarmac; Marcello wears cool, suave sunglasses; women wear white dresses; telephones look like game controllers. Marcello is in love with The Phantom, his favourite comic book. Parts feel like an early James Bond film: both the gadgets of the Sean Connery series, and the absurd colours and throwing everything at the wall of Casino Royale (1967). As we witness the training programme, other hunts going on around parked cars, it feels as though we’ve stumbled on Bond’s training at MI6, with Q offering an array of fantastical gadgets. A cigarette is lit from a lighter emanating from a metal claw. Caroline (Ursula Andress) customises one-of-a-kind body armour to protect herself, invisible and matching her skin.
Beyond its aesthetic, The 10th Victim asks questions. The 10th Victim captures a world in transformation, a hyperbolic version of the present reality. Marriage becomes a casual affair, moving between wives in rapid succession. Weddings are held on aeroplanes. IVF has given rise to a generation of women born from stem cells. Service stations are no longer a place for petrol and a bite to eat, but a place for sex amid a selection of prostitutes, where Marcello pulls a Holden Caufield, finding space to hide in a room but without desiring sexual contact. Looking out to the golden sunset of the beach, a regime of murder becomes justified by a religious cult, worshipping the sun in translucent robes with bathing suits underneath, as onlookers throw tomatoes. The 10th Victim’s youthful mortal fear isn’t so far apart from Logan’s Run (1976), where the state operates on killing its population at 30, leaving the ruins of old age as a hermit in the remains of Washington DC.
The 10th Victim begins questioning the role of the media, in a world where Marshall McLuhan’s own theories around the role of television, radio, newspapers and other mediums were gaining traction as a celebrating scholar. A giant, moving eye watches from the bedroom as a piece of abstract art, as though it were the eye of Big Brother. Caroline shoots with both her gun and her camera. Death becomes an act of performance to play towards the camera. After shooting a young Hamburg man as victim at a horse race, Marcello becomes met by constant questions from interviewers, but objects to the constant barrage. The television offers an all-seeing eye, as monitors spy on Marcello. At the Colosseum in Rome, we acknowledge a history of performed violence going back millennia. The aerial helicopter flies over Rome’s fountains, squares and churches, surveying the best location for the cameras. Death becomes a media spectacle and commercial, staged with elaborate teacups, signs and cheesy dialogue for the Ming Tea Company.
The 10th Victim’s most gripping sequence might be it’s opening, as we follow an Asian man’s desperate escape from death on the streets of New York City, seeking the help of a cop, intercut with the rules of the game laid out in exposition. We feel his pain as he is killed by a woman in the Masoch Club. The 10th Victim imbues itself with a socio-political reality still relevant today. America is presented as a space of violence: guns are openly carried in hunts on the streets of New York, as though the assassinations of the 1960s and the school shootings today weren’t enough. Rome becomes caught behind restrictions: churches and restaurants refuse to allow hunts to be committed in its spaces, as though its restrictions were as simple as no smoking signs today.
Our animal instincts regress through state sanction, hunting game transposed against humanity itself. Where does the difference and boundaries lie? Murder becomes perversely justified: in the wake of World War II, expressing our rage and inhibitions in a controlled manner stops wars. Even Hitler would have been a member, we are told. Marcello and Caroline turn their brushes with death into a flirt, imbued with sexual tension, staging elaborate ruses and fake-outs until Caroline eventually succumbs to fate, Marcello heralded by the media. Or does she? Neither of our protagonists can escape the clutches of death.