Top Sensation

1969, Italy
Cast: Rosalba Neri, Edwige Fenech, Eva Thulin, Maud Belleroche, Maurizio Bonuglia, Ruggero Miti, Salvatore Puntillo.
Director: Ottavio Alessi.
Screenplay: Ottavio Alessi, Nelda Minucci, Lorenzo Ricciardi.
Cinematography: Alessandro D’Eva.
Music: Sante M. Romitelli.

To call a film “explosive” which stars Edwige Fenech is one thing. To call a film “explosive” which stars Rosalba Neri is another, albeit similar, thing. To call a film “explosive” which opens with Neri flinging dynamite around with all the glee and gesticulating of a silent film actor is a bad pun. To call a film “explosive” which stars both Fenech and Neri and features the aforementioned opening is the come-on of the century. Top Sensation, then, should be the most “explosive” (and underseen) melodramatic thriller possibly ever produced. But it isn’t, or at least, it mostly isn’t. Instead, the film is a slow burning, dark, semi-satirical play on the differences between the haves and the have nots that wants to be skankier than it actually is. Put another way, Luis Buñuel would likely have appreciated this picture.

Ottavio Alessi’s film concerns five jerks on a yacht. Mudy (Maud Belleroche) wants to get her son Tony (Ruggero Miti) laid. To that end, she enlists her possible employee/possible family member/possible buddy Paola (Neri) and Paola’s husband Aldo (Maurizio Bonuglia), and they, in turn, enlist the Caucasian-ly exotic Ulla (Fenech) to do the job for a nice payday. The rub is that Tony is very much an introvert, possibly a psychotic, and definitely a firebug. Stuck on a sandbar near a small island, this gaggle meets naïve Beba (Eva Thulin) and her lummox of a husband Andro. Discovering Tony’s fondness for Beba, the gears in Mudy’s head start churning overtime.

Top Sensation is somewhat schizophrenic (possibly to mirror Tony’s interior world, though not likely), following that singular logic European genre films seem to think is actually logical. Tony is clearly a young man with issues. He sits in his room playing with his radio-controlled racetrack and whatever matches on which he can lay his mitts. When he spray paints a picture of a house, it’s in the style of a kindergartner, complete with stick figures for the happy folks inside it. He’s not mentally handicapped, though he appears to be old enough that, for the way he acts, a handicap could explain it. Instead, Tony is deranged. He was shipped off to Switzerland for a fire he started. There he was treated with injections and some more nebulous means, none of which took. Aldo insists that even Tony’s doctors don’t think that getting him laid will cure his problems (I know of no doctor who would even bring up this course of action for psychopathy).

Mudy, alternately, avers that Tony is “a normal boy, but at his age, he should be a normal man.” Only a mother could call a boy like Tony “normal.” And on what planet would anyone hand a person like Tony a lit stick of dynamite, anyway? Beba, similarly, is childlike. She lives the simple life of a goat herder, and she thinks Tony is just great. She also believes in magic words that make the “ghosts” on her island go away. That she is married to and has had sex with Andro in no way affects her doe-eyed outlook. She thinks Tony is the bee’s knees and wants to impress him, dismissing his mental issues. Thus, she lets Ulla and Paola do her up like themselves. They strip away Beba’s innocent qualities, and she allows them to because she’s guileless and eager to be an “adult” (again, this despite her physical maturity and marital status). When Tony sees this transformation, it sours his view of Beba. As with everything these people touch, Beba becomes corrupted.

In like fashion, the film deals heavily in perversion, but it’s largely portrayed in a staid manner. Mudy is no stranger to drugs and alcohol, and she indulges in them as she pleases. She lies in bed smoking a large pipe. The audience is never told what’s in it, but it obviously isn’t tobacco. Paola turns up at Mudy’s room in a gold outfit that would make Cleopatra blush, the two have sex, and they allow Aldo to watch via the closed-circuit television that creepily keeps tabs on everyone aboard the boat. If Mudy and Paola or Mudy and Aldo are related, by blood or by marriage, that would be sleazy, but it also wouldn’t be the only incest that happens on the yacht. We’re told that, at an “acid party,” Mudy poured whisky down Tony’s throat. Aldo, lucky dog, has sex with all three of the women in the initial group. At one point, Ulla allows a goat to nibble on her nethers (or this is very heavily implied). Paola and Ulla seduce Beba into a threesome after getting her drunk. The odd thing is that, for as kinky as the subject matter is, Alessi shies away from depicting the shenanigans in any sort of detail. For example, whenever Aldo gets some, he conveniently pulls his conquest behind a really convenient (or inconvenient, perspective depending) wall on the ship. The bestiality scene is portrayed via a closeup of Fenech’s bare knees in profile with the goat, who is clearly not in on the gag, just sort of looking around a bit.

The film does give its viewer plenty of its three youngest women’s bare breasts, and this Playboy level of nudity and perversity does somehow manage to titillate to a degree. This relates back to the film’s editing, which can be described generously as “choppy.” The film elides so much connective tissue, it forces the viewer to fill in what’s missing with whatever it is they assume must have happened in the interim. Since this is the norm for the narrative of the film, it follows that it is also the norm for the exploitive elements. Working on a level approaching Robert Wise’s The Haunting (this is possibly an overstatement), Top Sensation becomes as filthy as the imagination of its watchers. If this is pondered for any length, a thin line can then be drawn between the brutes onscreen and the people in the audience. After all, the characters are all taking a great deal of pleasure in what they do, the audience is taking a great deal of pleasure in watching them do it, but moreover, the audience has to fill in the gaps to complete the picture, so what the gaps are filled with reflects the audience’s libidinous preferences as much as the characters’, if not more so.

Hand in hand with the idea of perversion is the concept of the callous apathy of the moneyed class and its corruptive influence. There is nothing new in this point of view, per se, but Top Sensation goes to great lengths to hammer home this point, and, at least in this facet, the film steadfastly sticks to its guns. This is evident from the very first scene (the one involving Paola and TNT). The act of watching the explosives causing havoc on nature makes her “horny.” She is also a skilled marksman, and she picks off several of Andro’s goats, thinking nothing of what they mean to the peasant. Even after agreeing to pay Andro for the animals, the man never sees the money. Mudy treats everyone on the yacht like a servant, whether she employs them or not. Aldo fast-talks his way around everyone, concerned only with getting his way.

His (and Paola’s) way, incidentally, is to get a piece of Mudy’s oil holdings, and there is no depth to which they won’t stoop to reach this goal. Ulla is close to being the most innocent among the yachters, yet even she is venal by nature, prostituting herself for Mudy’s plan. They will all do whomever or whatever is necessary to get what they want. Hence, Beba and her purity mean as little to Mudy and company as does the floor on which Aldo chucks his cigarette butts. Beba goes in for this because the to-do surrounding her makes her feel important, glamorous, and wanted. Andro allows himself to get sucked into this hell, because he is, at heart, a simpleton who dreams of the unattainable things that Paola and the rest have and take for granted: money, beauty, freedom. So, when Ulla and Paola fling themselves at him and ply him with booze, he’s all for it. He may protest about wanting to see his wife during all this, but honestly, there is no doubt he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

When there is finally a moment of clarity for the guests of the yachters, it is too late, and they have already signed their lives away, attracted into flying too close to the sun. The moment of clarity for Tony comes when he is enlightened to the fact that no one is immune to the machinations of people like his mother and her friends. He has held out his entire life for a person like Beba, and when she is changed, it’s the proverbial straw for Tony. He finally becomes a man, the man his mother always wanted him to be. The film ends on a note of uncertainty (having been conditioned by the film’s editing, it feels cozy here) and quiet resignation, but not necessarily solely for the characters. They know exactly what they are now. But the viewer is left with the sour notion that this squalid microcosm is indeed how the world works. Worse, they know that this is true.

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