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Even though the gig on the ill-fated "Caligula" was a catastrophe
waiting to happen, at least in the end Il Maestro Tinto Brass acquired
the funding for his dream project, a cinematic adaptation of Junichiro
Tanizaki's "The Key." Now, I've read the book after seeing the film,
which really made me appreciate the hard work Brass put into the
script, since the novel was virtually impossible to turn into a movie.
After all, let's face it. There is no plot. Tanizaki's "The Key" is a
clever, satirical insight on what it is like to be stuck in an awkward,
fading marriage and divorce is impossible due to tradition. The book
takes two different points of view, from the husband and the wife in
form of several diary entries. It basically reveals their thoughts as
the marriage slowly disintegrates with the husband's declining health
and the wife's growing repulsion of having sexual relations with him.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Now, don't get me wrong, the material is perfect for a satirical novella, but as far as movie material goes, it's rather dull and there's not much to adapt, but this is where Brass' genius comes in.
First, the story is shifted from fifties Tokyo to a pre-war Venice, which turns the story in to a sort of a mirror of current event, where the characters are slowly overwhelmed with decadence, just as their country and government. It should also be worthy of note if this film was done by any other director, the pre-war Italian politics would eventually overshadow the main plot, but Brass keeps it skillfully in the background. The political agenda is ever present, but does not disrupt the general storyline.
Another great change Brass did with the script is slightly altering the characters. In the book, the husband is dirty old man with a foot fetish, while the wife is a whiny hypochondriac. It was fun to read the "diaries" of such characters, but I'd rather not watch them bicker on the screen for two hours. Here, the husband is a somewhat eccentric gentlemen, filled with joie de vivre and with only one fetish; his wife's gorgeous body, which he hardly ever seen throughout their lengthy marriage. The wife is now a strong, intelligent woman, somewhat confused and caught off guard when her repressed sexuality begins to break free of its confines.
All these changes make the story great for a cinematic treatment, yet it retains the general storyline of Tanizaki's novella quite faithfully.
After many years of a typical, old fashioned marriage, Professor Nino Rolfe tries to break his wife Teresa free of her sexual modesty by writing his intimate desires in diary, which he then secretly plants in various locations for her to "accidently" stumble upon. She does the same, and a sexual game of cat-and-mouse ensues.
Once again, Tinto Brass out-does himself with the erotic content. All the sex scenes are touching, affectionate and somewhat melancholy, perfectly capturing the mood and tone of the film. They never feel forced, on the contrary, most of the time they drive the story foreword and reveal many details about the characters.
Not much can be said about the acting, all of the actors give a superb job. Stefania Sandrelli's cynical, subtle portrayal of Teresa might seem as "wooden" to some people, but they are just not looking too deeply. Frank Finlay gives an awesome over-the-top performance as an older man, still desiring the carnal pleasures of life, but is is unable to due to his declining health, therefore he is stuck living out his fantasies by constructing his wife's sexual odyssey with their fanatical Fascist sympathizing daughter's naive fiancée, played with great wit by Brass regular, Franco Branciarolli.
With "The Key," Tinto Brass directs with such restrained skill and precision that was missing from most of his previous films. The "free flow" and improvisation of his previous works is all but vanished. Now we have a carefully constructed film filled with exhaustively planned out camera work, editing techniques and color palettes. Speaking of which, this film's brownish tint has to be seen to be believed, no other film has ever achieved such a great effect. Silvano Ippoliti is truly one of the best cinematographers of our times, he will be sorely missed.
"The Key" is a masterpiece of eroticism and should go down in history as one of the best novel-to-film adaptations ever made.
This DVD had been calling out to me from the cult section of my local
store for about two months before I rented it. The cover art of Stefania
projects an allure that is only the begining of a very profound
Brass manages to create a film that doesn't make some epic statement of
love, society and relationships. Instead he presents a rather odd and
erotic situation that makes you think and feel (in various ways) the
of the characters situations. The film is also not afraid to come accross
as a little silly at times.
Don't be mistaken, this is first and foremost and erotic movie, but it manages something masterful in that genre. Tinto Brass has constructed a very nice platform for sensual expression in this film. I wouldn't advise seeing it with your local bible study group, but it isn't frat boy tissue party material either. If you are open to nudity and sensuality this could be just the movie to share with your partner on a night alone together. The sets and the actors are well done, but you still get to see plenty of sex. Tinto's Key is the perfect movie to potentially unlock those who are "one the fence" when it comes to erotic cinema.
La Chiave (1983) is Brass' only masterpiece,Mrs. Sandrelli's most
interesting role,and a peak of the European "trash films" of the '80s.I
have seen this flick 4 times,and I found it excellent.Here,Brass is how
he knows to be:shameless, shocking,clandestine, lascivious, tasty,
scandalous, voluptuary,lustful,Nothingarian,misogynist at the basest
level,lubricious;yes,indeed,quite a lot of things to enjoy.Brass is
extremely skilled in exploiting his actresses' physical endowments.
"La Chiave" is an anecdote of bourgeois sexuality during WW2,and a study in Animality;in fact,Brass' coldness and detachment shows no trace of sympathy for his characters,hence the movie's naturalism.("Miranda" brings on screen a rustic debauchery during the same WW2,while "L'Uomo ..." is again a bourgeois adventure,but set in nowadays).WW2 is only an epic convention,because it gives a certain sense of exciting and violent trepidation and brutality and decrepitude,an epic device of the nihilist aestheticism (Pasolini,Bertolucci,Brass).Brass used WW2 as a narrative background in his Teresa Ann Savoy show,Salon Kitty (1976);in his Stefania Sandrelli show,La Chiave (1983) ;in his Serena Grandi show,Miranda (1985);in his Anna Galiena show,Senso '45 (2002).Under the pretext of unmasking this Fascist epoch,it is obvious that these directors pretty much indulged in the world they described.(The same device,of a shattering and totalitarian epoch,was exploited the same way in some Romanian films of the '90s,using the Bolshevick era of the '50s as a background for sexual frolics).
Stefania Sandrelli was 37 years in this movie,and lucent,slick,slightly adipose,of a very concrete and lusty beauty,luscious,soft-spoken,lurid,but also somehow lubberly.The passionless display of flesh expresses Brass' proclivity for an almost clinical and documentary examination of the nakedness.With this movie,Mrs. Sandrelli became one of the "Brass women".No director was ashamed to undress Mrs. Sandrelli (Bernardo Bertolucci in Il Conformista,1970; Bigas Luna in Jamón, Jamón,1992;Lina Wertmüller in Ninfa Plebea,1996).She posed nude even as an adolescent,I know a piquant picture with the naked teen-ager Sandrelli.
Barbara Cupisti is a suave and distinguished beauty.
There is a particular density of the naked flesh,and of the settings also.Brass displays much gusto;his style's plastic quality is extraordinary ."La Chiave" is written by Brass more like a chapter of ethology,and of sexual behaviors.
There are also other exciting Brass movies.Miranda (1985) (with Serena Grandi) is almost as good as La Chiave (1983),though in a different register,and L'Uomo Che Guarda (1994) (with Katarina Vasilissa,Cristina Garavaglia )is also a fine,thrilling show."Miranda" is a little more cheerful then "La Chiave",and more picturesque as narration,its sexual content is also more erratic (though to see Mrs. Sandrelli asleep being taken advantage of,is no cheap fun either).All these 3 movies are frank and straight.Brass' choice of the actresses is always exquisite.I have seen a photo representing Mrs. Sandrelli while her breast is fondled,or rather felt by Brass;the actress laughs wildly and she seems to be much older than in "La Chiave"; this gallant scene looks like taking place in a very public space.
While "La Chiave",Miranda (1985),L' Uomo Che Guarda (1994) show derisively woman's depravity,and warm it up, with malice and irony,Senso '45 (2002) marks a decline;it tries to depict woman's love,and fails.Brass' shamelessness lost all its charm and became the sheer Prosaism of Senso '45 (2002) (a banal and conventional,tasteless adultery,moreover inverting Brass' opinion about women;this man was libidinous,base, trenchant and lascivious,and turned sentimental and emotional).The only good thing about "Senso" is Mrs. Erika Savastani 's supporting role as "Emilietta" .
"La Chiave" is one in a series of medallions of beautiful women,astounding studies of women,on a par with Miranda (1985),Andrea Barzini's Desiderando Giulia (1985),Andrea Bianchi's Dolce Pelle Di Angela (1987),Spiando Marina (1992),L'Uomo Che Guarda (1994),Malèna (2000) ,etc..In the unconventional erotica,Brass' equals are the far less famous Andrea Barzini (the author of the best Serena Grandi show,made when she was 27 years),Andrea Bianchi,the author of the underrated Dolce Pelle Di Angela (1987).These masterpieces,signed by Bianchi and Barzini,and other wonderful Deborah Caprioglio and Serena Grandi shows could be seen in Romanian movie theaters 13 years ago.
Many are too preoccupied with the film's sexual content,to may be able to notice the exceptional visual beauty.
If you have reasons to like Mrs. Sandrelli others than this movie,then "La Chiave" will be a treat.
As usual with Brass, this is a very classy sex film, with Hollywood-class
production values. (This, I might add, is a rare exception, not the rule,
among other sex-film makers. Radley Metzger is the only other director I
think of offhand whose sex films invariably have great production
Stefania Sandrelli is an absolutely stunning woman, with a gorgeously
filled-out body, unlike the skinny-jinnies that many other directors are
fond of. The film is set in Venice in 1940 and the locales are beautiful,
while at the same time focusing on a "native's Venice," rather than the
over-photographed canals and churches one generally sees.
But the people who did the U.S. version DVD are incompetents, unfortunately. This is only the second DVD that I have watched where the brightness/contrast were so badly mangled in making the transfer that the film is unwatchable until one moves his controls way off their ISF-calibrated positions. To be precise, it is the second-worst. The worst has been the total butchering of Antonioni's "La Notte", where even moving the controls to their limit cannot produce a decent picture.
This is a most accomplished and underrated film from Tinto Brass. There are several reasons why the very mention of the director's name will cause many to stop reading right now. His association with Caligula and Salon Kitty and of course his later joyfully, and uncompromisingly erotic later works do not suggest this might be a 'serious' film maker. However, for me, the most difficult aspect was coming to terms with the fact that this has been transposed from the writer, Junichiro Tanizaki's Japanese homeland to a wintry Venice. The whole notion of a couple each keeping a sexual diary (locked up but knowingly made available) as a way of communicating their hopes and desires is so not the way we consider Italians likely to behave. But, never mind, the film is great enough to overcome this and in no time I was under the spell of the beautiful and prestigious actress, Stefania Sandrelli and to a lesser extent by Frank Finlay. I should also clarify the point that this fairly explicit film is about eroticism and not in the main erotic itself. Mr Brass does, of course, indulge himself quite a few lingering shots of certain parts of Sandrelli's anatomy but I'm sure nobody would grudge him that, certainly not I.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In Salon Kitty, director Tinto Brass showed an Authoritarian-fascist
government exploiting the sexual secrets of its people in order for
reasons of control and manipulation; in The Key, set in Venice just
before the outbreak of the second world war, Brass shows sexual
transgression as a means of escaping the suffocating quotidian world of
fascist sexual-social morality, although that escape comes at the price
of self-sacrifice and death.
An ageing professor of art is bothered by his younger wife Teresa's modesty and priggishness. He lays a plan to manipulate her into expressing her sexual side, through the use of diaries purposefully left to be discovered, erotic photography, alcohol and finally a stage-managed affair between Teresa and his daughter's fiancé. Yet setting the workings of desire in motion this way leads to things slipping from the professor's control: his wife becomes increasingly an agent in her own sexual liberation, his fascist daughter schemes for her own ends and finally the professor's own body escapes the control of his mind, leading to spasm, thrombosis and death. Yet the death doesn't seem tragic, as it frees both the professor from the evils of history which are about to be spectacularly unleashed (and this is a man who has been helping the Jews of Venice) and his wife from her socially imposed role of modest matron and submissive object.
Brass' film shows sexual desire as a looking-glass world (mirrors abound) in which values are undermined, roles are reversed and social propriety is challenged. As Teresa becomes increasingly liberated, she puts men in the role of providers of pleasure, gains her own enjoyment out of seeing them naked and even gets them parading about in her clothes: the professor's collapse comes after he has been ordered by Teresa to wear her knickers, stockings and bra and make love to her in them for because that's how she likes to see him. The film's narrative movement mirrors the story's progression: at first, the professor is the protagonist and Teresa is subject to the male gaze; gradually she takes over as the focus of the film, and men come increasingly under the naked scrutiny of the camera. Intriguingly, the taking of photographs is one of the methods by which the professor manipulates the other characters, and one feels that Brass is hoping that his photography will manipulate his audience, male and female, in similar ways. Also worth noting is the way in which Teresa's costumes chart her changes, so that by the denouement she is wearing pure white for her husband's funeral. Yet the end of the film makes complex the focus on sexual liberation for the individual, as the remaining characters are drowned out by history, in the shape of fascist announcement, songs and celebrations.
Frank Finlay is aptly cast as the professor, returning to Venice for the third time in his career, having hatched Iago's plan to sexually manipulate Othello in the Olivier film there, and then having been imprisoned in Venice by the Inquisition for his sexual transgressions as the title character in Dennis Potter's mini-series Casanova. Stephania Sandrelli gives a spirited and extraordinarily brave performance as Teresa, throwing off her art-house airs to luxuriate in the most lurid scenes of soft-core erotica, and having the voluptuousness and acting skill to trace her characters emotional and physical journey in the most eye-poppingly sexy and seductive way.
Beautifully filmed, designed and lit, and probably as near as Brass ever came to making a cinematic masterpiece.
A main female character sums up this pile of narrative nonsense at the
conclusion of the film saying something like, "I was faithful by being
unfaithful." Meaning she was compliant in her husband's wishes for her to
link up with their son-in-law so her horny husband could become sexually
excited by watching her, thus sparking their marriage alive again. Set
against Mussolini's rise to power in 1940s Italy, I suppose auteur Tinto
Brass is trying to make some haughty comment on how the Italian populace of
the time, repressed by Catholic guilt, succumbed to Il Duce's desire for
them to fall faithfully in line with Italian pride and become unfaithful
from the moral direction of the Church. Who knows really, because Brass is
more concerned with Stefania Sandrelli's derriere than he is about
Alas, Mr. Brass' focus on lead actress Sandrelli's bottom is the only theme you're bound to come away with after viewing an hour and 50 minutes of this soft-core cornfest. British thesp Frank Finlay takes a leap at a starring role by heading south to Italy and being forced to look every bit the dirty old man under the meticulous kink direction by Brass. As the premature, if you will, hubby in this standard menage a trois, he can only last a matter of seconds in the sack with his much younger wife, played by the suitably stunning Sandrelli. It is only when he becomes jealous over his wife's attentions to his son-in-law, played with robot-amateur woodenness by Franco Branciaroli, that Finlay becomes excited enough to maintain another kind of woodenness. By drugging his wife into a fitful slumber and picture-posing her in various open positions for photo-ops, Frank cements our disgusted feeling that we are somehow watching the actual sad home life of the Italian Pinto, Tinto.
While nowhere near as decadent as "Caligula," "La Chiave" has that movie's ability to make you want to take a cleansing shower afterwards to wash its depressing, sleazy drivel off your conscience. Once we learn the designs of Finlay's ho-hum plan, in the first 20 minutes, all we're left with is countless meandering soft-focus shots of Sandrelli and Branciaroli strolling around Venice, fornicating in their hideaway lair, and Finlay foppishly sniffing after her like a pheremone-obsessed hounddog.
The fast-forward button won't help you on this one. You'll be woefully buzzing through a flick that has no worthwhile stopping point. My rating: 0 out of ****.
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