In the booklet included with the recent Twilight Time Blu-ray release of Appasionata, Julie Kirgo writes, “Yes, there are a few helpings of tasteful, nubile, and (sigh) strictly female nudity here, but they are in the service of a strange and frankly disturbing tale.” This is a very nice summation. Released in 1974 and directed by Gianluigi Calderone, Appassionata follows a dentist named Emilio (Gabriele Ferzetti). He begins an affair with Nicola (Eleonora Giorgi), a girlfriend of his teenage daughter Eugenia (Ornella Muti). At the same time, we learn that Emilio has a very flirtatious relationship with his daughter that borders dangerously close to incest. Meanwhile, the dentist’s wife, Elisa (Valentina Cortese), is completely ruined by all the madness around her and defensively retreats into a fantasy world in which she has a perfect daughter and a loyal husband. In the end, this is Elisa’s story.
Yes, yes, there’s certainly a very perverse male fantasy going on here. But this is also a tragedy. These characters are completely fucked. They’re led by their obsessions, their darker instincts. Their choices can only result in madness, broken heartedness, and desires only momentarily fulfilled.
Gabriele Ferzetti plays the very bored and boring dentist. Maybe the character is boring on purpose? But it begs the question: besides their obvious psychological damage, why are these very attractive girls so attached to this dud? He’s the kind of guy you might find brooding near the back at a church ice cream social. But maybe Ferzetti only appears so stiff and boring because he’s next to the absolutely gorgeous actors who play Nicola and Eugenia. Well, I guess that’s not giving him too much benefit of the doubt.
Valentina Cortese’s Elisa doesn’t get much screentime, but this story is hers, completely. She’s a stunning presence. She conveys everything with her eyes. Cortese’s performance is mesmerizing.
Elisa was a concert pianist who gave up her dream to devote her time to her husband and daughter. A noble thing to do, of course, but the only problem is that both the dentist and Eugenia loathe her. The dentist’s hatred is relatively buried. He can act the part of a husband, though he’s not very good at it. But Eugenia doesn’t even pretend to love her mother. The only main character who seems to have any empathy at all is Nicola. She spends time alone with Elisa learning about her time as a pianist, knitting, or just keeping her company. Actually, Elisa has been so mistreated by her daughter and husband that she has a form of PTSD. She’s so broken that when she finally lets her frustrations out on her husband at the end of the movie, in an absolutely heart wrenching scene, she’s the one who ends up in the hospital. But, of course, she’s the least sick character in the movie.
Nicola lives with an aunt. Her father is a diplomat and is away most of the time. Nothing is mentioned of Nicola’s mother, but we assume she’s either dead or not in Nicola’s life. So her attraction to the dentist comes from a lot of places. She needs a father, she wants to be a lover, she wants to be a daughter (this also explains her tender feelings toward Elisa). At the start of the movie, she has none of these things. If we can’t excuse her behavior, we can at least understand it.
There’s no excusing the dentist, of course. He’s an adult who takes advantage of girls who are not quite adults. I realize this could just be my puritanical American mores talking here, and I’d hate to seem unhip, but it’s hard to see someone who is still in high school as fully matured.
Anyway, the only interesting thing about the dentist is his fantasy life. There’s a scene toward the middle of the movie where he dozes off and starts to dream about Nicola as she dances nude for him on his bed. Next to her is a german shepherd that barks violently at him. This is a warning not to come any closer, of course, but that’s all taken care of when Nicola pulls out a handgun and shoots the fucking dog. Well, not much subtlety there. Very strange scene that one.
We sense these characters’ doom when the dentist and Nicola first have sex. They do it in the dentist’s office, after Nicola has been given an injection of novocaine. Pretending to be under the influence of the drug, Nicola attempts to seduce him. The dentist doesn’t try very hard to resist. As soon as they’re done, Nicola buttons her shirt and closes her eyes as if she’s still getting a tooth checked. We realize that there’s no going back for either of these characters, but particularly the doctor. And we know that whatever power Nicola momentarily has over the dentist, whatever control over her life she has, will be fleeting.
For her part, Nicola, for a short while, becomes wife, daughter, mother. Everything she’s longed for, including justification. The novocaine injection gives her an “out,” a way of excusing herself. This explains her rage later in the movie when, during sex, the dentist admits that he didn’t actually inject her with novocaine. He used water as a placebo. Nicola screams at him, puts her clothes back on and storms out of his office. It’s only then that she truly begins to grasp the consequences of her decision.
Not much later, we get a scene that illustrates the absolutely twisted nature of the relationship between the dentist and his daughter Eugenia. She comes home from a party and gets on the phone with Nicola, telling her about a fictional sexual encounter that she had at the party. Rough sex, bruises on her body. She wants to impress Nicola, who she’s sure is far more sexually experienced. But the good dentist decides to pick up the phone downstairs to eavesdrop on the conversation. Overhearing what a boy supposedly did to her, he rushes upstairs and tears her nightgown open, exposing her breasts. After he sees no bruises on her, he apologizes. The scene is shocking for several reasons, not least because it illustrates the latent violence of the dentist. He really is a terrible sod. But Eugenia also revels in the attention and lets her father pick her up and put her to bed. Very uncomfortable sexual tension here and in plenty of other places throughout the film. The pair actually come close to going through with their fantasies several times.
All the dark themes of the movie come to a head during Eugenia’s birthday party. A group of maybe twenty teenagers, about equally split between boys and girls, dance to some hip records while Nicola spends her time hanging out with Elisa in the bedroom, just the two of them. But the quiet tenderness of the scene is interrupted when Eugenia lets a group of girls raid poor Elisa’s sanctuary. They giggle and coo and Eugenia has them invade Elisa’s closet and try on her old clothes. Naturally, this leads to a confrontation between Eugenia and Nicola and we start to get the feeling that Nicola really is the only person besides Elisa that has a shred of humanity left.
But this idea is turned on its head a few minutes later. In an attempt to humiliate her, Eugenia pressures Elisa out into the living room to play some piano music for them. Fragile Elisa does what her daughter wants. She begins to play and, as teenagers are wont to do, the kids laugh and ignore her at first. But such overpowering beauty as Elisa’s music can’t be ignored. Soon everyone is transfixed, astonished. Even the dentist, while not exactly moved to tears by the scene, smiles at the children as he passes through the room.
While the kids downstairs are experiencing a kind of transcendence, Nicola is upstairs, crying on the bed that the dentist and Elisa occupy, but don’t really share. The dentist sees her crying and offers his comfort. She accepts. Alas, sometimes there’s nobody but our abuser to reach for. The scene is sad and quite tender, actually, for the few seconds that the dentist actually comforts Nicola. But soon a sickness forms in the viewer’s stomach as the dentist reaches out and touches Nicola on the leg. He uses Nicola’s breakdown as a chance to cop a feel.
We spend the last act of the movie watching the characters as they hurtle themselves to their doom. They become slaves to their fantasies, to their desires. Elisa ends up in a hospital for daring to show genuine emotion in front of her husband. The movie warns of the dangers that come when one tries to remake the world to suit their fantasies.
Appassionata is clearly a product of its time: the uber-serious arthouse tone gets a little heavy at times. But I think that all sorts of film buffs might dig this, if they give it a proper chance. It’s very nicely paced, has a fairly strong script, and much of the acting is quite good. Be warned, though: this thing will take you very deep into dark areas of the psyche.