Sunday, February 06, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: The Designated Victim

It’s a hard life for Stefano Argenti (Tomas Milian). His company’s doing well and he’s got a nice little weekend in Venice lined up with his fashion model mistress Fabienne (Katia Christine). What a shame that his brittle wife Luisa (Marisa Bartoli) won’t let him sell the shares – worth millions – that are in her name. What a shame that he won’t be able to use said moolah to run off to Venezuela with Fabienne. Poor Stefano. What’s a cold-hearted selfish bastard to do?

Well, he starts by heading off for that weekend break with Fabienne anyway, even though she seems to be enjoying it more than he is.

It’s here that they meet the enigmatic Count Matteo Tiepolo (Pierre Clementi). You can tell he’s enigmatic because he wears the kind of suits that wouldn’t look out of place on Dirk Bogarde’s von Aschenbach in ‘Death in Venice’ but twins them with long overcoats draped over his shoulders like a gangster and grey leather gloves. He also has a haircut that makes him look like a prototype for Russell Brand.

Here, though, the similarity ends since he neither launches into stand-up comedy routines or pursues pneumatic raven-haired pop singers; instead, he takes rather a shine to Stefano and they flit around each while the homo-erotic subtext heats up to a steady simmer. Then they get down to business. Umm, actually I could have phrased that better. Let me clarify: by “get down to business”, I don’t mean they leave Fabienne at the Rialto, go find a room and break out lube. By “get down to business”, I mean talk murder. Two murders, in fact. Matteo proposes that he murder Stefano’s wife and Stefano do away with Matteo’s brother.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

You have? Only with a tennis pro and the reciprocal hit being on the other guy’s dear old ma, not his brother?

You’re dead right. We’re in unofficial remake territory, and Maurizio Lucidi’s ‘The Designated Victim’ is basically Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’ relocated to Venice. Hitch’s film was a slightly less sexually ambiguous adaptation of a novel by Patricia Highsmith, whose best known work, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, was set in Venice. And indeed, the mid-section of Lucidi’s film, wherein Stefano tries to extricate himself from the suspicions of the tenacious Commissario Finzi (Luigi Caselleto) following Luisa’s death (as well as ensuring that nothing leads back to Matteo, who has the goods on him), recalls the increasingly labyrinthine construction of half-truths, outright lies and tenuous evasions the titular Ripley spends half of Highsmith’s novel telling.

I’d like to think that Lucidi was deliberately playing on the audience’s familiarity with Highsmith’s works and Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’, hitting the expected narrative beats during the set-up and Matteo’s murder of Luisa, only for things to spiral off during the second half, slowly to begin with, then faster and faster as Matteo deftly manoeuvres Stefano into an untenable position while Finzi gets closer and closer to the truth. The ending, though, is the real rug-pull and I’m saying no more about it.

‘The Designated Victim’ is a more formal giallo than most – relatively bloodless and with little sleaze. Spiral staircases, rooftop shenanigans and lurid set-design are on hand, though, to offset the absence of J&B and incompetent cops. Finzi is up there with Stanley Baker’s Inspector Corvin in Lucio Fulci’s ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ as one of the giallo’s few genuinely competent, pro-active and intelligent law enforcement types.

It boasts solid acting performances from all of the leads (even if Katia Christine isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the simpering Fabienne). Milian – no stranger to gialli with excellent turns in Fulci’s ‘Perversion Story’ and ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ – brings solid acting credentials, as does Clementi, best known for his brooding turn as Marcel in ‘Belle de Jour’. (Outside of their genre work, Milian and Clementi have between them worked with Visconti, Bunuel, Antonioni, Pasolini, Liliana Cavani, Spielberg, Soderbergh, Dennis Hopper and Oliver Stone.)

Luis Bacalov’s score is haunting and melancholy, his recycling of motifs by classical composers seeming appropriate in the Venice setting rather than derivative. Aldo Tonti’s cinematography delivers some striking images, even if it doesn’t achieve the whacked out brilliance or spatial dislocations of the best gialli.

What lets the film down, unfortunately, is how pedestrian Lucidi’s direction is. Watching ‘The Designated Victim’ is like listening to a technically proficient pianist tackle a Beethoven sonata: they’re playing the notes and not making any mistakes, but there’s no life, no passion and magnificent sense of risk in the performance.

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