February, 1987: The golden age of the Italian horror picture, which arguably began with Bava's Black Sunday and was sustained through the '70s and into the '80s by Dario Argento and associates, is on the wane, but we don't know it yet. So Lamberto Bava, son of Mario, has now made Demons 2. Nothing's really gonna beat the zombies/monsters-in-a-movie-theater conceit of the first one (why didn't anybody think of that before?), or that picture's general over-the-topness (the helicopter crashing through the ceiling, brilliant), but what the hell. It's playing Times Square.
It's not too great. Now the setting's an apartment house, the zombie/monsters' infestation is achieved via television. The demons begin by infesting a kid's birthday party, which is a nice crass touch, but overall this is watered-down stuff. We learn, though, that the eleven-ish kid who looks on with world-weary indifference as her own parents are mauled to death by demons—which demons then inexplicably decline to kill the kid—is played by one Asia Argento. The question "any relation" is, natch, a moot one, given the way things work in Italian film circles. We decide she bears watching.
Spring 1994: Dario Argento's Trauma gets a straight-to-video release in the States. Asia Argento stars, as a disturbed young woman pursued by a serial killer. She is not quite 20, and she already has those dark circles under her eyes. Her character is anorexic and possibly bulemic (there's a vomiting scene). And very, very glum—and very skinny. She's quite a sight, standing with the Trenton bridge sign ("Trenton Makes—The World Takes") behind her in one scene. You can see her rib cage when she takes her top off. Wait a minute, why's her dad directing her in a nude scene?
This question will come up again.
Trauma's not a particularly good Dario Argento film, and his film's aren't going to be particularly good for the forseeable future. We're kind of creeped out by his daughter's appearance in the picture. However, unbenownst to us, in the time between appearing in Demons 2 and Trauma, Asia's been establishing herself in the European mainstream, beginning with a by-all-account wrenching performance as a victim of child sexual abuse in 1992's Le Amiche del Cuore. She will go on to win two David awards (those would be the Italian equivalent of Oscars) for films little seen outside of Italy. Over there, she's Drew Barrymore for a while; over here, her position as an exemplary fanboy sex object begins to gel.
Fall, 1997 or so: We interview Ms. Argento, by phone, for a front-of-the-book piece in U.S. Premiere. It's pegged to what's supposed to be her big splash in the States, B Monkey, a Miramax production directed by Michael Radford, very hot off his success with '94's Il Postino. She seems unenthused by international prospects, and in this case, she's on to something; B Monkey will be seized by Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, who spends almost two years reshaping it before he gives up and dumps it into the market.
It is not a particularly memorable interview, except that she discusses her directorial ambitions and her admiration for...wait for it...Godard and Fassbinder. Film nerds love it when sexy chicks talk about their admiration for Godard and Fassbinder (c.f. the recent media attention for porn star Sasha Grey). We, at the time, were no exceptions, although of late we've come to not really care much who anybody admires anyhow.
Also around this time we acquire a Japanese laser disc of The Stendhal Syndrome, the latest not-very-good Dario Argento film, also starring Asia, which we watch with a friend, a young Italian woman of not inordinately permissive bent. Asia's character in Stendahl is brutally raped. Twice. We are flummoxed. 'What's the deal with having your own daughter enact getting raped?" Our Italian friend shrugs. "They are professional."
September, 2000: Asia Argento's directorial debut, Scarlet Diva, plays at the Toronto Film Festival. Not much of a Godard or Fassbinder influence; however, she does reveal a fondness for lighting gels that almost outdoes that of her dad's old mentor Mario Bava. The autobiographical film, in which she stars, is most effective at giving the viewer the feel of the nomadic life of a sex, drugs, metal/hip-hop loving showbiz professional of some fame and achievement. Going for anything deeper than that, the picture stumbles. Still, it's better than watchable, has some great bits (including performance artist Joe Coleman as a very familiar-seeming movie exec who promises to hook Argento's character Anna up with DeNiro, and is so ardent in his desire for her that he winds up chasing her down a hotel hallway in boxers and cowboy boots), and Argento herself gives what one might call a balls-out performance. A bit of metafictional frisson is achieved by Argento's real-life mom Daria Niccolodi as Anna's crass mother. Our prognosis for Argento's directorial career, we say in Premiere, is "promising."
2002: We are highly distressed to see Asia throw in her lot with that mook Vin Diesel in the thoroughly generic "new style" action thriller xXx, and slightly heartened to learn she intends to use some of her gains from the film to finance her next directorial effort. We become more highly distressed, however, on learning that her next directorial effort will be J.T. Leroy's The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.
Oddly enough, xXx premieres on the same day that Scarlet Diva has its official New York premiere, in one of the small boxes that once was Cinema Village. Argento introduces the film, sitting crosslegged on the floor in front of the screen, resplendent in lavender harem pants and a clingy jeweled top. She'd look right at home in one of those "ancient Egypt" scenes in higher-end porn films. The film holds up neither well nor badly. The afterparty for the picture is, natch, at The Cock, a very down-and-dirty ("WATCH YOUR WALLETS!" screams a sign on the mirror behind the bar) gay bar, then on 12th and Avenue A.
September 2004: The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, and we are not disappointed. That is to say, we are disappointed, because we wanted Argento to make a good film, but we're not disappointed, because we had been on to J.T. Leroy as an artistic fraud well before J.T. Leroy was revealed as a bona fide fraud. The mix of sleaze and inverted sentimentality in Leroy's writing was a transparent con from the start, and to see Argento swallow it whole gave one severe pause concerning her artistic judgment, not to mention her intellectual acumen. Not that the two things necessarily ever have anything to do with each other. But still. Argento's treatment of Leroy's material only exacerbates its ham-handedness; she's tone-deaf to American idioms; after a while the relentlessness of its critique of the hypocrisy of born-again Christians grates. Did I say "eventually?" Make that about ten minutes in. Reluctantly, we announce in Premiere that we are now off Ms. Argento's bus.
May, 2006: One of the wittier bits of casting in the pretty-much wittily-cast-all-around Marie Antoinette, premiering this year at Cannes, is Asia Argento as the Comtesse du Barry. The Scarlet Diva herself playing Louis XV's most powerful mistress—nice. Argento, who has by now graced the cover of every putatively edgy fashion/arts magazine around the globe, more often than not in the nude and flaunting all manner of exotic tattoos, is now 30, around the same age that du Barry was when she was banished from Versailles.
May, 2007: Has Cannes ever had a more idiosyncratic queen than Asia? This year she appears in, and steals, three films at the festival, including one in competition: Catherine Breillat's Une Vielle Maitresse. The pairing of Argento and Breillat is particularly apt, as, Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day not withstanding, Breillat's oeuvre often represent the most ideal hybrid of the art film and the horror film. The scene in which Argento's character enthusiastically licks up her lover's blood is a kind of apotheosis for both actor and director.
Less well received—by stupid people, that is—is Olivier Assayas' droll, nasty Boarding Gate, an oft-Alphaville-esque exercise in which Argento's tawdry, clearly-rode-hard ex-hooker frantically tries to stop the postmodern world from killing her. Her two long scenes opposite an equally dissipated Michael Madsen contain odd intimations of Lynch, Cassavetes and Don Siegel.
Almost all, on the other hand, go into rhapsodies over Asia's cameo in Go-Go Tales, which reunites her with director Abel Ferrara, a kindred spirit who she acted for in New Rose Hotel, directed in the little-seen short Abel/Asia, and, some hold, sent up in Scarlet Diva. Her dirty dancing with a doberman, complete with a tongue kiss of the beast, is much-cited evidence of her fearlessness. We don't know about that—some of our best friends kissed their dogs on the mouth, so we don't think it's that big a deal. What is a big deal is Argento's tirelessness, performing intensity, and complete disregard for hierarchies—later this year, she'll star in her dad's nutjob gorefest The Mother Of Tears, either a return to form or a career nadir for Dario, depending on who you listen to.
A retrospecive, Asia Argento: Sexy, Scary, and Often Naked continues at BAM Rose Cinemas through Nov. 9