Troubled teenager Eugenia (Ornella Muti) is devoted to her father Dr. Emilio Ruteli (Gabriele Ferzetti) since her mother Elisa (Valentina Cortese), once a concert pianist, now suffers from a non-specific mental illness that leaves her a hysterical wreck, whining or shrieking all day. Such antics embarrass Eugenia, but her sexually provocative best friend Nicola (Eleonora Giorgi) shows more compassion for the ailing woman alongside a fascination with Emilio. One day Nicola arrives at Emilio’s dental practice for a routine check-up. Writhing sensually on his dentist’s chair, she suddenly pulls off his trousers and - sorry, but there is no polite way to put this - bonks his brains out. Afterwards a startled Emilio watches from the window as Nicola coolly rejoins Eugenia at school and over the coming days acts like nothing ever happened.
Alongside the ubiquitous sex comedy, morbid erotic dramas proliferated Italian cinema throughout the Seventies. Possibly by way of probing the psychological state of the fractured modern family, though there lay strong elements of soft-core titillation beneath the dour, often po-faced drama. So it is with Appassionata which, in spite of taking an understated and lyrical approach, comes across in part as every dirty old man’s most torrid fantasy come true. In fact the above synopsis merely scratches the surface since by far its biggest twist is having Eugenia seemingly intent on usurping her unstable mother as both homemaker and lover! Some have described the film as an Italian precursor to American Beauty (1999) given its use of the male midlife crisis as a metaphor for the breakdown in society at large, but it forgoes satire in favour of warped psychosexual angst with the incest subplot taking things into queasy territory.
Quite what point director/co-writer Gian Luigi Calderone was trying to make with this part Harold Pinter, part soft-focus soft-core romp is anyone’s guess. He serves us spiteful neurotic caricatures of the various stages of femininity, from malicious teen nympho to shrill middle age. Valentina Cortese’s overly mannered performance makes Elisa intensely irritating when she should be sympathetic, although there is one endearing scene where she charms a roomful of rowdy teenagers with an impromptu piano recital. Elsewhere, Calderone seems to think young women are obsessed solely with sex and possessed by a lust that overrides all rational impulses. Emilio eavesdrops on Eugenia and Nicola’s raunchy phone calls and can’t help ogling them while they shop for sexy underwear. Even more unsettlingly, in one scene he discovers Nicola naked in his bedroom fondling herself in front of the increasingly aroused family dog, whom she shoots dead at the point of climax! Does this actually happen or is it all in Emilio’s head? It’s one of several scenes rendered far too vague.
Neither of the sultry stars are remotely convincing as schoolgirls, which is perhaps a mercy, though Muti and Giorgi are both winning actresses and ably serve the oddball drama. Events climax, so to speak, with a dazed, drunken Emilio being ravished by a mystery sex partner, leading to the most twisted “happy” ending you’re likely to see. Piero Piccioni serves up another groovy futuristic score. Interestingly the film was distributed by schlock horror producer Herman Cohen, of I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957) and Trog (1970) infamy.