Just how weird was it to grow up as the daughter of Dario Argento, the absolutely creepiest of Italian horror directors? To hear Asia Argento tell the story, he was the normal one in the family. Much scarier was her screaming actress mother.
"Actresses in Italy are bitches!" says Asia in her new movie, "Scarlet Diva," in which she plays an exaggerated version of herself, a jaded young actress called Anna Battista. She makes the comment -- bitchily --in a scene where her agent is encouraging her to go to El Lay and star in a new Cleopatra movie, but what this little diva really wants is to write and direct, of course.
The agent scoffs at her -- just as, no doubt, all Asia's REAL friends and acquaintances scoffed at her when she announced she was giving up acting (20 films, including some of her father's) to be a director. But at age 23 she wrote the script, got the money to make it, directed it, starred in it, won a few film festival awards, and now is making her American debut as a director before most people have even seen her work as an actress. It's called "Scarlet Diva," and it's INTENSE.
It's not exactly a horror film, although it IS horrific and it has a lot of those Dario Argento touches, with the fast cutting and the shaky camera and the dark wet streets of Europe. Her performance in the lead role is amazing, but it's probably the least of what she's done here. She's got a natural camera eye that can transform internal terror into external images. The whole thing is visually stunning. She appears to have shot it in at least six cities -- Rome, Naples, Paris, Amsterdam, London and Los Angeles -- and uses both Italian and American actors.
The movie's very first image -- Asia on a moving walkway in a sterile airport, emotionless, smoking (she's always smoking), lugging her rolling suitcase -- dissolves into a montage of scenes from her actress life, accepting awards, answering stupid questions from journalists, bouncing from place to place, city to city, with a fake smile at the ready.
In fact she's a desperate sexual adventuress, drug user and thrill-seeker whose face betrays her. She's dead inside, haunted by memories of her screeching drug-addicted mother, her dead older brother (her best friend in childhood and the only one who believed in her), and a succession of one-night stands and grope-a-thons that have started to shock her because she can't always remember the faces of the people she's slept with.
It's not so much the plot line that makes the film work -- it's the phantasmagoric nightmares she has about it. She finally has one pure transcendent moment in her life -- she "makes love" for the first time, as opposed to just having sex -- but the lover is an Australian club singer who lives halfway around the world and, when she calls him, doesn't seem to be quite there.
On a ferry she gets very sick, throws up over the side and collapses, then sees herself running down a dark street while people stare at her round stomach and her absent lover abuses her. It doesn't sound like much, but the way it's filmed, with expert art direction and intercutting, is truly spooky.
She is, indeed, pregnant. "Another abortion?" her doctor asks matter-of-factly. But this time she can't do it.
The rest of the movie is a descent into hell that involves smarmy pawing American producers, near-death drug experiences caused by creepy high-fashion photographers, hallucinations, nightmares, a meeting with her Dutch film-director hero that reveals him to be a pathetic druggie with the shakes, and a final overwhelming disillusionment when she tries to force her little domestic delusion on the faraway boyfriend who never was.
The flick is raw, visceral, super-charged with the darkest of dark emotions, and actually DOES satisfy the first rule of horror films: Anybody can die at any moment. It opens in America next week, which is a good thing for me, because I definitely want to watch it again. I'm not sure exactly what I saw the first time, but I loved it.
And those drive-in totals are:
Three dead bodies. Twelve breasts. Slapping. Punching. Armpit-shaving (rare in a European film). Makeup mussing. Three O.D.s. Upchucking. Arm-burning. Two attempted rapes. Excellent death hallucination, with scuzzballs. Excellent drug hallucination, with ghost. Gratuitous butt tattoo.
Montage Fu. Groupie Fu.
Drive-In Academy Award nominations for Daria Nicolodi, as the horrid mom who screams at her about "dirty stuff again" and threatens to send her to the same school in Switzerland where Chaplin's children go; Vera Gemma, as the abused girlfriend who loves her man even when he trusses her up like a pig and leaves her there for two days; Jean Shepherd, as the terminally cool but heartless singer; Selen, as the oversexed lesbo who shows up at the oddest moments; Joe Coleman, as the ridiculous American producer who chases her down the hall buck-nekkid wearing only cowboy boots; Herbert Fritsch, as the Dutch legend with the shaky needle; and Asia Argento, as the "relentless romantic" and "fundamentally lonely girl" -- an excellent screamer, by the way -- who does the old man proud.
Four stars. Joe Bob says check it out. Web site for "Scarlet Diva": clydefilms.co.jp/scarlet/
(Joe Bob can be reached at JoeBob@upi.com.)