26 June 2009 | whiggles
Kiss kiss no more
If a single trait characterizes Dario Argento's 21st century output, it's its self-referentiality. Always a cine-literate filmmaker, his recent material has verged almost on self-parody. Amid all this, a generation of filmmakers have grown up with his films and been influenced by them, some more profoundly than others. Some, like Tim Burton, have assimilated his visual style into their own. Others have been more flippant in their appropriation of Argentoisms, with Quentin Tarantino lifting the music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage for use in Death Proof, and Diablo Cody including a conversation debating the merits of Argento relative to H.G. Lewis in Juno. In effect, "Argento" has become something of a buzzword for a certain type of movie brat: a slightly edgy (but not too edgy) name they can mention to show that they're a little off the beaten track (but not too far off).
Oddly enough, Giallo represents something of a hybridization of the director's self-referentiality and the sort of fan idolatry that champions his films for their more superficial elements while ignoring the qualities that truly mark them out. Although the first credit at the end of the film reads "written and directed by Dario Argento", the original script in fact originated from two American fans, Jim Agnew and Sean Keller, with Argento essentially being brought on as a director for hire. This is not the first time this has happened: the two episodes he directed for the largely disappointing Masters of Horror series also originated from other writers, much to their detriment. (If Pelts had been directed by Eli Roth, I doubt it would have been appreciably different.) While Giallo's script is nothing remarkable, the overall execution is handled with considerably more flair than Jenifer or Pelts. This may be because Argento is on familiar stomping ground, with the Italian locations lending an air of natural class. Giallo is far from the bland, anonymous piece of work for hire that many feared it would be. While Frederic Fasano's cinematography lacks the verve of a Tovoli or even a Debie, and Marco Werba's Herrmannesque score alternates between effective and intrusive, there are little Argentoisms throughout, mainly in the lightly humorous moments. Likewise, an early sequence at an opera recalls Argento's 1987 masterpiece of the same name, while the oddly ambiguous final frame is reminiscent of The Cat O' Nine Tails.
That said, Giallo's most direct counterpart is The Card Player, and it's tempting to see them as two sides of the same coin. However, while The Card Player was clinical, high-tech and almost bloodless, Giallo goes in the opposite direction. Its set design hearkens back to the past, from Avolfi's dingy basement office to the foregrounding of Turin's picturesque monuments and buildings. The violence is also ramped up a notch, and it's tempting to view the film as Argento's reaction to the recent spate of so-called "torture porn" movies. The director has made conflicting statements as to his opinion of these films, but the lengthy scenes of Elsa Pataky being menaced and tortured in the killer's grimy underground lair are more reminiscent of Saw or Hostel than anything in Argento's past filmography.
And there's the rub: despite being marketed as a return to the genre that made a name for Argento in the 1970s, Giallo... well, isn't actually a giallo. The plot operates more as a cross between a cop thriller and a gore-soaked torture flick, the title referring solely to the killer's jaundiced skin. His face is seen almost from the start and his identity is ultimately not hugely important. Far more interesting is the way in which he and Avolfi are constructed as two sides of the same coin, both pariahs who operate in dark underground lairs and have suffered violent, traumatic pasts. As with much of his past work, Argento seems to be actively encouraging a Jungian reading. At times, this becomes a little too on the nose, with the casting of the killer... well, it's an intriguing choice but ultimately one that will either baffle people or have them slapping their foreheads at its obviousness.
With one notable exception, the cast acquit themselves reasonably well. The elephant in the room is Adrien Brody, who not only receives top billing but also an executive producer credit, performing uncredited script doctoring duties and making key decisions about the score (including nixing Argento's regular collaborator Claudio Simonetti). His role is an odd one, and it's far from the vanity project I expected. Avolfi is not particularly pleasant: he's distant, smarmy and reckless, and an act he committed in the past further blurs the line between him and the killer. Unfortunately, the specifics of this event, revealed around two-third of the way through the film, sent the audience at the screening I attended into fits of hysterics. More problematic in my mind, however, is Brody's performance. He seems to be imitating any number of 40s film noir detectives, but comes across as a mumbling buffoon whose reactions and line delivery always seem to be at odds with what's actually happening. He's not the first Oscar-winning actor to work with Argento, but he IS one of Argento's least convincing protagonists.
Giallo is a decent offering from a director whose work of late has been decidedly patchy. While I'm sure the usual battle lines will be drawn, with fans alternating between branding it a return to form and proclaiming it to be proof that he is a has-been, the truth is somewhere in the middle. No, it's not the next Profondo Rosso, but anyone who expected otherwise would simply be deluding themselves. It's substantially better than either of Argento's Masters of Horror outings, a step up from Mother of Tears, and a superior thriller to Do You Like Hitchcock? It's also more engaging than the overrated Sleepless and about on par with the underrated The Card Player, a film that for me improves with each subsequent viewing. Problems aside, Giallo is surprisingly good fun.