Sunday, September 25, 2011
GIALLO SUNDAY: Giallo
Nottingham Forest were, at best, an average football club when Brian Clough became their manager in 1975. What he accomplished with Forest was nothing less than alchemy. The 1976-77 season saw them promoted to the first division. They won the First Division English Championship the following season. They won the League Cup two years running (1978 and 1979), ditto the European Cup (1979 and 1980), prompting Cloughie’s immortal comment about Manchester United supremo Alex Ferguson that “for all his horses, knighthoods and championships, he hasn't got two of what I've got – and I don't mean balls!”
Since the Cloughie era, Forest regressed to average. And then to just plain dire. To the point at which a mate of mine, a season ticket holder of long standing, turned his back on the players after a particularly embarrassing (read: par for the course) defeat recently.
Being a Dario Argento fan is kind of like supporting Forest. Cloughie quit round about ‘Opera’. Things went downhill from there. There was the brief second tier reminder of the glory days with ‘Sleepless’ (comparable to Forest’s second division supremacy in the 1997-98 season), then it was balls-to-the-wall mediocrity all the way with ‘The Card Player’, ‘Do You Like Hitchcock?’ and ‘Mother of Tears’. True, his two episodes for ‘Masters of Horror’ were good stuff, but even a club in relegation can emerge with the occasional charity shield victory.
With Argento as with Forest: you go to each new film/match expecting nothing, generally coming away with nothing and yet still hurting like a bastard because you remember when they were on world-beating form and every film/match they directed/played was something magisterial and breathtaking and you’d be talking about it to your mates for years afterwards. You’d forgive how dull they are now if it wasn’t so easy to remember how fucking awesome they used to be.
So it was, having suffered a kick in the teeth courtesy of the awfulness of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and abject heartbreak on account of ‘Mother of Tears’ (which, in terms of how to rape an astounding promising trilogy, is akin to J.R.R. Tolkein following up ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ and ‘The Two Towers’ with an uncorrected proof copy of Guy N. Smith’s ‘Night of the Crabs’), that I approached ‘Giallo’ with extreme scepticism. I made sure I had a few beers inside me, as well, just to be sure I was anaesthetized against the almost inevitable onset of disappointment.
‘Giallo’ opens with a ‘Seven’-style credit sequence and a moody score by Marco Werba. Derivative, I thought, but a decent enough attention grabber. The first shot, lit by the flat harsh light of a glaring lightbulb, was of a hypodermic needle drawing liquid from an unmarked vial. Then we’re at the opera in Rome with a couple of foreign students. Blowing the classical repertoire to hit a nightclub, one of them hooks up with a studly Italian lad while her friend heads back to the hotel. She hails a blandly anonymous cab. The driver takes the wrong route. The girl starts getting worried. She has every right to. The cab pulls into a secluded side street. The driver attacks her.
Nothing earth-shattering or genre-defining going on here, but staged, shot and edited for optimal impact. Next up, fashion model Celine (Elsa Pataky) hurriedly makes plans to meet up with her air hostess sister Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) before hitting the catwalk and strutting her stuff in the latest fashions. The show over, she grabs a cab and calls Linda en route. The signal is lost, the driver takes the wrong direction and Celine ends up a captive of a hideously deformed and jaundiced psychopath. Meanwhile, Linda reports Celine’s disappearance, but the only person who will listen is Inspector Enzo Avolfi (an expatriate Italian who has lived in New York for a while). Avolfi is investigating a series of brutal crimes against women undertaken by a “pattern killer”.
Okay. Out-of-her-depth heroine driven by need to explain sister’s disappearance hooks up with maverick-cop-haunted-by-inability-to-save-someone. So far so generic, but none of it actually bad. Half an hour in, I was being to wonder why ‘Giallo’ had attracted so much hate. It wasn’t great – in fact, by dint of the gamut of screenwriting clichés, it was only just running to borderline good – but by the same standards it wasn’t exactly a repellently nauseating POS either.
I kept watching. Linda persuades Avolfi to let her tag along to crime scenes and autopsies (yeah, whatever); much is made of Avolfi’s understanding of the psychopathic mindset yet it’s Linda who figures out a crucial clue (yeah, whatever); Avolfi’s investigative methods seem to consist of showing his face at crime scenes, having a quick word with the forensic boys, barking something out reports on his desk then beetling off for a quick drink without even bothering to talk to witnesses (yeah, whatever). It was all kind of ordinary. But it wasn’t a stinker.
And as the film reached the halfway mark, then crept towards the hour, I was convinced that ‘Giallo’ was nowhere near the clunker I’d been lead to believe. I was beginning to relish the composition of a revisionist review.
And. Then. It. All. Went. Tits. Up.
And not even tits up in an interesting way, when a film that’s been shaping up for greatness goes off the rails in such spectacular style that it’s almost impressive. No, ‘Giallo’ adheres to what, with a nod to T.S. Eliot, you might call “not with a bang but a wimp-out”.
Here’s a good time to spend a paragraph on the background to the film. And, anticipating what’s to come in the next paragraph, to throw out a SPOILER ALERT. ‘Giallo’ was written by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller (Keller had written the TV movies ‘Kracken: Tentacles of the Deep’ and ‘Gryphon’; it was Agnew’s first credit) as an homage to gialli. The script met with incomprehension in Hollywood. A European producer was interested and – in what must have seemed like a dream come true to the writers – the property found its way into the hands of Argento. At this point, serendipity found itself wrongfooted, hamstrung and hog-tied. The producers interfered, Argento announced his dissatisfaction with the theatrical cut, it premiered at the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival to complete indifference, word of US and UK distribution was muted, and then it emerged – in 2010 – that Adrien Brody was suing the producers over non-payment of his fee. In November 2010, a court ruled that Brody’s image could not be used to promote the film until his fee was paid in full. In January of this year, the case was reported to be settled.
Now, it’s difficult to gauge just how badly producer interference damaged Argento’s take on the material, but what’s inarguable is that ‘Giallo’ gives us Brody’s worst ever performance. Seigner, not the most expressive actress at the best of time, at least suggests more emotional involvement in the proceedings. The rest of the cast sleepwalk. A promising first hour suddenly gets the plug pulled on it as the final act inexplicably jettisons much of what has gone before and plods towards an arbitrary and pointless conclusion that doesn’t leave you thinking “WTF?” so much as “SFW?” The main part of the problem is that Avolfi is played by Adrien Brody while the killer – known as Yellow – is essayed by Byron Deidra (I’ll leave it to word puzzle fans to make the connection), a casting decision that makes no sense whatsoever given that : (a) cop and killer are unrelated, (b) cop and killer have no shared experience or (c) cop and killer are never revealed as two sides of the same coin. In other words, Argento introduces a subtext, plays on it for a little while and then all but walks in front of the camera, shrugs and says, “Oh by the way, that subtext? Fuhgeddaboutit!”
Going further than this: the killer’s motivation – a pathetic hint at he-kills-what’s-beautiful-because-he’s-ugly (oh, fuck right off; none of my three completed novels have been published, but I don’t go around bumping off authors at bookshop signing sessions); the young Avolfi’s escape from his mother’s killer – never explained; Avolfi’s insistence on a certain line of questioning with a witness – never revisited; Avolfi’s seemingly important purchase from a bookshop – an entirely superfluous scene (unless a subsequent scene was hacked); a couple of jarring transitions between day and night (further suggestion of editorial butchery). It all adds up to a turgid, uninvolving and structurally flawed piece of work. When the end credits rolled, I was left not with a feeling of frustration, confusion or even outright animosity, but simply one of abject disinterest. And you can’t say much worse about a film than that.