Sex Scenes: Who’s Afraid of Federico Fellini’s Sex Robot?
In Fellini’s 1976 film “Casanova,” the granddaddy of all fuckboys meets his match in a seductive automaton.
Casanova, 1976. Image via Everett Collection.
Casanova, the 1976 film by Federico Fellini, takes place circa the eighteenth century in a dreamlike world of trippy decadence and surreal, explicit encounters involving nuns, cuckoldry, sickness, death, and gender play. The sex scenes merge into a hallucinatory medley, but the film’s climax comes when Casanova (played by a Bowie-like Donald Sutherland) seduces, or is seduced by, a life-size mechanical porcelain-doll—a fantastical sex robot dressed like a lady of the Württemberg court whose automated movements prove strangely enchanting.
Fellini made no qualms about his feelings of disdain for the real-life Casanova, an Italian adventurer, memoirist, and notorious libertine. Born to actor parents, he became famous for climbing the echelons of European high society, successfully associating with royalty, popes, cardinals and artists like Mozart, Voltaire, and Goethe. He was always perfectly dressed and always present at court, falsely declaring himself to be a count or an alchemist and philosopher, depending on the situation. In a 1977 interview in the New York Times, Fellini said: “There is nothing in [Casanova’s] ‘Memoirs’... nothing! Nothing of nature, animals, children, trees; no descriptions of the moments of a day. He roamed the world, and it is as if he never moved from his bed. He is a stereotype—‘the Italian’—vague, undifferentiated, commonplace, conventional; a facade, an attitude. It is understandable that he became a myth, because he is a meaningless universality.”
Fellini's harsh read is apparent in his direction of Sutherland, who sluggishly plays the role of the alienated party boy, the fuckboy of the Enlightenment who thinks of himself as a poet and scholar yet is too driven by the immediate ego gratification of sex and money to ascend, either intellectually or emotionally. The film has an eerie quality, as if shot just before dawn, creating the ambience of a never-ending after-party—the effect of coming down while trying to come.
In the film, as he did in real life, Casanova moves through parlor flirtations and bedroom games with nobles well-versed in this sort of affair: the casual romances of a time when one married for social position rather than love or sex. He stands out from the pack of court dandies as the primadonna, peacocking in pink lace ruffles, satin bows, glittering with jewels; at one point, he even wears a crown of burning candles.
In each seduction, Casanova mirrors the seduced, reacting with the prompt improv skills of a seasoned actor to her fantasy, which he validates in his performance. A classical fuckboy, using sex and status alone to fuel his ego, Casanova himself turns into an automaton as the film progresses, one who can only play the role given to him in each moment. In the end, a fuckboy is nothing but a sex toy.
The specific dread of the sex robot is reactionary: behind the fear of a society where sex will be replaced by machines and meaningful relationships by superficial ones stands the very real threat of a world in which all of us are useless, substitutable.
There is also an overt mechanical metaphor: each time “the famous lover of the court” has sex, a golden clockwork parakeet appears, erect, to spread his wings and undulate, mirroring the hydraulics of the penis. The explicit shots are equally robotic; Casanova is always on top, and each scene unfolds from the point of view of the female partner, focused on Cassanova’s pink and grotesque expression. In the film’s first sex scene, Casanova gets a “review” for his erotic services, after being seduced by a playful nun who insists that her lover watch them through the cut-out eyes of a painting. The faceless lover harshly critiques Casanova, saying he expected more, as the nun giggles.
After the many surreal trysts, finally, in the last erotic scene of the film, Casanova encounters the doll. At first, he mistakes the mechanical sex doll for a real woman, but once he steps in to protect her from her rough male handlers, he recognizes the illusion. “Enchanting,” he remarks, “her complexion would fool anyone.” Left alone with the automaton, whose name is Rosalba, meaning “pink dawn,” he begins his seduction, treating her as he would any woman. They dance a stiff waltz, the score of a music-box melody punctuating her jerky movements. The scene is strikingly soft and earnest compared to the cynical and surreal scenes that make up the rest of the film. He really likes the doll. When he brings the toy to his velvety bedroom chamber, he continues to banter, asking permission to undress her.
But during their intercourse, there is a sudden reversal: while he is usually the active lover on top, here he is passive. As a bottom, he spews out what seem to be years of repressed, stereotypical male fantasies: “Mother! Whore! Child!” he chants, and at the moment of orgasm, “Give me love, give me love, give me…child!” Casanova is the only partner in this scene who speaks, but his outburst of pathetic vulnerability is a marked contrast from the lively roles that the actual women in the movie embody: cuckolding nun, high priestess, a traveler in disguise as a military man, a giantess, and an alchemist (as well as the host to a male-presenting ass-demon).
The fantasy of a sex robot is often traced back to the myth of Pygmalion, recounted by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, about a man who falls in love with the sculpture he creates of the perfect woman. It reached a frenzy in the Enlightenment, when robotic hoaxes like the chess-playing, secretly human-powered Mechanical Turk proved extremely popular. In 1858, the Goncourt brothers described in their journals a trip to a brothel rumored to have mechanical sex dolls so lifelike that they were instishtinguable from real women. These rumors persisted throughout the nineteenth century, becoming a common trope as technology advanced, to the point that the French decadent writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam even cast Thomas Edison as a creator of a robotic sex doll in his 1886 novel The Future Eve.
And the question remains: Who’s afraid of sex robots? While technology has advanced, the cold skin and the empty eyes of today’s automata are far from lifelike. But our fantasies continue to spin, and with them, the moral backlash. There is now even a Campaign Against Sex Robots, launched in 2015 by Kathleen Richardson of Leicester De Monfort University and Erik Brilling of the University of Skovde. In their position paper, the duo mark themselves as SWERFs (sex-worker exclusive radical feminists) with an objection to sex robots grounded in an analogy to sex work/client relations. In this context, the fear of the sex robot is akin to the fear of the sex worker.
While the public anxiety around automata during Casanova’s lifetime had at its core the question of the human soul—producing a truly life-like mechanical man, the reasoning went, meant that a soul was no longer necessary to explain human behavior—our anxieties today are less spiritual and more economical. In op-eds about sex robots, you find not only panic about the meaning of love and intimacy, but of work: parallels are made to how machines displace workers, headlines claim strippers fear they will be supplemented by mechanical strip clubs, and right-wing pundits advocate for “sex redistribution.”
One of the great ironies of the twentieth century is that despite the exponential growth in production and productivity due to automation, there hasn’t been a reduction in work hours or an uptick general wealth as many tech-utopists once predicted (and some futurists still predict). Instead, we’re more than ever identified with our jobs and measurable output.
In his 1976 book Death and the Symbolic Exchange, Jean Baudrillard theorized the simulacra, a copy that replaces the original. The substitution happens in two steps: first, there is the automata that imitates the appearances of the original, then there is the robot who imitates the function without the appearance. But once the function is valued, then there is no reason to prefer the original to the copy—as long as the copy does the job better. It’s an all too relatable experience for every millennial in an oversaturated job market after the recession: doing ever more emotional labor, going to job interview after job interview in which there are dozens candidates capable of doing that same task. It feels like being in the position of the clownish Casanova: canceling interiority, letting go of autonomy in order to fit whatever imagined quality it is that the ideal lover—or here, the ideal candidate—should have.
In the modern labor landscape, the specific dread of the sex robot is reactionary: behind the fear of a society where sex will be replaced by machines and meaningful relationships by superficial ones stands the very real threat of a world in which all of us are useless, substitutable, because utility is all that is valued and machines are better performers. We’re already playing the automata.
In the 1977 New York Times interview, Fellini, posited that the real Casanova recorded his exploits because he saw himself as a failure. He isn’t mentioned in history books or in other people’s memoirs; he is only mentioned by himself. It’s as though Casanova couldn’t bear dying with the weight of that failure, Fellini argues, so he created a fantasy to leave behind.
In the concluding scenes of Fellini’s film, we see an aging Casanova feverishly writing his memoirs in hopes of being remembered. He has officially become a joke in society. His portrait is smeared with shit by pranksters, and when he’s invited to do a poetry reading, he’s laughed out once he begins to recite his work. But we are left with one last fantasy: in the final scene, Casanova dreams of being reunited with the mechanical doll, and the two dance a somber waltz into the foggy Venetian night.