Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Dying By Design


The only way I can make sense of Dario Argento's 1980s output is if I consider it all as a merciless put-on. How else to approach a movie like Tenebre (1982), which has a title that translates as "Darkness" but which is brightly lit? It's a film in which the director's pet obsessions turn inward on the movie itself in a fireworks display of self-reference. It's self-serving, too, in so far as it offers a defense for Argento's peccadilloes where no defense is really needed. It is funny, though.


The story finds best-selling mystery author Peter Neal traveling to Rome to promote his newest book, Tenebre, which has provided a mad killer with a template for a series of gruesome murders. Neal is naturally a suspect, but he has an alibi--having been on a plane over the Atlantic during the first murder. The killer obviously has a jones for him, though, and starts bumping off people in his orbit: the feminist critic who wants to interview him, his agent, his ex-wife. The cop on the case is Detective Altieri, who admires Neal's novels and is a student of the mystery genre even though, as he tells it, he never guesses the killer. Soon, bodies are piling up and Neal and Altieri get closer and closer to the killer.


Tenebre is Argento's return to the giallo after the first two installments of his "Three Mothers" trilogy. As such, it would seem to be more rooted in a real-world aesthetic rather than the utter chaos behind the curtain, but it turns out that that's not how it works out with this movie. This is more a movie about the giallo as a form than giallo proper, and Argento has a great deal of fun at the giallo's expense in this movie. First up is a confrontation with a feminist literary critic, in which Peter Neal stands in for the director himself to defend against charges of misogyny. This is a director who famously claimed that he would much prefer to see a beautiful woman murdered than an ugly one, or a man, after all. The reporter, then winds up on the slab herself, when the killer invades her home and murders both her and her girlfriend (there's a double dose of misogyny and homophobia in this scene). As an abstraction, this scene is a masterstroke, because it amps up the giallo's more annoying tics to an operatic fever pitch and then completely explodes them--prime among these are the intrusive score by Goblin that turns out to be diegetic. When the reporter lifts the needle off the record, I almost blew my drink through my nose. Almost as droll is the murder of Neal's agent, which takes place in broad daylight in an inhabited city square. This is, remember, a film with darkness in its title and here it's spilling blood under a bright noonday sun. This occasionally makes clever use of expectations built into the giallo's generic elements. When a woman with a gun appears in front of a wall that has been painted a blinding white, you expect it to get painted red somehow.


Surprisingly, Argento's family is spared the worst of the film's violence (Argento in the 1980s started murdering his daughters and partners with gleeful abandon in his movies). That Daria Nicolodi manages to make it to the end of the movie is unexpected. The film continues the director's obsession with art as lethal weapon, a strain of Argento's worldview threading all the way back to The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Here, the finale involves a sculpture (natch) which could serve as an impaling site for shrikes, were it out of doors. Instead, it impales an unfortunate character. The film also finds its killer splitting in two, with entirely different motives at the end. This doesn't exactly play fair, but somehow it works well enough, and is more suggestive of the world of Suspiria than the world of the director's earlier, more rational films. The chaos lurking behind the curtain isn't only to be found in the gloved hands of mad killers, it's to be found in vindictive ex-wives and slavering dobermans. The scene where a doberman randomly chases a woman to her death is evidence of a universe that doesn't make any sense. Death and violence are random, this film says, even when they seem purposive.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 28

First Time Viewings: 22

Note: I'm actually finished with the challenge at this point. It's going to take me a few days to churn through the blog posts, though.

Around the web:

Anna at Dreams in the Bitch House wraps up her challenge with a pair of posts detailing her final two weeks of October. Lots of fun films in her report.

Bob at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind is wraps up his October with a similar summary.


Chris Hewson said...

I love this flick! It's probably my favourite Argento movie.

When you say the the double murder scene is mysoginistic and homophobic, do you mean the film itself, or do you mean that the killer's thoughts of the situation are?

Jose Cruz said...

This flick definitely has a kooky current running underneath it--I remember when I first saw it hearing Argento say in interviews how he consciously placed the films in an undetermined "future," like by a few years. It's such an odd thing to have done (and said) since not one thing is noticeably different than any of his other films.

I caught TENEBRE at an impressionable age, when I was first getting into Argento, so I've grown a liking to its bizarre rhythms. The weird flashbacks, the outlandish murder set pieces (the ex-wife practically guides her streaming blood from her chopped arm along the wall), the whispering killer. I'm hep to that groove.

Also, the U.S. distribution title for the film was UNSANE. That really says it all, doesn't it?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Chris. I'm not entirely sure of how to answer that, because there's a thin veneer between the director and the text of the movie. I think that scene itself is definitely homophobic, even subtracting the killer, based on the dialogue between the two women and the equation of feminism with lesbianism (I'm not going to get into the politics of that, though). I think that this scene is Argento punishing his feminist critics by proxy, though, which strikes me as a total rancid motive on his part, and totally misogynistic.