“Mother of Tears”, “Giallo” and the decline of Dario Argento




So they built this big theme park dedicated to the films of Dario Argento, and they called it Italy.


I've written about this before, I know, but I've just got back from the place and it feels truer than ever.
Despite my ever-advancing disenchantment with his filmography, the man's shadow still looms over every street, every building and courtyard, every tree and streetlamp.
I've probably watched more Italian movies, with greater pleasure and keener appreciation, than those of any other non-Anglophone nation, but no other Italian director has stamped his signature on the landscape for me with anything like as much force and ubiquity.
With the possible exception of Chaplin, Fellini is to me the greatest film-poet in the history of the medium - but the fact remains that when I'm in Italy I rarely feel like I'm in Fellini's Italy. We watched I Vitelloni while we were in Florence last month, because we knew that it was partly shot there, but not for a second did I connect the images on the screen with the view from the window. It's Fellini-land; he built it himself. But Argento is Italy and Italy is Argento, and in that strange, seductive menace that is uniquely his, man and landscape share each other.
We walked from Florence to Fiesole, and the architecture that seemed merely picturesque to my wife was to me so vividly cinematic as to be almost hallucinatory. All those old houses, their peeling paint, high walls, rusty ironwork and crumbling pillars and shuttered windows, seemed like repositories of secrets - old secrets, nearly forgotten, biding their time.
Why is this? I've been trying to make sense of it for years. There now follows my latest attempt. Does this make sense, I wonder? Perhaps it comes down to this...

Some Italian directors ignore Italy. Antonioni ignores Italy because he's an existentialist and all that matters is the people: that's why his films could be set anywhere and, indeed, why he made a point of setting them all over the world. Others deliberately show you Italy because they want to tell you Italian stories: Bicycle Thieves, obviously, evokes a real and tangible Italy in this sense. While Fellini takes Italy and turns it into something different because he is interested in creating his own universe.
But only Argento uses the real Italy and plonks his own fantasy universe into it, each redefining the shape and limits of the other.
This is what sets Argento apart not just from other Italian directors generally but specifically from Italy's other exploitation horror directors of the seventies. Fulci made a couple of half-good films and some bad ones, but none of them trade in Italian-ness for their effects, and many try to deny it. Argento's work is explicitly Italian - he tends to name his cities and to really show them and use them, while still completely re-imagining them in the process. And it rubs off permanently, for me at least.

Though it's a long time since a new Argento release has actually excited me (not since Stendhal, I suppose; my interest in the man just post-dated his glory years, and Trauma was the first one I saw while it was still new) I always return from Italy with the compulsion to rewatch Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Cat o'Nine Tails.
But until this time I've never actually watched one of his films while there. (It seemed superfluous somehow.) Mother of Tears was on Italian general release last time I was in Bologna and I toyed with the idea of seeing it, but having seen The Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player I was in no mad rush, and never quite got round to it. But I did get the DVD and watched it before heading off to Italy this time.

Wow! If it's not the worst film ever made - and it's got to be somewhere in the running - it must be the worst film Argento's ever made. As we speak, linguistic scientists are hard at work inventing a new language containing words capable of conveying how wretched it is.
The most obvious problems have been ably listed by others, notably Maitland McDonagh. The screenplay is by American hacks with no grasp of Argento's style, the gross-out violence is unaffectingly crude in both conception and mechanics, the scenes of diabolic excess are pretty puerile, it's all depressingly mean-spirited, none of it is even remotely scary and too much of it - especially but by no means solely the bit where the Italian branch of the Cyndi Lauper Appreciation Society go razzing at the airport - is just plain silly.
But the biggest problem for me is simply this: it doesn't for one minute make it impossible to believe that anyone but Argento made it. Until now, even his very worst films had at least done that. But this is completely faceless, voiceless, authorless. It doesn't look, sound, feel or smell like Suspiria or Inferno in any detail or regard. It's set in Italy only in the sense that it's set somewhere. Rome it may well be, but it doesn't say Argento and it doesn't say Italy. If anyone can save it, Asia can save it - and Asia can't save it. That patented Argento atmosphere - thick, weird, dusty, cloying, dreamlike but pin-sharp - is gone.
Instead we just have substandard sadism, gore as slapstick (more Three Stooges than Three Mothers), tits and monkeys and intestines, and all so unenthusiastically dispensed.

I instinctively gave Giallo an easier ride because, even though it wasn't Argento back to being good, at least it was Argento back to being interesting. This one I did see in Italy, in my hotel room in Florence as I recovered from the previous night's attack of the mosquitoes. It's bad but fascinating in its badness, and I haven't been able to stop pondering on it.
According to what I've read, the film had a complicated history. In the first place, rather than a project he devised himself, it was written for Argento by a pair of Americans: Sean Keller and Jim Agnew, the latter a Film Threat writer who, to quote the imdb, "played guitar for the Industrial Rock group Hate Dept". (The credits are very strange. First we get 'written and directed by Dario Argento', Argento solely that is, but then, quite a bit later, 'screenplay by...' the two other blokes, and Dario third, presumably meaning that he just gave it a bit of a polish.
But if the fact that it was written specifically for Argento makes you think it's going to be full of the kind of quirks and deviations that would be sure to lure him to the project (as Boileau and Narcejac deliberately wrote Vertigo to attract Hitchcock) let me sit you down and disappoint you before the film itself does.
The title may raise expectations of it being the director's ultimate giallo, both an example of the form and an examination of it, with tricks upon tricks upon tricks upon tricks in the plotting, in place of the director's usual tricks upon tricks upon tricks. But the film itself goes out of its way to frustrate them, and is (to the limits of my experience - I've not seen everything he's done in the last ten years or so) his first and only non-supernatural thriller with no plot twists of any sort - no sleight of hand, no audacious surprises... none of the structural mystery suggested, demanded even, by the title.
This is, I think, Argento's only twist-free giallo, and so arguably not really a giallo at all. It's just your basic police procedural serial killer thriller, fifteen-to-twenty years too late, and rendered ever stupider than the likes of Copycat and The Bone Collector (no small boast) by Argento's habitual (and in other contexts laudable) inattention to realism in scenario, plot development and characterisation.
It's not just the usual daffy criminal profiling stuff (killers who 'like to destroy beautiful things' and leave bodies in significant places because 'they're trying to tell us something', detectives that can see into the killer's mind, that sort of horseshit). It's crazy stuff like the detective knowing the killer uses a taxi on no evidence at all, or the idea that a policeman might interrupt someone in the act of committing a savage murder and, out of sympathy for his motives, give him a job on the force instead of arresting him, or how, after victim upon victim of thumb twiddling, the supposed psychological profiling genius is instantly galvanised into tracking down his man by someone else's idle speculation that the killer might be nicknamed Giallo because he has jaundice.
The casting, too, which in the absence of any non-linear plotting is the only distinctive thing about the movie, was all very last minute and haphazard.
Originally Ray Liotta was down to play the New York cop in the Italian sub-basement, Asia was the tagalong sister of the victim, and Vincent Gallo was Giallo. (Liotta would have been interesting; Gallo would have been very interesting.) Then, as I read it, Gallo dropped out like a big sissy for no better reason than that he and Asia had a bit of a history, Asia got pregnant and pulled out too, and Liotta, I don't know, had to go visit his brother Tarka or something.
Only then was it decided to recast the three roles with a Polanski double-header: his wife - Emmanuelle Seigner - as the heroine, and his pianist - that strange, strange actor Adrien Brody - as both 'tec and killer (and using an anagram of his real name in the latter role).
Seigner fits well, in a role that seems to deliberately evoke her iconic debut in Polanski's Frantic, my favourite Paris movie (albeit in the Harrison Ford role this time). But despite bagging himself a producer credit as well as the two main roles, Brody seems deeply unhappy, gives two totally ridiculous performances, and ended up suing for unpaid wages and trying to stop it being released at all.
Okay, it's a cheap shot to say you have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself. But you really do have to wonder if that was all just an excuse because he'd seen the movie and realised what a laughing stock he'd made of himself.
But how odd that the only thing that makes the movie remotely Dario Argentoish - the doubling-up of Brody as both sleuth and sadist - was not part of the original idea. As the story develops, of course, there's no reason why it should have been, other than to do what the film in fact now does: frustrate the hell out of the audience. But that's what makes it all so intriguing.
As it is, even the most minimally Argento-savvy viewer will instantly recognise Brody under the Giallo putty and ready themselves for the totally predictable but still dramatically and logistically intriguing twist ending: that the killer is the detective in disguise. Certainly the most enjoyment the film gave me came from watching the scenes where the two characters appeared to be in different places at the same time, and trying to guess how Argento was going to explain it all away. (Or if not the same guy dressed up then they're brothers, and the one is somehow responsible for, perhaps even complicit in, the psychopathological quirks of the other.)
It comes as the worst kind of surprise to discover they are two different people after all, and the only reason Brody's playing both of them seems to be to get two silly performances out of him instead of just one, and to spoil the big fight at the end with loads of that similar-actor-with-back-to-camera-when-the-other-character's-in-shot stuff.
I suppose had it been two actors it would have been even more annoying, because our minds would have been constantly whirling with possible twists of all kinds, instead of the one we opt for from the start here. How much crueller then, would have been the big bad surprise that there is no surprise at all.
In the light of this, the film's silly-nasty violence is the least of its troubles, though it's a shame to see Argento playing catch-up with the torture prats rather than loftily challenging them to raise their game to his level.

As I get older, I do see less and less of what is essential about Argento in his scenes of frenzied violent excess, even in the masterpieces. The first killing here, in the taxi, looks like it's going to be totally bloodless and I can't tell you how excited I was by that, and how disappointed that we then found the victim still alive, strapped to a table, next to that oh-so-boring trolley of tools and implements.
Doubtless he felt, quite rightly, that without the grue there really would be nothing left in the movie with his stamp on it at all, and it's true that the violence here is less stupid and special-effectsy than in Mother of Tears. But still, I always think there's something a bit sad about horror directors in their dotage still sucking up to the punks. (Look at Wes Craven. He's in his seventies for Christ's sake, and still fartarsing around with cock rock soundtracks and frat house killers. Grow up, man!)
Argento should have become the most stylish and acclaimed director in Italy, as cherished as Fellini; instead he went the fanboy route, which is ironic as well as disappointing, because the blackshirts by and large don't like his new stuff any more than I do.
So what next? Well, apparently, it's a 3-D Dracula. Will I be able to resist that if it's on when I'm next in Italy? Does Berlusconi dye his hair? You bet I won't - especially if Asia plays Lucy. But I'll be amazed if it's any good. And considering this is the director of Deep Red we're talking about, that's a depressing certainty to have settled on.