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Her Body Her Film: A Closer Look at Asia Argento's Scarlet Diva - page 2




            Argento admits she learned a lot from Ferrara when she co-starred in his cyber-punk thriller New Rose Hotel (1998), and that he and her father were the only ones who believed in her ability to make her own film. A very abstracted version of Ferrara appears in Diva as an AIDS-ridden junkie director named Aaron Ulrich (Herbert Fritsch) who "sets her free" from her bondage of self by telling her the magic words "You don't need my help" after she comes to him for advice and support.  


Anna's dependence on male validation is a very real product of Old School Italian Catholicism, where boys are prized and pampered while women are treated as indentured servants or whores until elevated to instant sainthood as wedded mothers. A girl born into such a culture naturally sees motherhood as her ticket out of the dungeons, but she only perpetuates the cycle by becoming emotionally dependent on her son, who then abuses unmarried women as revenge against his mom's overbearing ways, and so on. As an actress, Anna is considered a whore more than an artist, but motherhood is not going to grant her respect as an artist either. Her child cannot be the thing that makes her "not a whore" as it would a non-artist Italian woman. The child is just another symptom of her illness until she learns to respect herself as an artist, irregardless of validation from Italian society.


With this in mind, it's interesting to see early scenes of Anna as a child (Gloria Pirocco) interacting with her brother Alloscia (Leonardo Servadio). He dismisses her notions of being an actress like her mother ("Whores!"), assigns her chapters in Moby Dick to read, and assures her he will “make a writer out of” her, thus implying that--as a girl--she is not qualified to make a writer out of herself. Years later she still has to find a man to make a director out of her, and so turns to Ulrich after tries with other men fail. Ulrich will have none of this, of course. In the throes of an early junkie death he is no longer part of the “system” and in his violent way, tries to shake her free of it as well.


Despite her acting out with cigarettes and sex, she can't break from her Italian society chains until an authorized man comes along and tells her she doesn't need a man to tell her there are no chains. The engendered masculine viewer must therefore contend with being in the split position of being needed to be not needed. This is a slap in the face to traditional male viewers who have come to the film excited by the DVD art and Rolling Stone box cover blurb, ("This Film should be called XXX"). For them this film is sort of like bringing a hot, drunken girl home only to have her cry on the phone for three hours to her mother.





When a male viewer identifies with an onscreen female he puts himself in a fearful situation, at the mercy of his own gender's brute force. Asia exploits this fear throughout the film. After the opening credits she cuts abruptly to an in progress sex scene, wherein she is "getting it" from behind by a huge black man. That despite this traditionally submissive pose she is in charge of the situation is indicated by the shaking of her head which indicates she wants him to roughly pull her hair back. When they are interrupted by a knock at the door, Anna runs to the bathroom to get herself off, the guy and his own orgasm completely forgotten. At any rate, her mission is complete, she has shocked us thoroughly by not allowing even a few seconds of advance preparation for this sudden, racially mixed tableau.


Her bathroom masturbation leads to a flashback where she is five or six and spying through a keyhole on Alloscia making out with his girlfriend. The image of her eye in the keyhole serves as a gateway for all that is to follow: the young girl as Peeping Tom, her directorial eye looking in on whatever "dirty things" strike her fancy, daring to seize the reins of spectatorship back from the “male gaze.”  Anna as voyeur is turned on by her own lurid life, and as Anna/Asia she is turned on by making the viewer uncomfortable instead of turned on in turn. But again, if a man films what a man desires and it shocks the audience, he's brave and cutting edge; if a woman does the same; she's considered self indulgent and dirty (unless she's Catherine Breillat, i.e. French and not a sex symbol acting in her own films).


This double standard carries its own erotic charge, which Anna is addicted to. In the bath she shares with Alloscia she mentions to him she might be an actress when she grows up. Alloscia dismisses actresses as "like mom" and "whores." This prompts little Anna to confess she "keeps her panties on" (when she masturbates) which shocks  Alloscia and prompts him to angrily dunk her head under water. Thus we see from this early age how Anna is addicted to both doing "dirty things" and, in true Catholic style, "confessing" to an authority (male) figure (viewer) in order to then masochistically receive his violent reaction. This form of erotically-charged penance and provocation is really the backbone of the whole film: First Asia invites us to identify with her character, and then she springs a shock on us so fast we don't have time to form a moderate response. She's like a police detective, tricking us into slips of the "mask" of innocence, or in this case, our delusions of our own feminist liberal tolerance. Anna may get her head dunked, but all of her brother's fatherly scolding cannot change the fact that she made him lose control. This is where she takes her victories, such as they are, by proving the fallibility of those she unconsciously enslaves herself to.


Yet only a few scenes later when she goes to score hash in the Paris projects with her friend Veronica (Vera Gemma). Anna seems totally different. Here she struts onto the scene like she owns the place, grinning ear to ear, grooving, jiving, and talking loud in an over-sized urban American accent. She even tells the resident African-American drug dealer, The "Hash Man" (Schooly D), "Yo, I'm here to get laid," before tossing him three hundred dollars. The scene carries a goofy, kinetic charge. The Hash Man ends up walking her back to the car and making out with her. But she has asked him to; she's in control. Veronica meanwhile cruises a handsome Arab lad named Hamid (Alessandro Villari) who's sulking impressively on the steps below the hash man. He seems a little "out of his league" with her while she is totally and utterly comfortable with the power balance.


Let us contemplate why it is this particular scene in which the pair are so comfortable and in control, compared to all the subsequent scenes where they are not. Obviously, based on the run-down project setting, the men involved have no amount of prestige or influence in the girl's world of dolce vita decadence. Based on the smashed- up couch the hash man does business from, his average sale is most likely the nickel or dime bag variety. In tossing him $300 cash like its nothing Anna establishes herself as a "playa," worthy of respect (the Hash Man kicks another girl off the couch so Anna can sit next to him). Around white men with the power to influence her career, on the other hand, Anna is coy and pliable, a child who plays passive-aggressive tricks to manipulate and shock.





There is a third type of man in the film which Anna has also to deal with, the middle class Italian male, who has been raised to expect submissiveness from women despite his lack of social power. At a roadside coffee stand in Italy, Asia finds herself accosted by a pair of these characters who recognize her from her tattoos and instantly start trying to lift up her skirt. When she mentions she has a husband as if to dissuade them, the pair ask to see her ring, and since she doesn't have one, they feel free to continue bothering her. Thus even though they understand her mention of a "husband" was an effort to get them to leave her alone, since they don't see a ring, what she wants "doesn't count." In Italy, apparently, you must be married (with a ring!), or preferably married with a child, to be respected as a woman. Anna's position in the economic upper class doesn’t affect her sexual underclass status. Note too that the men in the hash scene are French Arabs, French-African, or in the case of the Hash Man, African-American, for whom an attractive Italian actress isn't considered "national property" as she is for the Italian men at the coffee stand.

The alternative to fending off endless advances is to capitulate masochistically to abuse from a man, which is the path chosen by her her friend Veronica. She enjoys being forced by the economic lower class (Hamid) into the whore position (which is less a "presumption" on his part, more of a stepping into a role). Anna is not "stuck up" enough to need or want to be "taken down a peg or two" in classic masochist tradition. She is already her own punisher, thus rather than re-capitulate to the patriarchy via masochism she clings to that bi-polar razor’s edge of passive aggression.

It comes as no surprise then that her true love, the Australian rocker, should be so much like herself, only as an "actualized" Anna. Kirk (Jean Shepard) is blissed-out and in the moment, as mellow as she is frenzied. Anna declares she loves him, and will love him always, but he leaves the moment she wakes up in the morning. His absence for the rest of the film allows him to become a projection screen for longing. She gets pregnant from their one night together but the baby is only occasionally remembered, as in her "k" hallucination of a two-headed fetus, instead her obsession is always Kirk.

Jean Shepard (his first film role) ably conveys a sense of spaced out, in-the-moment cool. "I want to see you," he says when they are in his hotel room together. She takes off her dress and displays herself before him like a bird with a black feather boa. It's the only erotic bit of nudity in the film. Here she is in her element at last: being seen by a man who has an artist’s eye, who sees her as art. It is the memory of this night that haunts Anna for the rest of the film. The subsequent baby is a "nice idea" but it doesn't fulfill her the way that night did. It might seem like a way to make that special night permanent, but it's invisible, unborn. It is not art. Her real "piece of Kirk" will have to be a film.

In busting loose from the cliché of Italian women as intensely devoted to their children, Argento frees the film to function not from a "woman's perspective," but from her perspective as an individual. Anna's "trashing" of her unborn baby is certainly one of the reasons Scarlet Diva makes viewers uncomfortable. To see Anna as an independent woman smoking cigarettes and snorting lines of ketamine while pregnant and having that not even be the main focus of the film seems irresponsible, as if all femininity is hanging by a thread and could blow at any moment. One could only imagine the public riots if Marilyn Monroe decided to do a film like this in the early 1960's, recruiting friends to play brutally honest variations on Arthur Miller, Frank Sinatra, JFK, Sam Giancana, and so forth; unabashedly depicting herself naked, zonking out on sleeping pills, having nervous breakdowns in her trailer, etc. Of course for a male director to come along years later and relay her sordid saga for a TV movie starring Madonna is perfectly acceptable. As it is we find ourselves unable to "aid" her as viewers in the process of establishing her value, the way we would if she was presented as a sexual object. Between the viewer and the Anna/object is the eye of Asia herself, skillfully blocking and parrying. As an customer puts it on the Scarlet Diva DVD web page: "Anybody buying this film for copious nude scenes with Asia will probably be disappointed--unless you're riveted by her shaving her armpits in a long bathroom scene." In other words, Asia "disappoints" the viewer who is expecting to be turned on by her nudity; she pre-empts her own objectification. This Arizonian's expectations that an "exposed" Asia will lead to his sexual excitement are met, but not met. Thus Asia Argento is a provocateur in a way Madonna only plays at.


But to assume Scarlet Diva is merely an exercise in provocation is again to miss the point. Like Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (probably the closest thing to a stylistic content brother Diva has), this is really a story of spiritual redemption. In lashing out against the "sacred," Argento is actually expressing a sense of spiritual torment so strong it cannot be contained, and only in desecrating her “body temple” she finds her salvation. In the film Bad Lieutenant, we examine the deepest guilt of the male mind, its capacity for sexual violence towards women. In Scarlet Diva, we examine the deepest guilt of the female mind, that in their darkest hearts they have the capacity to kill or neglect their children. In attempting to assuage their collective gender-based guilt they end up elevating the child to a holy state. In each case there is an a priori guilt just by having power to commit an act. The power creates the possibility which creates the desire which creates the suppression of the desire which creates the need to judge, condemn, and crucify anyone who acts on it.

In Bad Lieutenant, the rape of a nun becomes the focal point of a police investigation, and Harvey Keitel's biggest dilemma is in fulfilling the nun's wishes that her assaulters be forgiven. He wants to avenge her desecration by blowing these guys away, but the nun refuses to name her assailants; she has already moved on, wrapped firmly in the all absolving arms of Jesus. This spirituality is an affront to his patriarchal "justice" which simply can’t compete. If he hopes to reach a place of solace similar to her exalted Christ connection by avenging a defiled “Bride of God” then he has another think coming. He has to forgive them, as well.

Anna is certainly trapped in a similar state of wounded victimhood, but she has no Harvey, except maybe the raving lunatic Ulrich. Nonetheless, Anna seems to find her spiritual connection at the very end of the film, not the kind of happy ending that comes after a long race down wrong way streets to get her man before the bus leaves, but the permanent kind, the kind where self-knowledge and self-love are the permanent victory spoils of long and hellish battles with substances, self-loathing, and self-abuse.

Actually there are two happy ending of the story, and the second one is that the film even exists. As in most DVD’s, the film keeps going after the credits roll; I mean the "special features" menu. Argento introduces the film and provides an audio commentary. There are also scenes from its premiere at the Quad Cinema in New York. Everything is presented very low-key and DIY, and makes you want to go out and make a film of your own. This is about as far as you can get from the film those American producers would have put her in--there is no cooking pasta and marrying the handsome bus boy, riding off to a happily ever after on a Vespa into the Naples sunset.

In another way of reading it, the ending of Scarlet Diva marks the passing of a writer's block. It ends with her looking up in tears at a painting of the Virgin Mary, and then she sees a figure in the distance that could be Kirk, lit from behind just like Jesus in Bad Lieutenant. Anna suddenly realizes how dependent her unborn baby is on her, and at the same time sees herself in the Virgin Mary painting. Thus she is able to elevate her opinion of herself, regardless of a man's validation, to proclaim herself a virgin mother. The manner in which Kirk disappears from her life only to reappear in the form of a spiritual vision at the very end reflects her own transformation. He is the father, she is the Virgin Mary, and Asia's father Dario Argento is the holy ghost (note that he never appears in the film, though his influence is continually felt in the blue/red lighting of key scenes--his horror film trademark). The sex and drug addled persona that's been shattering slowly in front of the mirror of Scarlet Diva finally dissolves, mirror and all. The image of the Virgin, the daughter of filmmaking God Dario, the divine manifestation of cinema’s future, Anna the character merges with Asia the director and writer, enabling the holy spirit of True Kirkness to finally appear. Their ultimate union is the film you have just seen; let her now go and make it. Amen. ++


All photos of Asia Argento are the property of Asia Argento

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