Friday, November 18, 2016

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Bloodstained Butterfly

Between ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ and today’s offering, I think if we were to ask the question “when is a giallo not a giallo?”, we could offer “when it’s directed by Duccio Tessari” as a fairly comprehensive answer.

Where ‘Death Occurred Last Night’ switches gears between police procedural and vigilante thriller whilst retaining just enough of the giallo in its overall aesthetic, ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ is an out-and-out giallo – it boasts more flamboyant cinematography and sustained set-pieces than its predecessor (‘DOLN’ was made in 1970, ‘TBB’ in 1971), and has a more obviously giallo title – albeit one that falls into three distinct acts, each one characterised by its dependence on other genres.

The film begins with an extended sequence that sets up several characters, whose interrelationships will gradually be revealed, and several locations, the whole montage scored to a bizarre medley where Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 gives way to lounge jazz. The scene shifts to a park; two children are playing; they discover a corpse. The police are summoned; someone flees the scene; the viewpoints of several witnesses are established. The next twenty minutes or so are a strict procedural; had Tessari continued in this vein, there would have been no way you could have hung the giallo on ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’.

Where the procedural takes us narratively is: the aforementioned corpse is that of young French student Françoise Pigaut (Carole André), whose best friend at the Italian university they attended was Sarah (Wendy d’Olive), the daughter of TV personality Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). Inspector Berardi (Silvano Tranquilli) and his much put-upon assistant (Peter Shepherd) – I don’t recall him having a name and IMDb goes with “the inspector’s assistant” – launch an investigation, contending with foul weather that turns their crime scene into a quagmire and the presence of TV reporters whose coverage is cynical. Nonetheless, they rigorously apply forensic techniques and try to determine the killer’s motive and identity. Then a witness turns up at Berardi’s office saying she recognised the killer from the TV programme …

And ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ promptly tosses aside the procedural playbook, leaps forward in time (I’m guessing several months at least; it isn’t made clear), and gets its courtroom drama funk on for the next half hour. Marchi’s in the dock, his ice-queen wife Maria (Evelyn Stewart) is becoming increasingly distant, and Sarah is devastated. The prosecutor (Wolfgang Preiss) is building a pretty damning case, but Marchi’s lawyer Guilio Cordaro (Günther Stoll) has a few cards up his sleeve. Much depends, though, on whether Marchi will publically trash his marriage and reputation by ’fessing up to being with his mistress Marta Clerici (Lorella De Luca) at the time of the murder. While all of this is going on, Sarah’s relationship with entitled music student Giorgio (Helmut Berger) is fragmenting and suspicion surrounds a certain bit of evidence that Giorgio gave under oath in Marchi’s favour …

And no sooner has the courtroom drama wrapped up in dour fashion than the film gets its psycho-sexual funk on: two more murders occur, Maria’s dalliance with one of her husband’s associates gives her an ulterior motive as regards the convenience of his incarceration, and Sarah distances herself from Giorgio as his behaviour lurches from sexual cruelty to self-hate.

After a trio of not-particularly-graphic murders and only two set-pieces (the original killing and the perpetrator’s flight from the park, and the cat ‘n’ mouse scene that culminates in the third murder), Tessari goes for broke in the last third: from the tensions brokered between Maria and Sarah by the former’s lover to Marchi’s homophobic beat-down on a cellmate, from Giorgio’s spectacular meltdown to an urgent chase scene after Berardi and his men finally figure it out (or at least think they do), ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ does so much pick up the pace as strap a rocket to itself. Everything comes down to a stand-off in an abandoned and part-demolished factory building where motives are clarified and the moral waters muddied at one and the same time. Tessari delivers a finale that dabbles in the shared guilt considerations of, say, Argento’s ‘Deep Red’ or ‘Tenebrae’ while coming on all histrionically melodramatic, like a homoerotic version of King Vidor’s ‘Duel in the Sun’.

‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ is a divisive film amongst giallo fans. Some find it muddled and far too talky. For others, it’s a fascinating oddity. I’m definitely in the latter camp. It isn’t entirely free of problems – not least in its two sex scenes, which are supposed to be edgy and guilt-ridden but just seem awkward – but it’s certainly never dull.

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