Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sleepless (2001) dir. Dario Argento

a.k.a. Non ho sonno

Logline: Moretti (Max von Sydow), a retired police inspector, becomes involved with a re-opened case concerning a long-thought-deceased killer whose crimes, which follow the lyrics of a macabre nursery rhyme, have begun to recur in the Italian city of Turin. The old fashioned inspector teams up with a young man, Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), who was witness as a child to the killer's English horn-equipped murder of his mother. Together, the intrepid duo will attempt to best the local police by uncovering the deranged madman's identity before he completes his twisted game.

If Sleepless goes down in the books as the best film of the twilight of Dario Argento's career, it won't be all that surprising: examine the competition. But for the film to garner that accolade would be a disappointment, as it would indicate that the best that he managed to create in these late decades is a competent but ultimately generic giallo, distinguishable from his earlier Animal Trilogy largely by its deficiency of stylistic flourish and use of contemporary film stock. Sleepless finds Argento working in the familiar and mundane mode of his earlier giallo The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971). From the presence of an elderly big-name actor in the investigation (Max von Sydow in Sleepless in the place of Cat's Karl Malden) down to killers who spend at least half of their murdering efforts taking out folks who possess incriminating evidence, the two films share certain superficial similarities.

But, more pointedly, the films are linked by their mutual adherence to the psychological simplicity of the American procedural mystery, in which the heroes are hunting a madman who kills because, well, that's simply what madman do. As Gary Needham notes in his essay linked above concerning the Animal Trilogy, Cat O' Nine Tails sticks out in Argento's giallo filmography due to its avoidance of the giallo's messy psychoanalytic framing, which often casts blame for the killer's derangement on family trauma. In contrast, Cat O' Nine Tails locates the killer's motivation in his genetic code, rendering his murderous nature an unavoidable biological fact. Though Sleepless embroils the killer's family members into the action of his crimes, they are not directly or indirectly responsible for any traumatic event that spurred the killer on. Rather, the killer is a simple sociopath, persuaded by a nursery rhyme that killing animals would be fun and then discovering on his own that killing people is even more fun. Because there are no past traumas for our heroes to uncover in either Sleepless or Cat, the killer could be (potentially) anyone, and therefore the films populate the screen with a deluge of red herrings and over-complicated plot twists to maintain audience interest. Although Sleepless's closing revelations are not as left-field or pseudo-scientific as Cat's, this misdirection nonetheless results in a mystery that is fun to follow along but in the end can't help but feel like a cheat.

But this stripped-to-its-basics procedural mystery-- almost entirely devoid of the misguided reliance on cheap computer effects that is on display in Trauma (1994) and Phantom of the Opera (1998)-- is difficult to view as anything but a return to form, of a sort, even if it's a return to a relatively mediocre form. Sleepless is cantankerously old-fashioned. Argento and his film place a lot of thematic weight on the shoulders of Max von Sydow's Moretti, a retired police inspector who laments the current state of police detection and whose anachronistic methods prove superior to the newfangled electronic methods of the new millennium. It's not a huge stretch to imagine that Argento identifies with Moretti, being that Argento himself is an old-fashioned horror film director working in the modern milieu. His prior attempts to grapple with the content and style of contemporary horror being spotty at best, Argento has seemingly crafted Sleepless to function as an implicit denial of modern horror's appeal. The gory murder set pieces are all composed with practical effects, the action is relocated to a stately Italian city with sumptuous architecture, and the complicated plot requires a few blips of the viewer's brain activity to follow. Its one obvious use of computer effects is a brief collection of shots in which the farm animal illustrations in a digital pop-up book literally pop up as the camera rotates around them, which is an almost subtle use of the technology in comparison with Phantom of the Opera's rat-sucking CGI vacuum mobile. In short, it's diametrically opposed to what horror cinema was fast becoming at the dawn of the new millennium: a brainless, CGI-blood-encrusted, low-light basement of torture.

And yet, despite its desire to be an intentional throwback, the film isn't totally immune to the influence of modern horror and its decidedly undesirable characteristics. The aestheticized murder of Argento's early work is transmuted into Sleepless's startling brutality against women. Fingers are chopped, heads are bashed, and mouths are violated (excessively) with stabbing English horns. Accusations of misogyny are nothing freshly lodged against Argento's filmography, but comparing Sleepless with a film chronologically near to it like Trauma, with its modicum of sympathy for its damaged female characters, is rather damning evidence of a shift in how the director approaches gendered violence. Again, the word of the day is "cynical": Sleepless's murder scenes feel contrived, as if they're gratuitous scraps of bloody meat thrown to the wailing hounds of modern horror fandom. This ugly, sexualized gore and splatter-- so at odds with the otherwise reserved and modest filmmaking elsewhere in the picture-- feels as if it's a sneering condemnation of the elements of an angry male power fantasy that have become requisite in the genre and their debasement of horror's elusive, surreal beauty.

Sleepless contends with itself, creating an internal conflict by allowing its nostalgia for the genre of old and contempt for the genre of today to battle it out. For viewers, this creates cognitive dissonance: we are engaged by the classical suspense plot, but repulsed by the horrible violence the garnishes it. The film forces us, whether intentionally or not, to question our own motives in enjoying these grisly proceedings, like a pulpier Funny Games (1997; 2007). Naturally, we also question those motives of the filmmaker: is his film exploitation or critique? Is Argento scoffing at the ubiquity of gendered violence in modern horror or quietly resigning himself to its infiltration of his own films? There's no easy answer within Sleepless, conflicted and contradictory as it is. Like Moretti, Argento has refused to retire, inserting himself into a gruesome series of modern murders that he's incapable of making much sense of. Despite their best intentions, the case bests them both, leaving Moretti with a heart attack and Argento without heart.

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