Label: Twilight Time
Released: May 10, 2016
Genre: Erotica / Drama
Synopsis: A dentist’s staid life unravels as his fragile wife cracks, his teen daughter blossoms into a woman, and his ongoing affair with his daughter’s best friend intensifies.
Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
Please note: this review contains some end spoilers. Additionally, the plot summary on Twilight Time’s sleeve by Rovi’s Jason Buchanan is actually for “The Most Beautiful Wife,” a prior film starring Ornella Muti as a young woman who enters “into a loveless marriage of convenience,” which is not the case in “Appassionata.”
Bernardo Bertolucci may not have created an imitable formula for the free-flowing erotic art film with Last Tango in Paris (1972), but he certainly aided in making audiences more appreciative of, if not hungry for further adventures of older men being teased by luscious temptresses, but Gianluigi Calderone’s Appassionata takes things a little bit farther into the Wrong domain by having poppa Emilio (Gabriele Ferzetti) lusting not only for his daughters best bosom pal Nicola (cool and unemotive Eleonora Giorgi), but perhaps his own daughter Eugenia (Ornella Muti).
Calderone structures the evolving / devolving relationship with Eugenia like a dance, with teasing glances, bursts of shocking behaviour, jealousy and confusion, and ultimately the Big Moment where the film’s climax hinges on an evening’s indiscretion that may or may not have been with a lover or an unintended moment of incest possibly coordinated by his own daughter.
The key to this peculiar focus lies in Emilio’s wife Elisa, played quite superbly by Valentina Cortese. A former aspiring concert pianist, Elisa had a massive mental crack-up leading to a sudden retirement from any public performing after a singular debut. Emilio fell in love with the pretty pianist and remains highly protective of her, and yet it’s clear the family can’t cope with her massive mood swings, mandating an eventual shuttering in a mental facility where she’d receive more targeted care by professionals. In addition to being caregiver to a fragile wife, he’s the father of a fantasy-filled teen daughter, a busy dentist, and a philanderer who sets up appointments with Nicola to ensure total privacy for their dalliance.
Elisa is unaware of her husband’s activities, but there are specific scenes in which Cortese elevates a marginal character into a tragic creature, almost giving legitimacy to Calderone’s exploitive, gauzy, sordid drama. Her piano playing in the family parlor annoys little Eugenia, but it’s her birthday party that really hammers home the daughter’s total loathing for Elisa. Muti is well-cast as the always observant manipulator, but Eugenia remains a nothing more than a bratty, scheming teen – and wholly unsympathetic.
As cold as Giorgi may be on film, her reticence to display broad emotions works for Nicola when she builds a marginal friendship with Elisa, partly seeded by her genuine sadness for a woman packed with culture, artistic skills, and genuine integrity who’s treated like shit by her daughter. Admiration for her fine dress collection – shared in a special moment between the two women – is trounced when Eugenia barges in with her teen friends who yank and pull vintage clothes from racks and hangars, mocking Elisa as some kind of pathetic antique.
And yet when Eugenia forces her mother to play old tunes in the parlor as birthday entertainment, the group hush as they notice Elisa’s musical skills, even joining in song. Eugenia doesn’t display any overt jealousy, but it’s clear her mother’s unintentional triumph needs to be quashed, so Eugenia plots a total breakdown designed to allow Eugenia to assume the family’s matriarchal throne.
Of course Eugenia is too young to govern her family, let alone be emotionally mature for a romance; along with playing up fake dalliances with boys while her father listens on a second phone, she creates strategic marks on her body to prove there are men (boys) out there wanting to possess the little vixen.
Emilio thinks only of his daughter’s pal Nicola and seems oblivious to Eugenia’s lurid glances, but he is jealous and irritated by her emerging provocative behaviour, yet almost consistently gives in to her requests, as when she insists in trying on lingerie her father must buy as her desired birthday present. Emilio is annoyed and clearly doesn’t want to see his baby girl in frilly unmentionables, and one night in a moment of jealous rage, he tears open her blouse, feeling no shame in having exposed her breasts. Moments later he carries little Eugenia back to her bedroom like a recreation of a father taking a sleepy child to bed, with daddy and his best little girl back on good terms, irrespective of the violence that just transpired.
The chief problem with Appassionata is the script which seems like an idea that was developed, scaled back, retooled, and streamlined in the writing and final film editing stages: the father is initially annoyed by his daughter’s sexual curiosity, then jealous, but also ignorant of her increasingly provocative gazes and physical behaviour at home.
Nicola is a potential love interest, but Calderone dramatizes their first screen union as pure sleazy sexploitation: a dirty older man groping a teen who herself gets off on being doped up with Novocain while Emilio’s assistant and waiting patients are seated beyond the room’s entrance.
Layered into the weak dialogue and spastic scene assemblies is Piero Piccioni’s music which sometimes bears a similarity to his own masterwork for Radley Metzger’s erotic masterpiece Camille 2000 (1969). Elisa’s moments on piano break up Piccioni’s otherwise thematically repetitive score, and the music doesn’t benefit from a lackluster film mix in both English dubbed and original Italian tracks (the latter subtitled in English).
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a nice transfer of Calderone’s soft-focus film, adding a crisp stereo isolated track of Piccioni’s score (previously released by venerable Quartet Records as a 2-disc set).
Julie Kirgo’s essay elevates the film to the kind of art film Calderone perhaps had intended to make, and she cites his ties to Bertolucci (Calderone was assistant director on Bertolucci’s Partner and the “Agonia” segment in the anthology Love and Anger) as a ‘one-time assistant,’ aware of Bertolucci’s depictions of provocative behaviour onscreen, albeit in a more wet manner.
In Appassionata, Calderone excelled in maintaining weird offsets between fidelity and infidelity, passion and cruelty, devotion and illicit hunger, but the film remains a spotty impression of an erotic drama. Most will likely gravitate to Appassionata for the boobery, but the real gem is Cortese’s portrait of a fragile mind affected by irreversible, tragic damage.
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review