Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Giallo (2009) dir. Dario Argento

Logline: A viscous, sickly hued madman (Adrien Brody as "Byron Deidra") is prowling the streets of Turin in his taxi cab, abducting beautiful women so that he can torture, mutilate, and murder them. He's pursued by the tireless and troubled Inspector Enzo Avolfi (also Adrien Brody), whose unconventional methods include teaming up with Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner), the sister of the killer's latest abductee, in order to stop the killer before he kills again.

The man must find joy in giving his films misleading titles. Like Tenebrae (1982) before it, the title of Giallo gives those viewers familiar with Argento's earlier work a false impression. Considering he's the man who (despite the existence of examples of the subgenre that predate his own) solidified the template for the Italian giallo film with 1970's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, you'd imagine that a later film bearing solely the title Giallo would be exactly that: an old-fashioned black-gloved, J&B swilling giallo, in the mode that Argento himself established and has returned to, continually, up through the early 2000s. But it's not. Ironically, Argento uses a film titled Giallo to branch away from the Italian subgenre and into markedly American territory, specifically torture porn and the serial killer police procedural. Though Argento apparently had a hand in the story, the film's screenplay is credited to two Americans, Jim Agnew and Sean Keller, whose combined credits boast of little more than a few low budget TV creature features and a straight-to-DVD Wesley Snipes action film. Their American sensibilities combined with Argento's seeming disinterest in the material produces a film so far removed from the modish style and psychosexual mystery of its namesake that we would almost find it funny if we hadn't already been tricked into watching it.

Giallo features no mystery, no suspense, and no revelations. Its story is a flat, one-note procedural that ends on a bizarre unresolved note. Seemingly, its sole narrative concern is to be as grimy and unpleasant as most modern American horror films, at which it succeeds miserably. The cheeky sleaze of a typical '70s giallo is transformed into Giallo's lengthy scenes of living victim mutilation and other poignant moments, like the one in which the killer wheezingly jerks off to digital photographs of his victim's corpses on his computer while sucking an infant's pacifier. There's nothing fun or compelling underneath the layer of dirt caked onto Giallo, making it all the more beguiling as to why big, respected names like Brody and Seigner would agree to participate. In its pitiful grasping at a theme of duality, the film allows Brody the chance to flex his acting muscle by portraying both the hero and the villain (aided by prostheses and yellow makeup in the latter instance), but neither character is given much depth to express beyond simplified tortured childhoods, so, again, where's the appeal? (The killer's motivation by-way-of tortured childhood is one of the genre's most mind-numbingly juvenile: a jaundiced orphan, the killer Giallo was placed into a church's orphanage as a young boy where the other orphans made fun of him for his yellow skin, inspiring him to take revenge by kidnapping and mutilating beautiful women later on in life because, hey, why not.)

In a way, Giallo might be the perfect encapsulation of the goals and intent of Argento's late career. Here we find a film that crassly exploits the goodwill surrounding the director's earlier achievements while simultaneously debasing those achievements through the injection of stale and contrived modern genre elements straight into their still-beating hearts, seemingly for no creative reasons but only to increase their commercial cache. There's not an entry in Argento's last two decades of filmmaking that couldn't be accused of such calloused, uninspired actions, and the resulting feeling produced-- in both filmmaker and audience-- is one of apathy over the films. As disagreeable as its content is, it's difficult to work up much ire over a film like Giallo. Why waste our breath? Argento didn't. A lawsuit lodged by Brody against the film's money-grubbing producers kept the film barred from wide DVD release for about a year after it premiered, but would we have missed it if it still remained in limbo today? Does a film like Giallo slip from our memories as quickly as it enters, or does it debase and devalue the former art from which it's constructed? At one juncture in the film, Seigner's Linda asks Brody's Inspector Avolfi an unanswerable question about the killer's motive that could easily be asked of that killer's creator: "Why would he want to destroy beautiful things?"

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