Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Baba Yaga

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Catgeory: gialli / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 25 of 100

Corrado Farina’s ‘Baba Yaga’ is one of those films I’d been vaguely aware of without knowing anything much about it. I came across it having fed “giallo” into the search facility while updating my rental list recently. But is it a giallo? The first time I ever wrote about gialli on this blog, I prefaced the review with a brief checklist: a guide to recognising your giallo. It tapped out at ten items:

1. Black gloves. The must-have fashion accessory for the killer-about-town.

2. An amateur sleuth, in the wrong place at the wrong time, who decides to launch their own investigation after witnessing a murder or attempted murder.

3. Totally ineffectual police officers.

4. Extended, operatic death scenes which present as a hybrid of the traditional whodunit and the visceral stalk ‘n’ slash flick.

5. Staircases, often spiral. Likewise, killers and victims alike tend to plunge from high places or down elevator shafts.

6. J&B. Product placement as blatant as Aston Martins in Bond movies.

7. Famous mainstream actors at the start or later on in their careers.

8. Gratuitous nudity. (Well, black gloves and bottles of J&B can only generate so many ticket sales.)

9. Edwige Fenech.

10. Distinctive titles, often featuring an animal (‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’), a colour (‘Deep Red’), a number (‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’), or sometimes a combination of all three (‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’).

Add to this an occasional tendency to incorporate supernatural elements, and let’s run ‘Baba Yaga’ against the checklist. It scores a big fat no on points 1, 5, 9 and 10. Point 2 is a maybe – the main character, adrift in a welter of weird shit, latches onto a hitherto overlooked detail (a quintessential giallo trope) which helps her unravel things. Likewise point 3 – some cops turn up at the end and do precisely fuck all, but their abortive attempts at sleuthing are never established in counterpoint to the amateur detective’s efforts as in the best gialli.

Point 4, half and half – there are some extended, operative (hell, positively grand guignol) dream sequences that presage a couple of swiftly portrayed, almost throwaway death scenes.

As for the rest of them: point 6 (didn’t notice, and the supremely authoritative Atrocity Nights J&B in the movies page doesn’t list ‘Baba Yaga’, so I’m guessing not); point 7 (check: Carroll Baker); and point 8 (very little nudity per se, but sleaze aplenty).

So it’s a very shallow case for ‘Baba Yaga’ as a giallo. But fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ve still got 75 movies to get through to finish this Operation 101010 project so I’m taking the minority view and deciding to allow it.

The film centres around photographer Valentina (Isabelle de Funes). When we first meet her she’s attending some kind of weird performance theatre piece in a graveyard. The police break it up and she adjourns to a society party. Later she hangs out with some sexy Marxists who talk up revolution. In the course of the film she gets involved with director Arno Treves (George Eastman); one moment he’s making a documentary attacking capitalists, the next he’s shooting a commercial for washing powder. The politics of ‘Baba Yaga’ are, to put it mildly, slightly confused.

Treves’s washing powder commercial, incidentally, is horribly racist. It anthropomorphosises a black man in a black suit as a stain and a white man in a white suit as the detergent. Whether Farina meant this ironically, I’m not sure. But it’s something of a slap in the face to the viewer. It doesn’t help, either, that an air of homophobia permeates ‘Baba Yaga’, in the shape of its eponymous anti-heroine.

Baba Yaga is a witch and a lesbian. Farina seems to have less of an issue with the whole witch aspect. Long story short: B.Y. almost runs Valentina over as she walks home from the society party, offers her a lift, and tells her they were destined to meet. She takes a clip from Valentina’s garter and promises to drop by to see her the next day. Valentina flees to her apartment where she has the first of several surreal dreams that, depending on how your look at it, (a) tap into her sexual repression, (b) feature fetishistic use of German uniforms (from both wars), (c) make no fucking sense, or (d) all of the above.

B.Y. comes calling, as promised, the next day and puts a spell on Valentina’s camera. Doing an erotic shoot with a model dressed in a revealing cowgirl outfit, the poor unfortunate collapses as if shot by the very replica pistol she’s holding.

Later, Valentina photographs a protestor at a demonstration and the guy drops dead. Valentina hits upon a self-evident solution: use a different camera. This doesn’t, however, stop her from visiting B.Y. on the pretext of using her decrepit old house as a backdrop to a photoshoot. B.Y. gives her a doll called Annette. The doll is done up in bondage gear.

At another erotic shoot, the model is stabbed during a power cut and later dies. Valentina and Treves develop the film from the possessed camera and the resultant pictures indicate that Annette (Ely Galleani) has come to life and offed said model.

(I am not making this up.)

Annette appears to Valentina, almost seduces her, then departs.

A phone call summons her to chez B.Y. Now completely under the witch’s spell, she goes. After ten minutes’ worth of kink (bondage, whipping and a quick grope), Treves turns up to save her from the proverbial fate worse than death.

Which is where I have issues with the film. Farina obviously revels in the faux sapphic imagery and yet comes across as puritanical in his denunciation of Baba Yaga as a manipulative and evil seductress. However, all of the dream sequences seem to indicate that Valentina is drawn to B.Y. I can’t help thinking that a more interesting (and certainly more erotic) film could have been wrought from the concept of Baba Yaga as Valentina’s liberator. Likewise, I’m also stumped as to why the supposedly omnipotent B.Y. wastes so much time and effort on the androgynous and unresponsive Valentina when she has the voluptuous and sexed-up Annette at her disposal. Without wishing to veer into the realms of chauvinism, laddishness and objectification, let me put it this way – Valentina or Annette, your choice:

Ahem. Moving swiftly on:

‘Baba Yaga’ is homophobic, racist and deeply confused in roughly equal measures. And it’s probably not even a giallo. The Shameless DVD release that I watched purports to be Farina’s final cut, restored from the butchering the erstwhile distributors enforced upon it. I’ve never seen said bastardised version, but if the director’s cut is this schizophrenic, I’d hate to imagine how fucked up the theatrical release was.


Bryce Wilson said...


I can't tell if I must go out immediately and find this movie, or fall into Lovecraftian style madness because it exists.

One of your best sir.

Neil Fulwood said...

With 'Baba Yaga', Lovecraftian style madness might be the only appropriate response!

Aaron said...

Nice review and an entertaining read as always! I obviously liked it more than you did, but all of your points are valid. The style really won me over more than anything.