Cheeky!/TRAsgreDIRE (2000) ***
I’ve told you all that I’m an ass-man, right? Well, if I haven’t, then there it is; and if I have, then there it is again. El Santo is an ass-man. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the appeal of breasts, legs, lips, feet, or any of the other things that are or have been traditionally held up as totemic of female beauty. Indeed, on a sufficiently alluring woman— an Annie Belle, a Dinah Cancer, a Rajeshwari Sachdev— virtually every square inch of surface area holds its own particular charm. But for me, there’s nothing like a shapely pair of buttocks to epitomize the aesthetic marvels of femininity. So it would go without saying that I’m rather a fan of Tinto Brass, were that name just a bit more widely known than it is, for among the several roles Brass has played over the lengthy course of his filmmaking career is that of the bum-lover’s answer to Russ Meyer. But whereas Meyer hung up his spurs after 1979’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Brass keeps on working at the same leisurely pace he’s maintained since the early 1960’s. He also tends to take his movies more seriously than Meyer ever did, even the ones that are supposed to be funny. That tendency is very much on display in the curiously philosophical erotic farce known originally as TRAsgreDIRE. The Italian title is a visual pun in which a general statement on the heroine’s conduct (trasgredire— “to transgress”) is presented in such a way as to call attention to the specific sin of which she is guilty (tradire— “to cheat”). Obviously that was impervious to translation, so TRAsgreDIRE’s distributors in the English-speaking world resorted to a somewhat cruder pun by retitling it Cheeky! On the one hand, the English-language title suggests the heroine’s shamelessness and disregard for “polite” female behavioral norms. And on the other, it cues us to expect— and rightly so— a veritable festival of comely butts.
Carla Borin (Ukrainian-born Yuliya Mayarchuk— did Brass make this movie expressly for me or something?) is a Venetian girl living in London for the sake of an internship at the Hyde Park Hotel. She’s been in the city about a month, and expects to stay there a month more. Carla has a boyfriend back home, a rather square college student by the name of Matteo (Jarno Berardi), and in ten days, he’s supposed to be arriving in London himself for the full immersion phase of his studies in the English language. Really, Matteo can’t come too soon, because Carla is constantly inflamed with lust in his absence, and exhibits a pronounced tendency to provoke similar inflammations in everyone who sees her. Beyond that, if Brass is to be believed (in an interview appended as an extra to the Italian-language cut of Cheeky!), “Venetian women are champion cheaters.”
Carla’s present living arrangements are hardly suitable as lodging for a couple, however, so the girl crosses Hyde Park (in a nearly transparent outfit, without underwear of any kind, eye-fucking each and every person she encounters on the way, male and female alike) to visit the real estate agency run by an attractive 30-ish woman named Moira (Francesca Nunzi, of Frivolous Lola, whose casting is one of Cheeky!’s weaker links; Moira is supposed to be a native Brit, but Nunzi’s accent when she speaks English is so dense that it’ll take you a moment or two to figure out why the subtitles have stopped). As Carla explains both her situation and what she’s looking for, Moira counters that were it not for Matteo, Carla would be welcome to move in with her. She and her Italian husband, Mario (Max Parodi, from Private and My Love), split up recently, so there’s plenty of room, and Moira (having decided that she’s completely through with men) would certainly not object to having a pretty girl around the house. But if Carla simply must insist on importing her boyfriend, Moira still thinks they can work out a discount deal on a loft she’s brokering over along the Thames— depending on how friendly Carla is open to being, you understand. Carla talks a great game about having no sexual interest in anyone but Matteo, but her denials are rendered somewhat less than convincing when she permits Moira to feel her up in the office, to perform oral sex on her at the loft, and to bring her along for an afternoon at a spa where the very groutwork oozes lesbianism. And that’s to say nothing of the receptive attitude with which Carla greets male perverts of every description, from Hyde Park flashers to overeager masseurs to the randy old man who runs the photography lab where she goes to get the snapshots of her London adventure thus far developed. Ordinarily I’d say that Matteo is a little too quick to suspect his girlfriend of infidelity when she mentions Moira in her next phone call to Venice, but the plain fact is that he’s nowhere near suspicious enough.
The official purpose of that phone call (in contradistinction to its real purpose, which was to create an opportunity to masturbate while listening to Matteo’s voice) was to arrange for Matteo to pick up a couple things from home that Carla has decided she really wants: her crudely Freudian book on dream interpretation (“Although the interpretation of every dream is always coitus, I miss that book”) and her favorite pair of panties (which is a rather strange request, really, since we’ve seen no indication thus far that she ever wears any). This is a serious tactical error on Carla’s part, because while searching her room for the articles in question, Matteo also finds a cache of old love letters to Carla from a Frenchman named Bernard (Mauro Lorenz). And while it’s true that they are all old love letters, even the earliest significantly post-dates the inception of Carla’s relationship with Matteo. Matteo’s first thought is to cancel his trip to London, and while he never comes right out and says he’s breaking up with Carla during the phone call in which he announces this change of plans, or reveals what might have motivated him to do so, the subtext is plain enough for Carla to pick up on it. But then Matteo rethinks his rethinking, and drops in without warning at the loft. His timing is most inconvenient for Carla, as Moira had invited the implicitly jilted girl to what I can only describe as an ass party at her place the evening before, and the two women spent the night together having makeup sex after a fight touched off when Moira caught Mario (whom she had also invited for who knows what reason) sodomizing Carla in the bathroom. Moira is still at the loft when Matteo arrives, and Carla’s efforts to concoct an “innocent” explanation for the scene that confronts him when she answers his knock at the door are nearly tragic in their transparency. Moira flees, Matteo storms off when he doesn’t like Carla’s explanation of the love letters any more than he liked the presence of a nude real estate agent at her flat, and it falls to the perverts of Hyde Park to salvage the kids’ relationship by giving Matteo a crash course in alternative models of romance.
One of the things I love about reviewing European porn is that it occasionally affords me the chance to make what sound like grandiose, flagrantly ridiculous claims on a movie’s behalf, and actually mean them. Of Cheeky!, for instance, I can say with a completely straight face that it belongs to an Italian literary tradition dating back literally centuries— that of didactic pornography. As with most of the smuttier stories in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (of somewhat uncertain date, but clearly composed during the early 1350’s), Cheeky! isn’t just out to titillate. Tinto Brass is attempting here to impart what he considers wisdom about love and relationships, and again like the Decameron, the message Cheeky! puts forth is both highly idiosyncratic and strongly at odds with conventional, moralistic notions of how people in love should treat each other. Boccaccio and Brass even take as their common starting point the pragmatic (if potentially self-serving) assumption that sexual infidelity is, if not completely inevitable, then close enough to it to make no difference to the vast majority of humanity that has not somehow managed to become romantically entangled with a saint. (And those people, as Boccaccio was happy to expound at length, have another set of problems all their own!) Where the two men part company is on what to do about the effectively inescapable reality of cheating.
Boccaccio is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of guy. You’re going to cheat, he says; your partner is going to cheat; yet you’ll each be heartbroken if you ever find out what the other is up to. So if you truly love your partner, be considerate enough to keep your cheating well out of sight, so that he or she doesn’t have to know about it— and if you discover that you’re being cheated on, then by all means find it in your heart to forgive, since you know perfectly well that you’re a cheating bastard, too. Brass, on the other hand, asks what’s the point of hiding from infidelity when you can make it work for you. In his view, cheating, openly acknowledged, is actually good for a relationship! For one thing, adultery staves off the monotony that all too easily creeps into a long-term pair-bond, along with the resentment that arises naturally from a lifetime of foreclosed possibilities. Partly, Brass is making a facile prescription to fight boredom by yielding to it, but he’s also pointing out that the more we demand of any one person, the more likely they are to disappoint us. No one would argue seriously that it’s healthy to rely on a single person to satisfy all of our social needs, no matter how much we might love them, and yet we seem to think it makes sense to expect the person we love most to shoulder sole responsibility for our sexual satisfaction. Brass doesn’t think that makes sense at all, and he suggests instead that couples would stay coupled longer without the pressure of such high sexual stakes. But more importantly, and more to Cheeky!’s central point, Brass argues that infidelity makes the cheating partner look sexier to the one being cheated on, and that jealousy is the world’s most powerful aphrodisiac. It’s worth emphasizing as well the terms on which he seeks to make that point. Whatever else it may be, Cheeky! is not simply an apologia for the Mediterranean tradition of the compulsively straying husband, for the sexual adventurer here is Carla; Matteo is a monogamist through and through, and the conflict arises because he expects Carla to be the same way. But as Matteo eventually learns with the help of the cuckolding fetishists he meets in the park, other people’s desire for the object of his affections can be a potent reminder of what he himself finds desirable in her, if only he chooses to see it that way. Furthermore, because “bad” girls are inherently sexier than “good” ones in the context of a culture that stigmatizes female sexual expression per se, it can only enhance Carla’s attractiveness in the eyes of everyone who desires her if she allows herself to be seen seducing and being seduced. This is the sort of message that a porno movie can easily support, because the relevance of polemical content to subject matter is both direct and obvious. And in contrast to, say, Salon Kitty (where the smut and the politics were constantly tripping each other up), Cheeky! gains an extra edge from asking us to think about how and why Carla’s story is turning us on, rather than merely relying upon the considerable erotic power of Yuliya Mayarchuk’s much-ogled rear.