Friday, June 27, 2008

A double dose of Asia Argento

2007 looked to be a big year for Asia Argento with four films from high profile directors: Oliver Assayas' trans-continental Boarding Gate, Abel Ferrara's nightclub drama Go Go Tales, Catherine Breillat's titillating period piece The Last Mistress, and papa Argento's finale to his mother trilogy Mother of Tears. With release dates lagging or non-existent, the combined impact of the films may not be what I had expected for Asia as a powerhouse artfilm starlet.

Personally, the anticipation for all four films were pretty high, coming from directors that were clearly off the beaten path. But as the international buzz started to fade, my enthusiasm also waned. Go Go Tales has all but disappeared, peaking with the irrelevant scuttlebutt about Asia kissing a dog. Fortunately, I was able to catch The Last Mistress at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival (which opened this weekend in NYC) and found it very engaging in its measured restraint. Boarding Gate also had a screening at MSPIFF, but, wary of poor reviews, I opted for another film. When Boarding Gate came out on DVD a couple weeks ago, I put it high on my list of rentals. It was shear chance that I happened to rent Boarding Gate the day before Dario Argento's Mother of Tears opened in the Twin Cities, resulting in these two film forever being linked in my mind. Asia may be the obvious connection between these movies, but the imperceptible connections become crystal clear after watching both back to back: they are both equally ridiculous (and not in a good way) and Asia's acting indistinguishably bad.

I'm starting to rethink my respect for Oliver Assayas for simply making two films that I like quite a bit (Irma Vep and Demonlover.) Clean and Boarding Gate were both pretty big disappointments. They both try desperately to force a drama that simply isn't there. More importantly, they both reek of self-indulgence. The casts seem more like showboating than any attempt to create an ensemble suitable for a film, with Assayas exploiting connections and acquaintances to build flashy casts. I'm more than willing to admit that having Kelly Lin and Kim Gordon in a film is cool, and, indeed, that seems to be the point. (There is some sort of guilty pleasure in seeing Gordon speak Cantonese and Lin speak English, but that is another discussion.) In the case of Asia Argento, she is used for little more than an absurd male fantasy of a sensitive assassin tramp who can't keep her clothes on, at least for the camera.

Boarding Gate starts out in Paris and ends in Hong Kong in a failed attempt to build the international intrigue. Asia's character, Sandra, is a former prostitute who is now an import/export clerk psychologically torn between a former lover and a new lover. Unfortunately, it spends more than half the film fabricating an empty and laughable relationship between Asia's character and Michael Madsen's character, the former lover, in order to get the plot moving. Built on poor dialog, the first 75 minutes of the film is like a very slow and unnecessary introduction, leaving only a half an hour to redeem itself. I don't know which is worse: Assayas being ironic with this psycho-sexual thriller motif or Assayas taking himself seriously with this material that more ridiculous than edgy.

Dario Argento has made a name for himself by being self-indulgent with a fair amount of cult success. Dario's best work are his films from the late 70s and 80s (Deep Red, Susperia, Inferno, Unsane, Terror at the Opera), unapologetically B and audaciously innovative. Mother of Tears is some attempt to return to that era by capping off what is being called his "Three Mother" trilogy (Susperia, Inferno and Mother of Tears). I couldn't help wondering how Mother of Tears would have played 30 years ago, in a huge seedy theater in the middle of New York City with some guy jerking off in the back row. Instead, it is an awkward revival that doesn't stand the test of time in the contemporary arthouse cineplex.

Mother of Tears seems like a half-hearted project for both father and daughter. Dario seemed to have a cult horror film checklist: Naked witches? Check. Lesbian witches? Check. Entrails? Check. Udo Kier? Check. Poop water filled with dead bodies? Check. Well, you get the point. The visceral displays of impaling, smashing and disemboweling are the unadulterated moments of entertainment while the script, acting and editing will make you wince in pain. The structure is ripped right from Scooby Doo: find the book with the clues, open the hidden secret door, get captured, then defeat the monster. There is even a good laugh at the end not unlike the gang having a good joke with Scooby and Shaggy.

Asia plays the lead in the witch chasing tale. Sarah is an innocent student who unwittingly helps to unleash the "mother of tears" from a mysterious urn. As the streets of Rome turn into chaos with gangs of goth girls, and, low-and-behold, Sarah may just have the powers to stop the tyranny of the mother of tears! In the end, her powers simply enable her to strip the mother of tears of her powerful nighty shirt (literally) and throw it into the fire. The absurdity is shocking, and Asia's flat unenthusiastic performance doesn't even allow us to wallow in the inanity.

It is understandable why directors are drawn to Asia Argento. She has a very unique look and a voice to match. In the case of The Last Mistress, Breillat harnesses what is unique about Argento and allows the character to flourish in that space. As a result, her character is believable and her image is striking. Unfortunately the characters that Asia plays in Boarding Gate and Mother of Tears are farcical to begin with, leaving her with little chance to save them.
Assayas' notion of a character that never rang true beyond the first scene. And perhaps the role for dad was just an obligation. We certainly haven't seen the last of Asia Argento, and will no doubt continue to be chosen for interesting roles. Upcoming projects prove that: a role in hubby's adaptation of Ryu Murakami's Coin Locker Babies (with Asano Tadanobu) and she is slated to be in Alejandro Jodorowsky's will-we-ever-see-it film King Shot (with Marilyn Manson and Udo Kier!)

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