Tinto Brass: All Ladies Do It/The Key (18) | Close-Up Film DVD Review
Dir. Tinto Brass, Italy, 1992 and 1983, 92 and 105 minutes, optional English or Italian with subtitles
Cast: Claudia Koll, Paolo Lanza, Franco Branciaroli; Frank Finlay, Stefania Sandrelli, Franco Branciaroli, Barbara Cupisti
Review by Colin Dibben
These two slices of classic Italian erotic cinema are heavily invested in some mild-mannered but intriguing perversions.
Tinto Brass is most famous in the UK for Caligula, but he spent the 70s, 80s and 90s crafting a body of work that pays homage to the aesthetics and joie de vivre of later Fellini, pushing the maestro’s look and feel into softcore pornography in a way that manages to both soothe the aesthete and excite the fetishist in us all. All Ladies Do It is from 1992, The Key from 1983 but both films are portraits of marriages unsettled by projected desires, from the husband onto the wife. The films luxuriate in feelings of jealousy that are resolved through acts of voyeurism and fetishised in mildly sadistic acts of anal eroticism. Both films suggest that this libidinal journey is at the root of the psychology of pornography. Because of the operatic production design of the films, the viewer is almost compelled to continue in the fetishistic mode, teasing out the secrets of the films, looking for the betraying details, the hidden secrets that hold the key to the giddy chess-like game between the sexes that unfolds in both.
All Ladies Do It: Diana (Koll) and Paolo (Lanza) are happily married despite her greater sexual appetite – he’s content to simply listen to the stories of her various adventures. But, when she has an affair that’s much too close to home, he throws her out, and she moves into a Venetian flat to embark upon an erotic voyage of sexual discovery, while at the same time trying to win him back.
The Key: Frank Finlay stars as Nino, a man who is determined to liberate his voluptuous, younger wife Teresa (Sandrelli) from her sexual repressions. He orchestrates an affair for her, by taking erotic photographs of her when she’s drunk and unconscious and asking her would-be lover to develop them. Meanwhile, he keeps abreast of her burgeoning relationship by reading her diary, in the knowledge that she in turn may be reading his.
Both films deal with the issue of female sexual liberation within marriage, adding to the air of untimeliness that haunts them, as it’s hard not to think of this as a rather 1970s concern: swingers’ parties, car keys in a bowl and all. More interestingly, both films can be seen as psychosexual case studies: they focus on the male gaze in the narratively embedded perspective of the husband; the husband is obsessed with parts of his wife’s body (no surprises as to which parts, except in so far as the buttocks receive a lot of admiration); these fetishised body parts are objects of desire that the husband libidinally invests in sharing with other men (the wife’s lovers); but the pleasure gained and the value added to both body part and wife, from the perspective of the husband, is mitigated by the pain he feels in fear of losing the wife to one of the lovers. The two films play out this scenario differently.
The Key is more literary, literally, in that the fantasies of both husband and wife are driven and exacerbated by the secret diaries that each knows the other is keeping; even there, in a moment of masochism for us and the husband, the wife can choose not to read the husband’s diary or even lie in her own. Secrets are meant to be discovered, but the ‘he knows that she knows’ game complicates everything. There’s a lovely sub-plot in which Nino makes money by authenticating paintings he know to be fake – he is doing something similar with the game with the diaries: assuming his wife’s diary is telling the truth but knowing it might not be. Such is the exacerbation of desire caused by this game that no happy reconciliation is possible. The Key is full of paranoid fantasy moments, where a slight detail reveals a secret, a proof of betrayal: but in both films the beloved’s arse becomes the fetish of betrayal, an attempt by the male gaze to take pleasure in that betrayal. At the end of All Ladies Do It, husband and wife reach an optimal resolution, for the husband at least, in that her affairs are almost contractually limited to safeguard their marriage. Intriguingly, one of the best scenes in the film is when a giggling, flighty Diana skips around the Venetian flat she has just inherited; which allows her to entertain lovers but also suggests that she is becoming part of the bourgeois property owning class that sets store by marriage as the best way to bequeath wealth.
It’s hard to talk about these films without lingering on ladies’ bottoms. There’s no denying that Claudia Koll, the astonishingly sexy star of All Ladies Do It, has a lovely derriere; or that we get to see quite a lot of it, shot from behind in a manner that reveals her labia nestled in a bush of curly pubic hair. This is text book fetish stuff: the libidinal orientation of the film is definitely ‘arse’; and one of Diana’s fantasies is to have anal sex, an act that her husband won’t perform. In other words, Diana embraces the sadistic impulse of the male gaze (the lover who eventually anally deflowers her is even called Alphonse Donatien after the Divine Marquis). Sade saw anal sex as a revolutionary act but here it’s just part of a general sexual liberation and play of male/female sexual fantasies that are ultimately suborned into reanimating the corpse of a marriage and emphasizing the importance of property ownership.
Apart from buttocks, the lovely women who own them and the array of seedy older men who work up a froth over them, these films are notable for their production design, though in fact neither is quite as full-blown Italian operatic (Fellini, Visconti, Argento) as you might expect. All Ladies Do It looks like a cheaper, stripped down version of a Radley Metzger film from the early 70s. Apart from the edibly gorgeous Koll, there’s a strained voluptuousness to the film, a coked-up tone, big hairdos and a very 80s Miami Vice style soundtrack. The Key is a more restrained affair with touches of Bertolucci’s The Conformist (not just the Fascist Italy setting but the use of reflections in shots). There’s a Morricone score and the whole thing feels more cultured and literary than All Ladies Do It (it’s based on a famous Japanese novel that was popular in the West in the 60s). Both films are largely set in Venice, which is referred to in a great subtitle that I’m surprised the Venice Tourist Board doesn’t use on promotional material as ‘the cunt of Europe’!
It’s hard to tell whether these films offer important life lessons or whether they are just a bit seedy, but Arrow Video has definitely pulled it off again with these hard-to-fault beautiful restorations of uncensored, uncut versions. Both All Ladies Do It and The Key are available as dual format editions with optional Italian and English audio tracks.
All Ladies Do It and The Key are available as dual format editions from 20 May.