Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Italian In You

So is it even right for me to say anything about Dario Argento’s GIALLO? Over a year after its initial festival screenings, months after bad word spreading around the internet and Argento himself proclaiming his dissatisfaction due to how the film was taken away from him in editing it was pretty clear there were going to be problems. Then finally right on the eve of the film’s official release on DVD in the U.S. star Adrien Brody filed suit against the producers, seeking a permanent injunction against the film’s release alleging he never received payments he was promised after discovering during shooting that the film was underfunded. Why he waited so long is odd but nevertheless the film is out there now for all to see, for better or for worse, and I got it delivered from Netflix as soon as could be done. What seemed most notable going in next to my decidedly low expectations was that this was actually my first viewing of a new Argento feature that wasn’t in a theater, either through an AFM, Cinematheque or commercial screening, in nearly fifteen years. I’m not quite sure how I pulled that off either and considering the bankability of the star this time around you’d think that alone would have led to some sort of theatrical release, however small. So much for that optimism, I guess. For horror fans, this certainly seemed like a promising project on the surface—the possibility of the director making what based on the title alone was presumed to be a tribute to the genre he was partly an instigator of as well as the presence of Oscar winner Adrien Brody and Emmmanuelle Seigner, Mrs. Roman Polanski herself, in the lead roles. As it turns out, some of the needed elements that would promise the right kind of madness are there but due to a problematic script, troubles on the financing end and, maybe most depressing of all, a directorial style that feels decidedly low energy the film doesn’t do much in the end. It’s not a wipeout, it’s just…all right. There are some enjoyably Argentoesque touches sprinkled throughout that help but in the end the overall effect feels like too much of a shrug when it needs to be like the harsh sting of whiskey. Ideally, J&B whiskey. I only wish.

Beautiful model Celine (Elsa Patsky) suddenly disappears late one night in Turin, Italy, kidnapped by a lunatic who specializes in abducting beautiful young women in a taxi cab. When her sister Linda (Emmanuellle Seigner of FRANTIC and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY) goes to the police she receives no help until she encounters Inspector Enzo Alfolfi (Academy Award winner Adrien Brody), an Italian-American cop who works in the precinct basement by himself, dealing in the worst possible abductions and killings imaginable. Alfolfi takes Linda’s information with interest and tells her to go home to wait but naturally she doesn’t listen, soon tagging along with the detective. The search for her sister soon leads them to a killer named Flavio Volpe (“Byron Diedra”) a hideous brute who has a condition that has caused his skin to turn yellow with his own plans to take care of Celine as Enzo and Linda race against time to find her before she becomes his next victim.

It isn’t all that much of a setup, with some of the way things are laid out sounding a little too much like THE BONE COLLECTOR and very quickly it becomes evident that this isn’t a giallo-type storyline anyway (odd writing credits, separately naming Argento then the team of Jim Agnew and Sean Keller—this definitely wasn’t WGA-sanctioned). Having the title derive from the killer’s condition instead of the type of film it would presumably be riffing on seems to be part of the joke. The name giallo (Italian for yellow, natch) comes from a type of book, seen in a character’s apartment here at one point, that would be issued in trademark yellow paperback covers and some of the films of this type are the ones that Argento remains most famous for. It’s generally considered a fairly stylish type of murder mystery with sex-infused violence and an overall sinuous vibe moving through lots of drinking, lots of beautiful women, lots of red herrings and any number plot turns that are usually pretty ludicrous. GIALLO the film is pretty violent with giant close-ups of unpleasant torture and has no real mystery to it—we know who the killer is right from the beginning. There are one or two patently ridiculous plot points but the way it inserts the color yellow into the plot to play off the expectations of the form frankly plays like it’s meant to be more clever than it ever really is. In spite of any intensity that arises between the leads, things are kept on a surface level as opposed to being any real examination of the genre.

It’s bland and nasty instead of stylish and sinuous with the way it delves into torture porn, for lack of a better term, turning things into kind of a drag in a way that feels a little beneath what Argento has been capable of in the past. There’s not much in the way of a story that makes a lot of sense--I doubt any missing girl’s sister would be allowed to tag along on an investigation and witness what she does, not to mention show her some pretty nasty photos of mutilated bodies, but since you could say that about any number of Argento films (or various other giallos, for that matter) that’s really not what the issue is here anyway. What’s missing is any sense of pure cinematic delirium that we would want from an Argento film of any kind and more than anything that’s what really hurts things. Too often there’s just a sharpness missing from his direction—in one scene where Brody sees someone and races after them but the way it’s shot makes it difficult to tell what’s catching his attention, so as a result there’s no way to get involved in what’s happening. As a film it’s serviceable, I’ll give it that much, with a number of touches that feel unique to the director occurring at some points appear out of nowhere in an almost refreshing way—for one thing, it occurred to me while watching this film that possibly no director can make getting bumped into by somebody as genuinely unnerving as he can. There are also some sly touches of humor, several of them involving cigarette smoking (Brody and Seigner pausing to do this at one point, similar to a beat with Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA, is probably my favorite moment in the film) and there really aren’t any issues that come out of Argento not working in his native language or any totally bonkers moment that causes things to go totally off the rails.

But maybe that’s the thing—aside from a few flashback sequences (involving an angelic little boy, for one) that do have the right sort of vibe, the several flat-out insane things that happen (also a few done in flashbacks) are filmed by Argento in just a dead-on way, so even the madness never gets a consistent tone and as a result even the crazy elements feel kind of muted. It’s not all that great a script either--if there was any real ambition to making it more than what it is or even some kind of comment on the giallo form, where Argento’s career had come from and where it had gone (which I guess he sort of already did with his film SLEEPLESS), there’s not much to mine out of this material. It’s not really boring, just kind of underwhelming and uninspired, with little real oomph associated with the director—I guess I liked MOTHER OF TEARS somewhat more, if only because in all its absurdity it had a delirium to it, unlike this one which is considerably more graphic than the average episode of LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT or CRIMINAL MINDS but still isn’t really that far removed from those shows aside from being set in Italy. And I sometimes enjoy watching SVU (not CRIMINAL MINDS, that show is crap) so there are far worse things I could say about GIALLO and in a weird way I may not even be as negative on it as it seems. But with the story dwelling on business like pat discussions of a killer who “wants to destroy beautiful things” there’s just not much here to get excited by—even sequences seemingly designed to build tension like the first taxi kidnapping just come off as dull with very little effort made to make it otherwise (the final moments of Rose McGowan in DEATH PROOF come to mind as the good version of this sort of thing) as if the big shock it’s been building to will be enough. The music by Marco Werba also might be the worst score ever heard in an Argento film, playing like weak tea annoyingly dripping through scene after scene, (a lot of it sounds like John Ottman’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS was used for the temp track) and there’s an unrelentingly bland look to the cinematography by Frederic Fasano (who also shot the much richer-looking MOTHER OF TEARS) all the way through which manages all too often to gets me disinterested in anything going on in front of the camera.

The most noteworthy element of the film is also the most difficult to discuss (spoilers ahead, I guess), specifically how the actor “Byron Diedra” playing the killer who though given a name is referred to only as Giallo in the end credits is actually someone else under heavy makeup playing a second role (switch the letters around and you’ll get the answer). This isn’t at all a twist situation like the script Donald Kaufman was writing in ADAPTATION, it really is a completely different character whose face is kept obscured from the camera until around the halfway point, but there isn’t much of a point to why that happens when it does either. Drawing some kind of parallel between the two characters and where their not dissimilar pasts have led them really doesn’t play at all—the entire concept needed a better script as much as it needed a director who had an idea what to do with all this and it doesn’t feel like Argento does. The penultimate scene (which, in a better film, could have served as an ending) brings this theme to the forefront in a way that should be powerful and plays just fine by itself but too much of the subtext feels lobbed in out of nowhere, even if it has been somewhat set up, so it has no real effect. Following up that moment, the ending feels like it should have the sting of one of Argento’s other darkly comic conclusions (I guess I’m thinking of CAT O’NINE TAILS) but it just plays unsatisfying as if the production came up with the scene after the fact and brought in somebody else to shoot it. If anything, I think of Adrien Brody’s Enzo Alfolfi, working by himself down in a basement hidden away with his own madness because that’s better for everyone and then I associate that with how Argento is kind of stuck down in a basement at this point in his career as well. Maybe he even thought that this script was what he was waiting for, but what he filmed just got taken away from him in the end. One scene that brings Brody and Seigner down to a police records room where he’s given more information than he’s asked for feels about as symbolic as anything here. A prominent Italian poster for THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY seen in the background here, notable considering the director’s own famous association as one of the writers of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST indicates that he’s aware of his past, but doesn’t want to spend too much time rummaging through it. It’s a shame because I’d like to think that there’s still something of value to find down there and create one more horror masterwork but maybe only Dario Argento knows for sure.

I have nothing really bad to say about the two leads, since they both seems to be trying, ready to work and play off each other though with Brody going for a little too much of a film noir tough guy approach, Seigner’s earnest performance feels slightly easier to connect with. I also feel like pointing out that this may very well be the first film in which an Oscar winner has uttered the line, “I got you, you yellow fuck.” But the script doesn’t really give them anything to work with and whenever they seem to be relating to each other in a believable fashion, which does happen more than a few times, I kept thinking about how well they probably knew each other already from back when Polanski’s THE PIANIST was filmed (I guess you could say I’m only addressing half of Brody’s performance here, but let’s just leave it at that). I assume that the scene where the movie pauses for a moment to allow the two leads to walk past a prominently displayed JUNO poster is a nod to the Argento shoutout in that film.

Sure, it would have been nice to have an Argento film called GIALLO that featured more stalk n’slash stuff by black-gloved killers, slutty girls, dopey dialogue and lots of drinking of J&B. But that’s not what this film is and I’m not sure there’s any way to make that sort of film anymore. As it is, I still wonder if there’s any real reason for critiquing this film which has been pretty much disowned by its director and in some ways also feels slightly unfinished, particularly in the denouement. By this point, I know that writing something like this can be sort of disheartening as well. I’m not one of those people who’s been spending years bashing new Dario Argento films but when I see something like this I still wish that he could direct something that would feel ferociously, cinematically alive the way some of his earlier films did. And I’ve kept the faith a little longer than some people--I’m the guy who thinks that THE STENDHAL SYNDROME is amazing and MOTHER OF TEARS really is kind of enjoyable. I draw the line at his version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though, but of course we all have our limits. GIALLO, not parody or critical self-commentary or really anything else beyond a grisly straightforward thriller that seems to be missing a vital limb, doesn’t reach those limits but outside of a few oddball touches it doesn’t really do enough of very much else either and that may be its biggest problem.


Guillaume said...

Well written review Mr!
I mostly agree with you even if i liked a few more things like Marco Werba's score,the cold,cynical tone of the film (i liked the very last scene between Brody and Seigner!!),and some enjoyable moments (Elsa Pataky's escape from the killer's lair,first abduction,the flashback with Enzo killing the butcher...)
I agree that it's minor Argento but i found it more successful than PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and less boring than SLEEPLESS (ah,and for the record,i also liked MOTHER OF TEARS despites its flaws!)

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Glad you liked it Guillaume, very happy to hear that! It's minor but I still liked some of it--SLEEPLESS is a film that I only saw once quite a few years ago so I'm not sure which one I prefer but it's definitely better than PHANTOM. As for MOTHER OF TEARS, I guess we have that in common!