The ballad of the neglected middle-aged man is one that has often been written in innumerable books and pieces of cinema. Throw in a frigid, emotional battering ram of a wife, a precocious and slightly rebelious teenage daughter off in the distance and a physically alluring sexpot-temptress to revitalize the lacking older man and well, you know the drill. The great thing about Alberto Lattuada's 1978 film, COSI COME SEI aka STAY AS YOU ARE is that while it does technically fit that domino-effect-cliche, it is a little smarter and a lot more interesting than that. Having actors on board like the inimitable Marcello Mastrioanni, Nastassja Kinski in an early, pre-TESS role, as well as Argento-muse Ania Pieroni, certainly do not hurt.
Mastrioanni plays Guilio, a successful landscaper working in Florence on a huge estate run by a sweet, elderly mother and her adult son who is obsessed with obtaining a specific statue of the goddess Diana. While walking around, he runs into Francesca (Kinski), a young college student whose head is covered by her loose, blonde tresses, until she looks up at him. Weary, older and yet friendly eyes meet with languid, curious ones. He inquires about the location of the gardener, who shows shortly thereafter. Guilio starts to head out and sees a straggly feminine figure walking along the road, noting that it is Francesca. Giving her a lift, he sees that she as a book on botany and starts to ask her about plants. She's fairly flippant and talks of her hatred of museums and orchestrated nature, until she notices his hands on the wheel. Francesca has a revelation about what she finds most attractive in men and Guilio has it. She asks for one caress. Given her age and the fact that he's married, Guilio is a bit nervous and wan looking, making his beautiful hitcher ask, “Why are you so afraid of me?,” blurring the lines between the spider and the fly.
She briefly moves his hand to her breast, before pushing it away impulsively and smirking. He stops to check in on one of his landscaping projects, only to see Francesca leave the car and hitch a ride with a random motorcyclist. Lying in the driver's side seat is a piece of paper with her phone number. Unable to resist, he calls later on, confessing that his hands are indeed “eager to touch her.” The afterglow involves her sleeping while he goes through a stack of childhood photos of Francesca, his face hard to read.
Later on, he has lunch with an old friend who notices Francesca and some of her college friends coming in and tells Guilio that she is Fosca's daughter. Who is Fosca? Guilio's great love who left him twenty something years ago and unbeknownst to him until now, was pregnant. There was another man, leaving the paternity hazy and with Fosca being dead for a few years, Guilio is left wth the uneasy feeling that he might be falling in love with his own flesh and blood.
STAY AS YOU ARE is a strange brew stirred in subtle tones and a quiet, European-tinged introspection. A mainstream American production would have amped up the already omnipresent sexuality of Francesca, while sacrificing her moments of teenage-seguiing-into-adulthood vulnerability and even worse, would have (spoiler alert) given a definitive answer to the identity of her father. Thankfully, a film like this in the hands of a man like Albert Lattuada, better known as the man who helmed the 1950 LUCI DEL VARIETA aka VARIETY LIGHTS, co-directing with Federico Fellini in the latter's first ever directorial effort. (Even better, VARIETY LIGHTS also features Fellini's long time partner and muse, Giuletta Masina.)
Lattuada handles the film deftly and reigns it in enough to prevent it from falling into either a soap opera meladrama or a cheap sex comedy. There are elements from both trite-ridden subgenres in the film, no doubt, but Lattuada keeps things just smart enough to retain the movie's even keel. Helping him with this effort are the twin efforts of the film's two leads. Mastrioanni brings a likeable gravitas to a character that in the hands of a lesser artist would be a mere victim of his own lechery. Instead, his Guilio is a man with dignity and humanity, who tries to the do what he thinks is the right thing. Morality, both in construct and within battling the primal id can be tearing thing, something Mastrioanni illustrates minus histrionics or big drama. The man says more with a melancholy lift of the eyes than 95% of Oscar winners shrieking about their dead loved ones. Guilio is no angel but that's okay because he is not supposed to be one, which is something that both Lattuada and Mastrioanni knew.
Speaking of angels, or at least their human golden-cheeked equivalent, Nastassja Kinski has perhaps never been more physically luminescent than she was in STAY AS YOU ARE. (And given that she is still gorgeous, that is really saying something.) But looks, no matter how impressive, are flimsy unless there is something substantial underneath the shiny, candy shell and with an actress like Kinski, she has that in spades. Realistically, Francesca is not written to be the most complicated of characters, complete with her girlish sexual teasing of Guilio, including licking a spoon that is a cross between oral copulatory suggestion and wino-surprise and her room adorned with posters of old, established men as pin-up father figures. But Kinski, who was just a year away from her starmaking performance in Roman Polanski's TESS, shines and adds vulnerability and the joie-di-vivre of “fuck it all” that plagued so many of us when we were 18, 19 and 20.
That said, some of Francesca's latter antics in the film border on MONELLA-level insanity. (MONELLA being Tinto Brass' film about a curvy virgin whose sexual precociousness involves peeing in the middle of the road at night while laughing maniaically.) At one point, Francesca hands a glass over to Guilio, who almost drinks it before she starts giggling and admits that it is her “pee pee.” On top of that, she then starts demanding that he bite her ass. Literally. We're talking teeth marks. Luckily, it all stops there before we start entering that nebulous territory when sexy-whimsical becomes scary-insane. This is not that movie.
Ania Pieroni, best known to Dario Argento fans as the striking beauty with the cat in INFERNO, should get special mention here in her role as Francesca's erotically adventurous roommate, Cecilia. Pieroni is quite funny and a good contrast to the more introverted Kinski. The rest of the cast is good though not given much to do, including Barbara De Rossi and Monica Randall as Guilio's often neglected daughter and wife. Having both of their roles expanded more than just an understanding and knocked up teen mother and emotionally distant wife would have been an appreciated move but it is not enough to be a deal breaker by any means.
STAY AS YOU ARE was out of print for years after its stateside VHS release via Warner Home Video back in 1982, is back and on Blu Ray thanks to another high quality release by Cult Epics. Given that the former seemed to market it like a quiet, staid feelgood film, it's no wonder that this film has been semi-obscure for so long. Cult Epics have brought it back to the forefront and rightfully emphasisizing the film's beauty, tainted sexuality and the high weirdness of living.
While STAY AS YOU ARE may not be the greatest film on Lattuada's, Mastrioanni's or Kinski's healthy filmogaphries, it is a solid, smartly executed tale filled with layers of small humor, conflicted sensuality and a heart-worn 3melancholy that makes it worth a view for a cineaste with a weakness for any and all of the above.