Reviewed Jun 21, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
Italian actress and celebrity daughter Asia Argento has a sizeable cult following thanks to her acting in numerous Italian features and in two works by her esteemed director-father Dario Argento (Trauma and most remarkably in The Stendhal Syndrome). Elevated to stardom and celebrity by her early twenties, Asia’s ambition apparently could not be satiated and she was soon a published author of short works and a filmmaker in her own regard, with acclaim for her documentary Abel/Asia about her working relationship with director Abel Ferrara, long considered one of America’s most provocative auteurs. According to Argento it was Ferrara who suggested she should direct her own work. With her first feature, shot mostly on digital video, Scarlet Diva, she made the leap from actress to director. Although this may have made her more of an artist in her own mind, the majority of critics, particularly in her native Italy, were incredibly hostile to what was dismissed in general as a rather self-serving first movie. Far from cementing her reputation, it introduced her to even harsher assessment criteria, although made her enough of an international figure for her to break through to Hollywood with a starring role in the hit XXX opposite current box office leading man Vin Diesel.
Scarlet Diva unfolds in a deliberately fragmentary manner, cutting back and forth between different time periods, locations and peripheral characters. There is a semblance of a straight narrative although it is sketchy and episodic in the director’s apparent desire to transcend linear filmmaking in the manner of the more experimental pop-culture works of the 1960s. Asia Argento plays Anna Batista, a young actress who has become a major star and celebrity in Italy. She attends interviews and awaits further filming as she remembers important instances from her youth, her dealings with her friends, her drug experiences (which intersect her professional commitment with alarming ease in one photo shoot) and her numerous sexual experiences with a variety of partners from both genders. In her sensorial indulgence of a lifestyle she makes an emotional connection with an Australian rock singer. Her idyll disintegrates when he leaves her one night, without reason. She returns to her work, and after winning an award she is guided by her agent into a meeting with an American producer (played by controversial artist Joe Coleman). He attempts to rape her and she flees. Soon however, she goes to America with the intention of starring in his film. Amorality is seemingly standard here.
Scarlet Diva is a startling combination of semi-autobiographical indulgence and near confessional honesty. While it is clear that this film was an intensely personal experience for the director that does not make it much more than a flashy rehash of the experimental films of the late 1960s, updated with a kind of hip MTV decadence. Much of it is an almost structure-less rant, an endurance test of a movie apparently intended as a some kind of stream-of-consciousness reflection on celebrity, loneliness and emotional abandonment. Every shot strains for effect and the result is so deadening that it is almost impossible for the viewer to engage on the emotional level intended – at least for the viewer not inundated with MTV culture. That is not to say that the film is thoughtless; far from it, the film is often provocative as an honest interpretation of a celebrity’s private despair. However it is that combination of honest communication and artistic abstraction that leads to an almost fatal air of pretentious self-indulgence. There is much here, but the overall impression is one of an unassembled jigsaw puzzle – perhaps the pieces will find more cohesion in Argento’s subsequent work as a director, although critics perhaps felt that she may want to choose a subject other than herself, assuming that there is something else that can hold her interest.
The film aspires to be a mosaic of a despairing life, as fragmentary as a tortured and inebriated memory, drunk on its own self-importance. Argento plays here a woman with plenty of sexual experience but who has apparently never, in her own admission, truly made love to a man. Her rejection by a lover is thus presented as the most traumatic event in her life, sending her on a kind of downward spiral into irresponsible self-indulgence. It is not that Argento holds her character blameless, but suggests that her need for emotional connection led to the biggest tragedy in her life. As such, the film has the tone of a confessional, of Argento’s plea as actress and character for love and acceptance. It feels raw, honest and improvisatory but is ruined by the very theme it circles around – the development of an “attitude” as the single most important defining event in modern youth culture. With tangential sidetracks into such subjects as female masochism, the pratfalls of celebrity and the exploitative world of contemporary film-making (especially American independent films apparently, with real-life director Gus Van Sant a major target of an intended satire on American pretence), the film is full of directions, giving the impression of what may be described as many paths ventured down but journeys never resolved.