Junichirô Tanizaki's novel, Kagi (The Key), had previously been made into a film in 1959 by co-writer/director Kon Ichikawa (retitled Odd Obsession, the film was released two years later in America) and years later, Tinto Brass took a leap of faith in his own abilities as a writer/director and bought the rights; he then waited for the right time to tackle the book's plot, about a couple who discover each other's sexual inhibitions and desires by reading each other's regular diary entries.
As he explains in the DVD's excellent interview segment, Brass' take on the novel was radically different: the story's more interesting angle was the man's own questioning of his own sexual desires, as age had transformed his marriage into a civil and polite existence. The rigid facade of the Japanese culture was reworked to exploit the social and behavioral constrictions imposed by Mussolini's fascist regime, the locale became Venice, and Italian references replaced any ties to the story's Japanese elements. Even the influence of the diaries was reduced, although it's only after the husband has left the key to his desk that the wife starts to read his diary - thereby prompting her to start one of her own. The husband's discovery of her book is awfully contrived, but past that issue, The Key is a surprisingly good film, peppered with Brass' usual fixations on a woman's hairy delta, and her rear ovals.
Brass admits his favourite period is the forties, where he discovered the eroticism of women through fashion, art, and music, so it's no surprise that even when his films aren't set in the roughly 1945-1955 decade, each frame is larded in some way with retro imagery or songs from his youth. Garters, primary colours, and pop-jazz ditties are the mainstays, although his use of gauzy lenses, foggy backgrounds, and blue-tinted sunlight are redolent of arty seventies filmmaking.
The pedigree involved with The Key is unusually high, since Brass' subsequent films rarely involve name actors, and are basically 90 min. exercises in popo adulation; neither plot nor characters are really important. It's clear Tanizaki's novel inspired him to go beyond his insane fetishes (or at least diversify them), so while established actor Frank Finlay (The Three Musketeers) does his measure of groping, fondling, and obsessing, he gives Brass' acceptable dialogue a bit of sophistication - a tactic the director and Bob Guccione knew would keep people watching when the excesses of Caligula bled from the screen in ghastly bouts of gore and foaming fluids. English accents from trained thespians clearly worked that film, but unlike Caligula, The Key has characters.
Similar to Caligula, Brass also adds a few characters with physical deformities, but their appearances serve to foreshadow Professor Rolfe's physical state after he suffers an inevitable stroke; the result of having indulged in every no-no his doctor told him to stay away from: rich food, wine, and sexual excitement. The wife's teasing and affair with her future son-in-law also serves to reawaken her own sexuality, and ultimately redirects her desires back to her husband, whom she prefers for his maturity, and their shared history.
In a continued interview segment on Cult Epics' Miranda DVD, Brass admits that most modern erotic films lack a happy ending: the Puritan American line of transgression is often rewarded by death or torment. While he's specifically referring to Miranda's uplifting conclusion (two people finally get married after attenuated desires), a happy finale also resides in The Key: Finlay dies from a stroke, but he goes out with a final smile, having participated in the best erotic adventure of his life, and for re-igniting his wife's libido (which she declares alive and well to the public by turfing wan, calming colours for blazing primary red dresses during a funeral procession).
Also unique to Brass' film is his depiction of a new technology adopted for naughty purposes. Artists realized that, with paints, brushes, and a canvas, they could capture their fantasies in total privacy, so it's completely logical that the professor would use a camera to capture his wife's naked poses - albeit taken while she was totally blotto - and have them quietly developed for his personal gratification (albeit by his future son-in-law, thereby igniting the boy's interest in the professor's wife). Brass also adds a scene where the future son demonstrates a Polaroid-type camera - furthering the level of privacy amateur erotic photographers would enjoy (though hopefully with their partner's coherent permission).
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The Key may be Brass' best film, and while he explored his favourite decade in later works such as Miranda, Senso '45, and to some degree, Monella / Frivolous Lola, it also signals his desire to only focus on the things that excite him within a sub-genre he created for himself. That narrow scope has subsequently limited his creativity and forced a repetition of bland story templates and fetishistic imagery, but he's a rare survivor from an era when erotic films were titillating and funny.
Cult Epics' transfer is first-rate, and while the cinematography is overly gauzy, the colours are stable. Ennio Morricone's sparse score adds another needed dimension of wit and hidden turmoil to the characters relationship, and Brass shows his taste for limited themes by re-using most of the score's few original cues throughout the film.
Co-stars Frank Finlay would achieve cult immortality in Tobe Hooper's ridiculously fun turkey, Lifeforce (1985), and then move into a hugely prolific career on British TV; Stefania Sandrelli continued to appear in major films, including those of Bernardo Bertolucci, having already acted in Novecento / 1900 (1976), and Il Conformista / The Conformist (1970). (Bernardo Bertolucci's cousin, film producer Giovanni Bertolucci, began his long-term association with Brass via The Key until his death in 2005, which might explain how Bernardo's favourite composer, Morricone, became involved with a Brassian flick.)
Actor Franco Branciaroli (the son-in-law) would appear in Brass' next film, Miranda (1985), and unofficially become the director's Jimmy Stewart, playing a series of supporting everyman roles in Cosi fan tutte / All Ladies Do It (1992), L' Uomo che guarda / The Voyeur (1994), and Senso '45 / Black Angel (2002).
Tanizaki's novel, Kagi, was remade in 1997 by director Toshiharu Ikeda.
Other Tinto Brass releases from Cult Epics include Deadly Sweet / Col cuore in gola (1967), Attraction / The Artful Penetration of Barbara / Nerosubianco (1969), Howl, The / L’hurlo (1970),The Key / La Chiave (1983), Miranda (1985), All Ladies Do It / Così fan tutte (1992), Voyeur, The / L'Uomo che guarda (1994), Frivolous Lola (1998), Cheeky / Trasgredire (2000), and Private / Fallo! (2003).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan