Giallo - Exclusive Review

2009
Dir. Dario Argento

Beautiful model Celine (Elsa Pataky) is abducted in Turin by a deformed and deranged serial killer nicknamed Yellow, due to his lurid skin colour – the result of a rare liver disease. Celine’s sister, flight attendant Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner), reports her disappearance to the police and joins the somewhat odd and secretive detective Enzo (Adrien Brody) in his investigation to try and find Celine before she becomes Yellow’s latest victim. Enzo explains that Yellow is obsessed with the destruction of beauty and that a number of women have been found, their faces and throats horribly slashed and mutilated. The race is on to save Celine’s life and put a stop to Yellow’s reign of terror and bloodshed once and for all…

Dario Argento’s latest film Giallo premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this week. Unfortunately Argento was conspicuous by his absence at the premiere and it is rumoured that he is unhappy with the final cut of the film and is attempting to distance himself from it. Giallo is a deliberate throw back to the gialli Argento popularised in the seventies, with films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red. 'Giallo' is Italian for 'yellow' and takes its name from the vividly coloured covers of pulpy thriller/detective novels popular in Italy. Giallo films are famed for their extreme violence, exquisitely stylish direction, bizarre plot twists and meandering narratives. The title of Argento's latest film is also a reference to the titular character's grotesquely jaundiced complexion. Opening to a packed theatre with no fanfare whatsoever, the film began quite unceremoniously after rather appropriate and luxurious red velvet curtains slowly parted to reveal the opening credits unspooling beneath Marco Werba’s darkly dramatic, beautifully foreboding and utterly appropriate score. Ominously swirling strings and spooky choral arrangements stabbed at by a blasting brass section collide to provide one of the film’s undisputed highlights. Werba effortlessly evokes the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman, while still imbuing his score with a distinct and unique grandeur all of its own. So far, so good.

The film opens with two students attending an opera show. At once it seems as though we are in familiar Argento territory as the camera flicks around the opera house taking in all the excessive opulence and elegant grandeur. The two women decide to sneak off to enjoy their last night in Italy and hit a night club to dance the night away. When one of them meets a guy, the other – Keiko – decides to head back to the hotel for the night. Caught in a torrential downpour, Keiko jumps into a taxi and is whisked off to a secluded spot in the city’s backstreets. The driver, whose fiendish and glaring eyes are reflected in the rear-view mirror, attacks and abducts her, bringing her back to his seedy subterranean lair to mutilate her face and eventually kill her in blunt and brutal fashion. Almost before we can catch our breath, we are introduced to Celine as she sashays down a catwalk modelling the latest high fashion and arranging to meet her sister Linda after the show. She becomes the latest captive of the deranged killer who still leers over a brutally mutilated and utterly distraught Keiko. 


Sean Keller and Jim Agnew obviously know how to spin a great yarn and Giallo hits the ground running, but rather unfortunately it seems Argento may have just phoned it in with the direction on this one. There was none of his usual lavish camerawork, though everything was indeed beautifully and rather lushly lensed by cinematographer Frederic Fasano. Giallo is perhaps one of the most conventional films of his career and compared to the vast majority of his work, it seemed extraordinarily tame. Towards the end of the film the audience laughed, a little derisively perhaps, at the absurdity of some of the dialogue and performances. A few gasps were uttered at the increasingly astounding plot twists too – though it must be said that this sort of narrative unravelling is fairly typical of giallo films and the writers must be praised for nailing the often absurd traits and idiosyncrasies of the giallo.

The film unfortunately falls flat with some of the dialogue though, and its pantomime villain, who looks like - and exudes about as much menace - as character from Bo’ Selecta. Brody actually portrays Yellow as well as Enzo. Under the pseudonymous moniker Byron Deidra, his performance as the film’s titular villain is rather ineffectual and doesn’t elicit much threat or fear. As Enzo however, Brody delivered what must surely be one of the best performances in any Argento film (echoing Liam Cunningham and Stefania Rocca in The Card Player) and Brody plays it very straight throughout – even when mumbling some quite embarrassing dialogue – particularly in the scene where he opens up to Linda and, after an utterly intense and exuberantly violent flashback, almost spoils everything by reciting dialogue about how he did what he had to do and doesn’t expect anyone to understand... Enzo is a typical Argento outsider; socially awkward, slightly eccentric, secretive about his dark past and rarely seen without a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Brody is deadpan throughout and instantly seemed to win over the audience with his sly humour and highly droll performance. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Emmanuelle Seigner, whose icily detached performance came across as rather wooden at times.

For some time now Giallo has been hailed as a potential return to Argento’s roots and a dramatic ‘comeback’ for the director. Much like the anticipation of the release of everything he has made since Opera, Giallo also manages to subvert expectations and confound fans and critics alike. Having said that, Argento’s fans are also his biggest critics; expecting nothing but the best from their beloved director. With his impressive back catalogue, the director has etched his mark on horror cinema for all time. Argento has often struggled to please audiences of late, particularly throughout the nineties. Sleepless was regarded as something of a ‘return to form’ for Argento, and after Phantom of the Opera it was easy to see why.


Giallo references other Argento films such as Opera, Deep Red and Tenebrae - writers Keller and Agnew are obviously fervent fans of Italian horror cinema and at times Giallo feels like a whirlwind tour of everything gialli. Indeed, many of the usual themes associated with the subgenre are echoed throughout Giallo: the outsider protagonist, the destruction of beauty, lavishly filmed scenes of brutal violence, a villain with distinct Freudian issues and revealing flashbacks that are laced throughout the narrative. And in keeping with the traditional investigations carried out in any number of gialli, clues are often simply stumbled upon or plucked from the air moments before another audacious plot twist occurs and we are yanked along by the story to its next grisly instalment.

At times the film feels as though it’s an older Argento film. Much like Phenomena, Sleepless and to an extent Trauma before it, Giallo is a melting pot of quintessential Argentoesque moments and potentially iconic images that have been lifted from his other work and swirled together to concoct a deliriously sumptuous and self referential affair - a kind of 'greatest hits' package, if you will. Again the undeniable sense of self-parody comes into play and at times the film teeters on the brink of camp. While Argento’s reputation has taken something of a battering throughout the last 15 years, it is quite evident that the director still retains the ability to infuse astoundingly violent imagery with bizarre beauty. The scenes of bloodshed that flow throughout Giallo, could reasonably fit into any number of the director’s previous films. A particularly vicious moment occurs when Yellow takes a blade to Keiko’s lip, prompting one member of the audience at the screening I attended to leave rather abruptly and not return. Argento has evidently not lost his touch or ability to shock, and he still directs the scenes of violence with inimitable vigour; particularly the grisly flashback scenes.


Written by Keller and Agnew as a loving homage to the work of Argento, the film also works well as playful parody - much is contained within the unfolding drama to please fans of both the genre and of Argento, but it might not convince those less familiar with either. While Argento has played around with humour before, his latest film forms a sort of culmination of this. Argento was allegedly unhappy with the self referential nature of the script, however, the playful nature exhibited by the film is certainly one of its strong points. At times it resembles a compilation of vintage Argento moments and works best as a parody of giallo films and indeed Argento films - in much the same way as Mother of Tears served as a conclusion and sort-of-parody of the director’s supernatural Three Mothers trilogy.

Giallo might not mark the triumphant and long awaited ‘return to form’ of the director who gave us the likes of Suspiria, Tenebrae, Deep Red and Opera - but it still marks Argento as one of the most interesting horror/thriller filmmakers of his generation still working in cinema. While certainly nowhere near Argento’s usual standards (even compared to his recent work – it is certainly on a par with the likes of The Card Player and maybe even Sleepless), Giallo is still worth checking out. Argento fans might get a kick out of it. 


When it concluded the film was met with initially cautious, and then merely tepid applause, though it was obvious the audience enjoyed Argento’s latest spectacle – even if it was not the film it could have been. Hopefully Giallo will receive a theatrical release – Argento’s work really does deserve to be seen on the big screen in all its blood-soaked, opulent glory.

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