Best known for his scandalous Nazi sex shocker Salon Kitty (1976) and his orgiastic take on depraved Roman emperor Caligula (1979), Tinto Brass turned to lighter eroticism with The Key in 1983. Adapted from a much filmed novel by Junichirô Tanizaki (including by Kon Ichikawa in 1959 and by Tatsumi Kumashiro in 1974 as part of Nikkatsu studio’s Roman Porno series), The Key relocates the story to 1940s fascist Venice. Nino is an ageing husband who tries to get his much younger, but sexually inhibited wife Teresa to loosen up by manipulating her into an affair with their future son-in-law, Laszlo. This he does by writing a diary, which he makes sure Teresa stumbles upon. Unsettled by what she’s read, Teresa starts to explore her sexuality, starting her own diary, which she hides in a place where she knows her husband will find it. Exquisitely twisted mind games follow, leading to more and more adventurous sexual encounters fed by jealousy and unspoken desires, in which the couple’s daughter Lisa will also play a part.
One of Brass’s classiest films, it is a gorgeous, sophisticated, racy drama given added depth by its setting. Demonstrating Brass’s much-admired visual flair, the lush colours, painterly compositions and use of mirrors beautifully enhance the elegant eroticism of the film. The grey, rainy Venice and oppressive fascist background create a gloomy, melancholy atmosphere that contrasts with the warm, muted colours of the interiors that shelter the three characters’ private journey of sexual liberation and discovery. Mussolini admirer and fascist activist Lisa, the only explicitly political character, is also the only one who doesn’t seem to grasp the fluid complexity of the emotional and sexual relationships between the other three characters. Although to do so Nino and Teresa have to play an unconventional, elaborate game of secrets and disclosures, sometimes coldly calculating what to reveal and what to suppress in their diaries, they are able to finally attain a remarkable level of intimacy and understanding.
Unlike his later, rather cheesy All Ladies Do It (Così fan tutte, 1992, also newly released on DVD and Blu-ray by Arrow Video), The Key is not a flimsy, silly sleaze-by-numbers fest, but an erotic drama that is as cerebral as it is sensual, relying as much on the words written by the characters as on the piquant sexual encounters. The superb Stefania Sandrelli lends her voluptuous beauty to Teresa, and her natural, unrestrained performance is essential to both the film’s psychological depth and carnal appeal. The Key delivers plenty of that while also offering a subtle, sensitive depiction of the strange remoteness within a marriage and the convoluted mechanics of desire, which, as in all of Brass’s films, are observed with a non-judgemental, open mind.