Asia Argento’s last film appearance to-date was in an ill-regarded French thriller called Alien Crystal Palace that played festivals in summer of 2018, directed by the Franco-American actress, chanteuse, and socialite Arielle Dombasle. The heiress to a silk fortune turned ‘80s “It” girl, Dombasle first gained attention through her collaborations with Éric Rohmer—she plays the older cousin of the title character in 1983’s Pauline à la plage—and today busies herself with various creative endeavors as well as the usual emeritus celebrity pursuits: a PETA campaign here, a season on Danse avec les Stars there. When Alien Crystal Palace was shooting, it may have been reasonably imagined that a similar future lay ahead for Argento, but by the time it was in the can, the news around Argento had followed a series of hairpin switchbacks such as few celebrities have ever experienced, as she was first celebrated for breaking the omertà around abuse of authority in the film industry, then shortly thereafter pilloried for her own perceived hypocrisy. Pauline à la plage was part of what Rohmer called his “Comedies and Proverbs” cycle, and we may here remember the Chrétien de Toyes epigraph that film opens with: “Qui trop parole, il se mesfait.” (“A wagging tongue bites itself.”)
A brief recap: On October 10, 2017, Argento was one of the sources quoted in the bombshell New Yorker piece by Ronan Farrow enumerating multiple women’s accusations of sexual harassment and assault by Miramax and Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein. Argento testified that, when she was aged twenty-one, in 1997, as Miramax was preparing to distribute a British-American crime drama in which she co-starred, B. Monkey, Weinstein had lured her under false pretexts into his suite at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the French Riviera, and there, despite her protestations, forcibly performed oral sex on her. “It’s twisted,” she told Farrow, “A big fat man wanting to eat you. It’s a scary fairy tale.” A version of this scene appeared in Argento’s first film as a director-star, 2000’s Scarlet Diva, made while Argento was maintaining a professional and periodically sexual relationship with Weinstein driven, as she recounted it, by a sense of obligation. Following the public airing of Weinstein’s abuses of power, recollections whose consistency in the repellant details testified unquestionably to their veracity, Argento, alongside fellow Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan, became a self-appointed leader in the #MeToo movement, framed as an attempt to cultivate an atmosphere in which victims of sexual assault who’d previously kept silent due to fear, shame, or other factors would feel sanctioned to face their abusers.
Citing harsh criticism in the Italian press for her decision—Renato Farina in Libero wrote that “surrendering to a boss’s advances to make a career is prostitution, not rape,” for example—Argento relocated from Rome to Berlin. Still greater scrutiny came after Argento’s romantic partner, the television host and writer Anthony Bourdain, committed suicide by hanging at the Hotel Chambard in Kaysersberg, Alsace on June 8, 2018. McGowan issued an open letter which, among other things, sought to pre-empt accusations that Argento was somehow responsible for Bourdain’s suicide, imploring that the public “NOT do the sexist thing and burn a woman on the pyre of misplaced blame.” McGowan’s support was somewhat less unequivocal, however, when on August 19th, the New York Times ran a story stating that Argento had paid out $380,000 of what appeared to be hush money to the actor Jimmy Bennett, who’d played her son in her sophomore feature, 2004’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and with whom she’d allegedly had a sexual encounter when he was ten months away from his eighteenth birthday (the age of consent in California). Argento denied the allegations, but the damage was done. Again there was an open letter from McGowan, this one beginning with a curt denial of complicity, and ending with a reference to her friendship with Argento pointedly in the past tense. For her part, Argento tagged McGowan in an Instagram post showing off her new tattoo, a dagger dripping blood, captioned “Significato: vendetta consumata.”
The court of public opinion has carried out its own litigation on Argento, as it did other accused offenders—to wit, the $618 opening weekend of Kevin Spacey’s Billionaire Boys Club—and involved parties, like McGowan, who one can sympathize with while also recognizing in her public behavior all of the hallmarks of a narcissistic opportunist. Since l’affaire Bennett and Alien Crystal Palace, Argento was last seen as a contestant on the most recent season of the Italian reality series Pechino Express, in which she was meant to hitchhike from Thailand to South Korea with actress Vera Gemma, but bowed out after five days following a knee injury. She has otherwise largely been out of the public eye until last week when, in an interview published with Corriere della Sera, she accused director Rob Cohen of making her drink a bottle of GHB while they were shooting xXx in 2002, after which she “woke up in the morning naked in his bed.” (In 2019 Cohen’s daughter Valkyrie Weather had also raised allegations against him, pertaining to both his actions towards herself and one other woman.)
Picking through this dense briar patch of headlines and accusations, it can be difficult to remember that Argento is an actress before and after she’s an activist or a tabloid sideshow or whatever else you happen to consider her. But it’s worth recollecting, for it is in that capacity that she offered her incisive, disturbing, and unsentimental insights on the private compromises and humiliations, including that uneasy bartering of sex for favors, that would increasingly become part of the public discourse with #MeToo, all of these things tied up within the interplay of sex, power, and capital. The contemplative distance of art allows for considerably greater candor and room to consider the ambiguities at play in these violations and transactions than is allowed by any advocacy role, which calls for certainty and bulletproof rectitude. (Any tarnish is enough to banish one from the arena forevermore; Armie Hammer can deny away from now until Doomsday, but he will never again be the star of “important,” “issue-driven” movies, and will always be the guy who wants to eat women—another scary fairy tale!) This is not to say that art is necessarily “truer” than activism, but that they have different aims and obligations, and pursue different kinds of truths.
Argento was a born aristocrat of Italian cinema. She is the daughter of director Dario Argento, himself the son of an industry executive and later producer, and actress Daria Nicolodi, who had first begun a creative symbiosis with Argento on the set of his film Deep Red, released in 1975, the year of Asia’s birth. That movie belonged to a particularly Italian subset of the suspense-thriller called the giallo, meaning “yellow”—a reference to the color on the covers of inexpensive mystery paperbacks popular in postwar Italy. The giallo film was first codified, then pushed to new extremities and extravagances in the work of filmmakers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Argento, with his highly influential debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). The giallo brought in aspects of the body count whodunnit, as in the prurient update of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), while adding a new baroque floridity to Hitchcockian trademarks like grand architectonic construction, set piece showboating, and the morbid interest in exotic psychosexual anomalies. Like any vital popular genre or subgenre, the sex-and-gore-laden giallo was, consciously or unconsciously, shaped by reaction to a societal sea change: in this case, the hysteria and insecurity resultant from the arrival of the sexual revolution in an Italy where the conservative Roman Catholic church still commanded enormous influence and macho prerogative reigned. As some would say it does today: a Times piece summarized the Italian press’ own “patriarchal” characterization of Asia Argento as “a disingenuous climber well versed in her country’s often transactional relationship between sex, power, and the pursuit of ambition.”
The giallo, like much popular genre material, was diagnostic rather than prescriptive—much of its disquieting force lay in the fact that it embodied cultural upheaval, even while working in a tone and register that paid heed to the accepted stylistic conceits indicating realism. Though much contortion has been attempted to present a domesticated version of horror and thriller films, retrospectively reading movies that were at base about the expunging of messy impulses relating to sex and death as metaphorical delivery systems for progressive politics, this speaks more to wishful thinking on the part of interpreters than the worrisome works themselves. We can assert with some conviction, for example, that a film like Fulci’s 1972 Don’t Torture a Duckling is saying something about the crimes of the clergy in the superstitious rural south of Italy, but to treat it for a second like a “problem picture” is to ignore its fundamental scurrility, the fact that it is itself a problem. To borrow the title of a late Fulci film, the giallo was less the covert expression of any coherent political ethos than a feral “cat in the brain”—something to get inside your head and, trapped there, left to scratch and howl and spit and ruin the upholstery. The aesthete Argento, for his part, has left behind some hard-to-reinterpret statements about his work: “I like women, especially beautiful ones,” he said. “If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl.”
There was more to Argento’s interest in women than this provocation belies, probably thanks in no small part to the influence of Nicolodi, both a favored star and the co-writer of his 1977 Suspiria—a film set in the feminine realm of a Berlin dance academy, and a true family affair, produced by Dario’s younger brother, Claudio. It was natural, then, that Asia might eventually join the business, for many Italian film families worked like Renaissance ateliers, and so she did. After Deep Red, Argento had worked increasingly in the supernatural horror-fantasy line of Suspiria, but his first two films with his daughter, Trauma (1993) and The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), returned to the old giallo mold, with Asia playing characters defined by their deep-rooted psychological hang-ups: anorexia in the first film, paralysis in the presence of great artworks in the second.
A mess of a film, whose eccentricities include some ungainly experimentation with CGI, The Stendhal Syndrome nevertheless exudes a certain fascination as both a pulp meditation on the cycle of trauma and a product of the once-proud tradition of Italian genre cinema at its moment of Extreme Unction, its resources redirected to the television empire of PM and Bunga Bunga Party animal Silvio Berlusconi. Argento plays Anna Manni, a Rome detective lured to Florence on an anonymous tip revealed to have originated with the serial rapist and murderer of women that she’s been tracking. Anna’s prey uses his knowledge of her helplessness in the presence of masterworks in order to render her docile for sexual assault, an encounter with Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in the Uffizi (where it does not hang) performing the role of a chloroform rag.
The theme of art as a weapon, as Trojan Horse cover for the illicit and awful, is as potent as the director’s handling is graceless. Eventually the killer, played by Thomas Kretschmann, is dispatched, though Anna is convinced that he remains at large, a claim that seems to be borne out as bodies continue to pile up, until a climactic twist reveals that the criminal at large is none other than the detective herself, rendered dangerously unstable by her experience. In a tremulous monologue, she describes inheriting her assailant’s malevolent influence: “He’s inside of me. I’ve become him. He’s like an infection, a cancer that grows bigger every day. Every day, his presence inside me gets stronger… He forced his way into me and now I can’t get rid of him.” Shell-shocked and rendered harmless by confession, she is carried away from the crime scene in the arms of fellow officers in the film’s closing image, a gender-reversed play on the Pietà.
With his forceful, try-anything visual style (an out-of-nowhere Edward Hopper homage in Deep Red? Why not?) and the manner in which he imagined films in ornate Gesamtkunstwerk style, Argento, like few other figures of his period, managed to almost bridge the divide between Continental genre movies, often grouped together under the disdainful designation of “Eurotrash,” and the European “art film,” a designation that mostly owes its existence to American exhibitors trying to sell Ingmar Bergman to would-be sophisticates in 1950s university towns. As remote as, say, the filmographies of high modernist Michelangelo Antonioni and low smut-peddler José “The Antonioni of Pigalle” Bénazéraf might seem to some observers now as then, they were united at the very least by a marketing appeal that, petitioning to the stateside market, linked all things Euro to sexual sophistication—hence the tawdry, bosom-heaving cover art of Berkley Books’ release of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Intimacy. Hollywood hegemony had an edge in practically every other department, but the foreign film, so-called, had the loose morals, the heaving décolletage, and the sex appeal.
And so it continued to, even after the Americans had begun to swap keys. Argento, a scream queen with a poutily provocative screen presence that suggested a young Stefania Sandrelli, didn’t want for work through her twenties. There was a trashy Italian comedy (Viola Kisses Everybody, 1998), a big blockbuster break in an insipid extreme sportsman/secret agent movie (xXx), another outing with dad (The Phantom of the Opera, 1998), one with fellow genre eminence gris George A. Romero (Land of the Dead, 2005), and, yes, B. Monkey, a movie seen by hardly a living soul. And there were the first directorial efforts, indicators of a drive for self-determination unusual in an actress so young: the film à clef Scarlet Diva and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, adapted from a semi-autobiographical 1999 novel by Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy which spoke intimately of childhood abuse as experienced in a trailer park milieu, and had transfixed a reading public with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for rubbernecking narratives of destitution and victimization.
By the time Argento’s adaptation received a long-delayed theatrical run in the U.S. in spring of 2006, the layers of deceit surrounding the actual identity of the reclusive LeRoy had been pulled back, revealing the author to be a pseudonymous persona created by the writer Laura Albert, who donned a wig and sunglasses to play LeRoy in public appearances, and maintained the ruse through a small conspiracy involving friends Geoffrey and Savannah Knoop. Exposed as a figment, LeRoy continues to live on—in a 2014 Academy of Friends Oscar Party in San Francisco, he was played on the runway by gender nonconforming fashion model Rain Dove Dubilewski, later the romantic partner of none other than Rose McGowan.
The rise of LeRoy was accomplished through the salesmanship of an irresistible backstory of Appalachian hell and adolescent horror, an instance, if ever there was one, of what the Times called the “often transactional relationship between sex, power and the pursuit of ambition.” And as Argento matured, exploring this nexus became her specialty as an actress. In her Marie Antoinette (2006), Sofia Coppola shrewdly cast Argento as Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry, the final Maîtresse-en-titre, or official mistress, of Louis XV, King of France. It seems very possible that Argento’s apparent ease in the atmosphere of 18th century libertinage influenced Catherine Breillat’s decision to bring on Argento in the title role of The Last Mistress, her screen adaptation of an 1851 novel by dandy and cocksman Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly.
Argento is in France again here, but the scene has now moved from Versailles to post-Revolutionary Paris, 1835, where, on the eve of his engagement to the pure-minded maiden Hermangarde (Roxanne Mesquida), the dashing young adventurer Ryno de Mirginy (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) recounts to his future grandmother-in-law, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), the events of his decade-long dalliance with La Vellini (Argento), the “illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a famed Spanish matador,” and his longtime mistress. Argento, over thirty and her ingénue days finally behind her, emerges as a force of indomitable, haughty pride and contaminated carnality. After de Marigny dismisses her within earshot as an “ugly mutt” upon their first encounter, she delights in watching him squirm on the hook as he tries to walk this insult back and win her favor, only relenting once she has literally drawn first blood, lapping it up from a wound received from her husband during a duel in which her spouse, the poor sap, is defending her honor. De Marigny’s pride humbled and hers satisfied, the affair begins in earnest. And there is a sense, for a moment, that these two volatile freaks might actually live together in something like harmonious connubial bliss, but it all goes up in acrid smoke during an Algerian idyll, when their young daughter succumbs to a scorpion bite. We see La Vellini still keeping a bedside vigil next to the child’s now-putrescent corpse, La Vellini finally agreeing in a terrible rage to dispose of the body by fire, La Vellini wailing as she mounts her lover amid the desert wastes, in plain view of the smoking pyre.
Derided by more than one sniggering commenter, it is a sequence of astonishing abasement and emotion, comic only in the sense that the very real interlocked relationship between guttering grief and spiking libido is, intrinsically, morbidly funny. Argento’s La Vellini poses a menace to propriety, but her performance makes clear that no-one suffers from her desire so much as does she herself. That most insufficient of adjectives, “horny,” is usually employed with a sprightly, naughty, satyr-ish connotation, but Argento exemplifies the agony of sex. Hers is a performance of horniness as crown of thorns, an avatar of anguished eroticism and festering desire that continues a line of artistic exploration that runs through Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa and the “Sick Rose” of William Blake.
That de Mirigny is likewise damaged goods should be obvious, but De Flers, an octogenarian past the age of romantic foolishness if not flattery, allows herself to be charmed by the young man in spite of his transgressions, for she regards herself as a sophisticated woman of the 18th century. Here she acts as a mouthpiece for Breillat, who expresses this very sentiment in her film’s press notes, stating that “The 18th century was more elegant and open-minded than the 19th, when the middle classes came into power, bringing narrow-mindedness and rigorously strict moral principles.”
Breillat, an old Sexual Revolutionary who’d put her time in on the barricades, made her film debut as an actress in a watershed work of arthouse eroticism, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), and would many years later come to the defense of Bertolucci and Marlon Brando against renewed accusations by Jessica Chastain of their having in essence sexually assaulted Maria Schneider on the set of that film. This was perhaps one of the less controversial statements that emerged from Breillat’s 2018 appearance on the Murmur podcast, in which she announced her lack of support for the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent, #BalanceTonPorc, and in particular singled out Argento as a liability to any social justice movement, characterizing her as, like La Vellini, more motivated by a desire for vengeance than by compassion. “Asia may have been disappointed that she didn’t become the great Hollywood actress she might have been,” said Breillat, “but there were lots of other things: drugs, many other things. She feels bitter. Because bitterness, too, can lead people to denounce. If you wanted to obtain something and you didn’t obtain it, if you feel humiliated. Quite honestly, I don’t like Asia. I think she’s a mercenary and a traitor.”
That Breillat would fail to locks arms with the ranks of #MeToo should come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone who has seen any of her movies, for in Breillat’s cinema relations between the sexes are a kind of eternally ongoing pitched battle in which access to the unfounded j’accuse would comprise an awesome and potentially unfair doomsday device. (The warfare only ceases with the cessation of desire—presented in contrast to the hatefuck deathgrip of La Vellini and De Marigny are an older couple played by Yolande Moreau and Michel Lonsdale, subsisting on lavish meals and the vicarious pleasure of gossip.) Responding to Breillat’s comments, Argento took to Instagram to call her former director a “sadist,” noting that Breillat “had just suffered a stroke” before the Last Mistress shoot, and therefore neither she nor cast and crew “had the courage to stand up against her cruelties in fear she would have another one. She took advantage of this and treated us like shit, knowing we couldn’t anger her.” These comments were accompanied by Argento’s ink-and-watercolor drawings from the set, in which Breillat is depicted as a “Demonio” with jagged, blood-stained teeth.
Breillat’s 2004 stroke, a matter of public record, is central to the narrative of her semi-autobiographical 2013 movie Abuse of Weakness, starring Isabelle Huppert as Breillat surrogate Maud Schoenberg, a film director afflicted by a cerebral hemorrhage. Paralyzed on one half of her body, Schoenberg claws her way back to re-attain a semblance of her formerly imperious stature, having herself sized for a customized orthopedic leather boot fit for a dominatrix and planning a new film: a star vehicle for a confidence man-cum-minor celebrity who catches her eye on late-night television. What follows is effectively a dramatization of an incident from Breillat’s own life, which had become fodder for the French tabloids some years earlier, in which the ailing director had contacted a known swindler, imposter, and former roommate of Mickey Rourke, Christophe Rocancourt, to appear in a proposed film called Bad Love, opposite Naomi Campbell. In the seizure-shaken, Rohypnol-sedated period of ill health following Breillat’s stroke, Rocancourt integrated himself into the filmmaker’s life and took charge of her affairs, greatly enriching himself in the process. In the summer of 2009, Breillat took Rocancourt to court, accusing him of trimming her for unpaid loans amounting to some 703,000€ during this period; he was found guilty of abus de faiblesse, and sentenced to a sixteen-month term at the end of a trial whose high drama included the then-sixty-year-old director, accused by the defense of “simulated vulnerability,” being escorted from the courtroom by firefighters while gasping for air and wracked with sobs.
Breillat on the witness stand is one thing; Breillat the filmmaker, another. In court the hard rule of law reigns, however imperfectly, adjudging guilt and innocence, but beyond gavel-banging finality lies a whole body of inadmissible evidence pertaining to lapses of judgement and self-deception and culpability, invisible transactions and transgressions that can’t be tallied up, but rather felt, intuited. Describing these is where art comes into play.
In Abuse of Weakness, the Rocancourt part, hung with the sobriquet Vilko Piran, is played by Kool Shen, a founding member of the Saint-Denis rap group Suprême NTM—the initialism stands for Nique Ta Mère, meaning “Fuck Your Mother.” While Breillat’s film is no exoneration of Rocancourt, its recreation of the events introduces a degree of uncertainty as to what exactly was happening in the con man/sucker dynamic, this thanks to a typically opaque performance by Huppert. As Schoenberg signs off check after check to her dashing younger companion, one is left to wonder if there isn’t a level of willful suspension of disbelief behind her bamboozlement, of complicity in her own victimhood. (I can’t speak to Argento’s designation of Breillat as a sadist, but it’s certain that a number of her characters have masochistic streaks.) As Breillat handles the material, even the subject of the film’s title, taken from the crime for which Rocancourt was convicted, becomes difficult to parse. While Piran has his physical assets, the strength that attracts Schoenberg to him and gives him an upper hand over his “charge,” she wields her pocketbook to keep this child of working-class misery strapped to her side—in such a haggled-over findom exchange, a pound of gold for a pound of flesh, where each party desperately wants something that the other has, is it so easy to assign the quality of “weakness” to one or the other?
Approaching insoluble questions concerning the limits of consent and the rules of engagement in asymmetric psychological warfare is the proper domain of the artist, whose work, broadly speaking—there are no rules in art—benefits from a willingness to discover and be surprised as much as political action does from righteous surety, though the conflation of art and activism continues at an accelerated pace. In the fallout following the public declaration of Weinstein’s career as a “sexual gangster”—the phrase is director Paul Schrader’s—the American film industry, ever resourceful in these matters, went into self-preservation (and self-celebration) mode. Hollywood hitched itself to the pre-existing #MeToo movement, whose origins stretch back to 2006 and the activist Tarana Burke, in the process endeavoring to turn a potential P.R. catastrophe into an occasion for back-patting in year-end award ceremonies. By celebrating the tossing of a few blemished bad apples from the barrel, Hollywood cheered on Hollywood’s triumph over Hollywood’s culture of complicity. The entertainment industry founded its own movement and legal defense fund, Time’s Up, and actresses arrived at the Golden Globes with activists as their red carpet dates.
Internationally, however, responses varied. Italy, home of #QuellaVoltaChe, largely proved infertile soil; the abovementioned Times piece on Argento and Bennett quotes Cristina Sivieri Tagliabue, the president of Non Chiederci la Parola, an organization “that monitors women and the media,” who laments that in the wake of claims against Argento, “The #MeToo Movement never happened here, and now this will be used as an excuse to blame all women.” In France, one may observe a schism that breaks down along lines of age. In an interview with The Guardian in April of 2018, Claire Denis, a director who, like Breillat, came of age in the 1960s and who, like Breillat, is endlessly fascinated with human sexuality in its transformative and destructive power and its hardwiring into class relations, bristled at the current focus of debate over male-female relations. Said Denis when asked obliquely about #MeToo by her interviewer, this was “a discussion that’s only being had in rich countries. The world is not just the United States and Europe. It’s a debate of spoiled children… I couldn’t care less about the Weinstein affair—it hasn’t changed anything for women.” Denis was promoting her new film Un beau soleil intérieur, concerning the love life of a fiftyish painter played by Juliette Binoche, early on seen telling a romantic partner that she can only cum with him when she thinks of what a bastard he is.
In French film culture, #BalanceTonPorc made its presence felt, as the Cinémathèque Française faced fire for programming in close proximity retrospectives for directors Jean-Claude Brisseau and Roman Polanski. Brisseau, who died in 2019, had been fined and found guilty in 2005 in a trial resulting when four actresses accused him of making video tests of them masturbating on-camera under what they claimed to be false pretexts, while Polanski has long evaded his day in court for charges relating to unlawful sexual intercourse with 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, though he had a close call in 2009 when arrested by Swiss police in Zurich, an event met with a great hue and cry by the creative class. Neither Breillat nor Denis were signatories of the 2009 petition of support for the embattled Polanski, though Argento, to her later stated regret, was.
The late aughts were, retrospectively, the high-water mark of both Argento’s fame and her potency as a screen presence. The Last Mistress premiered at Cannes in 2007, ten years after the described incident with Weinstein, and eleven before she confronted a closing night crowd with a fiery speech that concluded “Even tonight, sitting among you, there are those who still have to be held accountable for their conduct against women, for behavior that does not belong in this industry, does not belong in any industry or work place.” It was one of three films she had there that year, the year that would prove her unmatched annus mirabilis, leading the Village Voice’s Nathan Lee to herald her “not only the most fearless actor of her generation, but also one of the most intelligent and commanding,” having earned “pride of place in the jerkoff fantasies of submissive cinephiles worldwide.”
Screening out of competition at Cannes while The Last Mistress vied for the Palme d’Or was Go Go Tales, a sort-of backstage ball-busting comedy set at a Manhattan strip club directed by Abel Ferrara, a figure who, with his much-publicized history of substance abuse and habit of creating a volatile, anything-can-happen on-set atmosphere, is an outlier exception to Argento’s typification of the filmmaking process as an industrial one. This was Argento’s second film with Ferrara, the first having been New Rose Hotel ten years earlier, an adaptation of a William Gibson story set in a near future Japan where the warring of mega-corporations creates a sideline business for experts in corporate extraction like Fox (Christopher Walken) and X (Willem Dafoe), who make a living persuading R & D scientists to defect from competitors or disappear from the game entirely. Gearing up for a particularly delicate operation, they recruit Argento’s Sandii, introduced breathily sighing into a nightclub microphone like a 21st century Lola Lola, and together play Henry Higgins to their Eurotrash Eliza Doolittle, preparing her for a seduce-and-destroy mission. “There’s an old saying, ‘The hair on a snatch could tow a battleship,’” says Fox, delivering his first lesson to Sandii. As for approaching her target: “All you have to do is feed his grandiosity and play on his horniness.”
As a fringe-dwelling (mostly) independent filmmaker and lifelong hustler, Ferrara has always had an penchant for movies about men and women of the same breed, and Go Go Tales, a sort of backstage drama a la Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955) set on a Deuce out of time, features nothing but. Dafoe plays Ray Ruby, manager of Ray Ruby’s Paradise, part flim-flam man, part earnest impresario with artistic pretentions, given to shutting down the club on Thursday nights for a cabaret showcase that allows his ecdysiasts to display their other talents: magic tricks, interpretive dance, and a bit of Shakespeare from the bouncer. If the parallel between Ruby and Ferrara, and between the hat-in-hand fundraising racket and champagne room business isn’t clear enough, Ferrara includes a “private dance” in which one of the girls extracts a hefty check from her “producer” in exchange for her screenplay—the elevator pitch, reimagined as lap dance.
The exchange recalls an episode of the BBC’s I’m Alan Partridge (1997), in which Steve Coogan’s down-and-out television presenter Partridge, trying to land a gig with Irish television, envisages himself gyrating in a leather codpiece for the amusement of visiting Celt execs, clad in IRA togs in his imagination, looking on as he shamelessly flirts from the stage “Ooooooh, scary Irishman… I like your berets…” Ferrara, a lifelong hoochie-coo artist, shows no inclination to render any of this business “empowering,” nor to pity anyone involved in it. This is how the game is played, and a gig is a gig. The Pop Group recorded a song called ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ back in 1979; a lot of people still haven’t caught up with it.
Argento has a small role in Go Go Tales, but a pungent one, as an unindoctrinated newcomer to the Paradise, Monroe, who sees Ruby’s utopian idealism, gift-of-gab morale building, and petitioning to a sense of familial loyalty among his employees as flimsy excuses to eschew obligations and violate professional decorum. The easy mark of Stendhal Syndrome has got wise; she’s not going to let a bunch of gibble-gabble about “art” take her eye off the brass ring. Her skepticism towards Ruby, we see, is not entirely without justification. Ruby may be a sentimental, mindful, and daydreamy boss, but he is all the same a boss with an eye to a bottom line, not above asking a pregnant dancer to keep going on-stage against doctor’s orders, and whatever considerations he extends to his employees are ultimately in the service of his club, his dream—again, the parallel to the psychology of the cat-herding film director must be clear. Argento’s Monroe is having none of it, pursuing her own prerogatives, padding her own bankroll, the rest of it be damned. We see her pausing to tongue kiss her pet Rottweiler on-stage while giving a rhythmless, surly bump-and-grind, then later peeling off garments while Ray’s hairdresser brother and one of the club’s main investors (Matthew Modine) peels big bills from his fold.
Sex scenes, and we may very nearly count this as one, often step outside of a film’s narrative flow as a guitar solo breaks from a verse-chorus-repeat rock song—this isn’t a criticism, I love both sex scenes and wanky guitar solos. Argento, however, had a singular ability to integrate sex and narrative, conveying character while on the brink of ecstasy or surrender—a surrender which she was often seen to be cannily in control of, withholding the cookie until the ink was dry on the contract—and her best directors understood and took advantage of this.
The ultimate testament to this appears in the movie that rounded out Argento’s Cannes trio, Boarding Gate, whose first half is largely dedicated to dirty-talking brinksmanship between Sandra (Argento), a mercenary moll, and Miles (Michael Madsen), an American businessman in Paris, an ex-lover and ex-professional partner who’d used Sandra as an added incentive in his deal-brokering.
The director of Boarding Gate, Oliver Assayas, is an admirer of Ferrara’s, and his movie owes more than a little to New Rose Hotel, though here the setting is changed from a relatively well-defined cyberpunk tomorrow to the hazy, incomprehensible neoliberal present, in which both capital and bodies flit effortlessly across borders. (The unbounded trafficking of flesh is also very much a part of Go Go Tales, in which the girls from Ray Ruby’s Paradise are an eclectic bunch drawn from all corners of the globe.) While New Rose Hotel floats from Marrakech to Japan—in fact, the production never left New York, the Tokyo establishing shots coming via b-roll from Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989)—Boarding Gate is a kind of diptych, beginning in Paris before heading to Hong Kong. That trajectory—and the downfall of the obsolescent Miles, the quintessence of middle-aged white male hubris—suggest a none-too-subtle metaphor for anxiety over the fading of the West and the rise of the Asian markets. As in New Rose Hotel, the gathering and leveraging of personal information by corporations is big business in Boarding Gate, a business in which Argento’s Sandra (a close relation to Sandii, to be sure) has been periodically employed putting her body on the line.
During an extended tease that begins with Sandra begging for money from Miles to start a nightclub in Beijing and ends with her putting a bullet into his head, she’ll recount some of her more traumatic encounters at his side, which include being drugged and raped by a gaggle of Japanese salarymen. After the psychosexual tug-of-war of the film’s Paris section, much of which Argento spends in dynamic poses and various stages of undress that emphasize her particular combination of voluptuousness and trained-down, fighting-fit hardness, Sandra is plunged into a relentless run-and-gun action-thriller upon arriving to a double-cross in Hong Kong. In both sections, Argento’s Sandra proves herself a genius of nick-of-time contingency plans, possessed of raw, unadulterated survival instinct. More than even La Vellini or Monroe, Sandra has no real resources to draw upon but those of her body and mind tuned to absolute synchronicity, but they never fail her. In 1979 Robert Fripp described his managerial style as being that of “the small, portable, intelligent unit fighting the dinosaur,” which is the only thing that one can be if at odds with the dictates of—you will pardon the phrase—late capitalism, and exactly what Sandra becomes when a massive, indifferent corporate conspiracy threatens to grind her up in its tectonic movements. Sandra doesn’t get that Beijing nightclub, her own Ray Ruby’s Paradise, but she survives the day, which is all that we’ve been told we can ask to expect anymore.
Economic imperatives and ever-shifting, ever-imperiling market adjustments are arguably the subplot of every movie that Assayas has made, but if Boarding Gate has one clear companion piece in his filmography it would be his 2002 Demonlover, a film likewise concerned with international corporate skullduggery, in this case employed in negotiations surrounding the European Volf Corporation’s acquisition of the rights to the 3D pornographic hentai produced by a Japanese anime studio. Demonlover, less prophetic than attentive to the way the wind was blowing at the time in a manner that few contemporary films were, offers an exemplary instance of how the cinema of the early-to-mid ‘00s responded to the new ubiquity of online pornography, which now distributed by way of the Internet was not so much being mainstreamed, as it had been in the 1970s, as mainlined.
Though little-understood at that moment, the impact of pervasive pornography on eroticism in narrative cinema would be something like that of photography on representative painting. Slowly but surely, movies would cede the field in representing desire and the physical act of love to the ascendant domain names—though there was, before our current retreat, a period of cross-breeding that produced a spate of movies with unsimulated sex, among them Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi (2000), Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001), Larry Clark and Ed Lachman’s Ken Park (2002), and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004). At the same time, as America was wired for Internet, fuck flicks became readily available in the comfort of one’s own home, and as a result reached a level of cultural saturation and social acceptability exceeding that of the bygone days of “porn chic.”
There was a sense that porn, a sex-for-cash business, might even produce a crossover star, and for a time many were banking on that star being Sasha Grey, nee Marina Ann Hantzis, a native of Sacramento who’d entered the adult film industry at barely eighteen, making her debut opposite Rocco Siffredi, the virtuoso of rough sex who Breillat had cast in her films Romance X (1999) and Anatomie de L’enfer (2003). Grey swiftly made a name for herself not only for being a dead game and gonzo sexual athlete, but for lacing her interviews with highbrow references, letting it be known, for example, that she had considered using Anna Karina as her nom de porn, in tribute to Jean-Luc Godard’s muse of the mid-‘60s who played an aspirant-actress-cum-prostitute in his 1962 Vivre sa vie. She name-checked Brutalist architecture and Lord Byron, and identified herself as an existentialist. She gave a good talk show appearance, showed all the makings of a media-savvy breakthrough performer, and in short order was recruited into the realm of respectable cinema by Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker with an established predilection for making use of non-professional actors, to star as a high-end Manhattan call girl in The Girlfriend Experience (2009).
In both his business practice and the subject matter of his artistic output, Soderbergh remains a filmmaker, like Assayas, unusually attuned to matters of economy, sexual and otherwise—collaborating with ex-male stripper Channing Tatum in his Magic Mike (2012), he produced one of the few valuable pop documents of the Great Recession, a story of stretched-thin working-class men shaking their asses to make ends meet. But Grey, now in her early thirties, retired from the adult film industry in 2011, The Girlfriend Experience representing the pinnacle of her mainstream visibility, and much of her subsequent film work consisting of novelty cameos intended to induce nudge-nudge recognition in viewers. (As to if author E.L. James lifted Sasha’s surname for her billionaire bondage-enthusiast in 2011’s Fifty Shades of Grey, the jury remains out).
So it was, then, a figure from outside of the porn industry, Argento, who would most successfully create a screen persona that took account of the particularities of digital-age sex. (With her doomy sexuality and gradually multiplying tattoos, it may be that Argento even helped to create the image of the modern alt porn star—it is difficult to imagine the mannerisms of a Stoya without her.) Writing of Argento’s Boarding Gate role—a true existentialist heroine like Grey—Steven Shaviro isolates what he identifies as her uniquely post-cinematic qualities, those which separate her from the aloof, elevated, aura-lit personas of earlier movie stars. Writes Shaviro: “In contrast to both Garbo and Monroe, Asia Argento no longer retains even the slightest hint of transcendence. She is directly carnal, immediately present in the flesh. And her ferocious intelligence cannot be separated from this carnality. Argento collapses the seductive distance between star and audience, and instead offers us her own hyperbolic presence. Her performance is excessively immanent and embodied. Even her irony is too immediate, and too close for comfort.”
Argento was, at the moment of The Last Mistress, Go Go Tales, and Boarding Gate, singularly successful in articulating, on-screen, not only the business of sexual exchange at both its most impassioned and at its most calculated and transactional, but also the emotional and spiritual attrition of trafficking in both kinds of sex. In her busiest and most focused years as an actress she, working along with the better of her directors, carved out a new and rather unique type of screen star: that of the post-pornographic sex symbol.
I don’t use “post” here in the sense of something we’ve moved past, but in the sense of existing on the other side of a fundamental cultural shift, crucial if little commented on: the absolute pornification of the wired world. The 1080p immediacy of Argento’s new, “directly carnal” presence and the roles that made use of it responded and were acclimatized to the porn-saturated 21st century media landscape, and she embodied the same almost inborn worldliness with regards to matters of the flesh even if she happened to be appearing in a period piece—there is a bit in The Last Mistress in which a snuff box inlaid with a scene of a couple in the throes of connubial delight is passed around by a group at a dinner table, to shock and smirks, though when it arrives in Argento’s hands she responds only with blasé, seen-it-all indifference.
Today, however, Argento seems less like the first of a new breed of film star than the last of an old one, in part because any evidence of carnality, either direct or evasive, has drastically decreased in narrative cinema—or at the very least from “event” cinema, the last bastion in the 2010s being a handful of queer arthouse titles. In a bizarre turn of events, high-engagement social media expressions of discomfort with sex scenes in films have proliferated while sex scenes themselves have very nearly gone the way of the Dodo. In Hollywood, at least, the subject of sex seems to have been written off as one more risk not worth taking. Following the whirlwind events of 2017-18, an item in The Hollywood Reporter detailed “The New Politics of Hollywood Sex Scenes in the #MeToo Era,” digging into the nitty-gritty of “nudity riders” and agent negotiations intended to address what the writer calls “the inherent power imbalances, vulnerabilities, and uncomfortable pressures that occur when filming these scenes.”
Among other things, all of this touches on an age-old argument with regards to how we think about the work of making art in general, and the ever-sullied business of cinema in particular: Is this an industry that should be subject to the same expectations of professionalism and HR regulations as any other business, or isn’t it? Should it at least sometimes be able to be something else, if the people involved know what they’re getting into—inasmuch as anyone ever can—and want it to be?
Breillat eschews the idea of social responsibility in her public statements, laced with observations like “Since I’m an artist, I don’t have to be politically correct” and “I’m a feminist, but not in my films,” and reportage from her sets suggests that playing on “power imbalances, vulnerabilities, and uncomfortable pressures” is an essential part of her practice—in fact she made a movie, 2002’s Sex is Comedy, about this very subject. Ferrara’s cinema, too, is one that relies on improprieties, or on creating the appearance of them, and of overstepping boundaries between life and cinema in the hopes that something real might bleed into the work. Reading Dave Simpson’s The Fallen recently, which profiles the forty-some members who have passed through the revolving door lineup of The Fall, I was struck by how closely the directorial style of the band’s frontman and lone consistent member, Mark E. Smith, resembled that of what I know of Ferrara’s: a constant low-level campaign of psychological terrorism, imbuing the work with an ineffable ambient unease.
Ferrara’s own volatile method, or a dramatized version of it, is represented in his 1993 Dangerous Game, which has underground film director Harvey Keitel browbeating a commercial actress, Sarah Jennings, played by Madonna, into an unfinished and revealing performance on the set of his new two-hander psychodrama, the title of which, Mother of Mirrors, is worthy of Dario Argento.
Dangerous Game is an unsettling movie, a mise en abyme that willfully throws off your sense of what’s real, of what’s been staged and consented to. Keitel’s verbal abuse of Sarah (“You commercial piece of shit”), for example, sounds an awful lot like what we might imagine that a then-going-through-a-divorce and unstable Harvey Keitel mercilessly lambasting Madonna would sound like. Later, “Sarah” describes her memory of a knifepoint rape on a New York rooftop, an account which those who have reviewed Madonna interviews will recognize as the actresses’ own lived experience. In a scene that suggests Maria Schneider’s report of her experience on the set of Last Tango in Paris, Sarah’s method acting co-star (James Russo) goes much too far filming a violent sex scene, leading his co-star to storm off set in a rage of tears. Is this a critique of such directorial overreaching and, per Breillat, abuse of weakness, or an instance of it?—the verisimilitude of certain moments makes it very difficult to say. Dangerous Game, lest we forget, also happened to be the first movie produced by Madonna’s Maverick Picture Company. Ms. Ciccone has not really acquired a reputation as a pushover, and as such her on-screen denigration may be taken as an instance of cinematic topping from the bottom—in art as in life, these dynamics are often not so simple as they seem, which is part of what the movie seeks to limn out in the first place.
Ferrara was the subject of one of Argento’s first directorial efforts, a 1998 short called Abel/Asia, made at the time of the New Rose Hotel shoot. It’s a chaotic, slapdash assemblage of 30-some minutes of consumer grade video shot by the actress, the frame constantly agitated, sometimes turned on its side. Most of the footage consists of screenshots of timecoded dailies from the shoot and her and Ferrara hanging around duetting, he throttling an acoustic guitar and the both of them singing, beginning with The Rolling Stones’ “Memory Motel,” which wouldn’t be a half-bad theme song for the film they’re working on, the last reel of which is drowned in regretful remembrance. I can’t say if there are drugs going around, but I wouldn’t say that there aren’t, either. Quite a bit of Abel/Asia occurs in the bathroom of the duplex apartment that the duo are seen lurching around in, maybe for the acoustics or maybe so Asia can catch her image in the mirror while Abel strums and yowls in the foreground. Argento sings in the same breathy, languid, whisper-thin murmur heard when Sandii is introduced in New Rose Hotel, taking the mic at a nightclub to deliver her dolorous tune, the moment that convinces Fox and X, on the lookout for bait for the tender trap that they’re then planning to lay, that “Maybe this is the girl? Maybe there’s money to be made here?”
Just a memory, of a love that used to mean so much to me… It’s been a long time since 2007, and a longer time since 1998 and the Miramax Films heyday that Argento and McGowan brought back under scrutiny some three-and-a-half years ago. And struggle though I might, I can’t think of a single bad thing about the fact that the ogre Weinstein will end his days in Wende Correctional Facility outside of Buffalo, where he began his career as a rock promoter, nor can I think of much to validate Breillat’s statement that “Despite everything, I think that Europeans have lost a lot with the loss of Harvey Weinstein”—perhaps she is referring to the Weinstein Company’s role in distributing Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) in the United States?
But I do miss the movies that I’ve been talking about here, those still occasionally volatile and unpredictable ones that occasionally had something to communicate about the slippery interrelation of sex and money and power and feeling, and how these things intersect in either the France of Louis Philippe or the world of 3D hentai and red-eye flights to Beijing and capital and information-for-sale that never, ever stop flowing. And I have a strong suspicion that, under the guise of industry oversight with the stated intention of preventing the appearance of another Harvey or whatever other conspiracy-of-silence bigwig creep that you care to name, we will continue to see a scrupulous avoidance of any discomfiting material whatsoever, sexual or otherwise, though this is very often the only material suited to express a sense of the workings of and abuses of power, and we will see an increased consensus that any film or any art not made conforming to established workplace protocol is to be looked at askance. There is a bit in Cemetery Man, a 1994 film by Dario Argento’s former assistant, Michele Soavi, that comes to mind, when a lovelorn teenager is discovered being masticated by her recently deceased boyfriend, now a zombie. When an attempt is made to disturb the gruesome scene, however, she snaps back; “Mind your business! I shall be eaten by whomever I please!” And I suppose all that I’m really hoping for is more art with teeth, and that willing women and men should still be able to throw themselves into its jaws.
Online indignation operates through the rapid transmission of decontextualized sound bites, but it’s worth reading the whole of that Denis Guardian interview to get to the following: “In the west, the real problem is the class struggle; that’s where all the sexual problems come from.” Per Breillat, sex is comedy, but it’s also a weapon, the only one that some people have at their disposal—a weapon that can cut the strong down to size, and a weapon that can be turned back on its user if they’re not careful. Weaponized sex was Asia Argento’s stock-in-trade on-screen; the archetypes that she ushered into the new century were as old as cinema, decidedly out-of-fashion at the moment: the vamp—remember that The Last Mistress bloodletting—and the femme fatale. Both have been contentious figures, to many minds the creations of milquetoast men quaking in the face of female sexual power. And so, perhaps, they have as often as not been—but in the femme fatale’s wielding of sex or the suggestion of sex as an equalizer—or the homme fatale’s, to look at the case of Abuse of Weakness’ Vilko—there is a tacit understanding that fighting from on one’s back is sometimes the last best option when society has put you in a nigh-impossible position. This is perhaps not a matter it would be necessary to consider in the best and most egalitarian of all possible worlds, but while we’re waiting, mightn’t we want to see how this one works?