Giallo - Exclusive Review

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 hooks up with 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 and Eli Roth Hostel-like 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 flounces 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 by-now mutilated and utterly distraught Keiko. Celine exhibits more resolve however and eventually gives Yellow a few home truths while her sister and detective Enzo frantically search for her.

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. For an Argento film, 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, particularly that of the usually exceptionally competent Seigner. 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 a toothless Bo’ Selecta-like Rambo. 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 monotonous and somewhat 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. And rightly so. With his impressive back catalogue, the director has etched his mark on horror cinema for all time. Argento has often struggled to please his audiences of late, particularly throughout the nineties. Sleepless was regarded as something of a ‘return to form’ for Argento, and after the catastrophic disaster that was 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 psychosexual issues and revealing flashbacks that are laced throughout a convoluted 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, but always knowingly so.

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 an almost sexualised elegance and 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 at least 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 which form some of the film’s highlights.

Giallo is interesting as an Argento film due to its irony and knowing humour. 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, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Tenebrae, Deep Red – even The Stendhal Syndrome and Sleepless - but it still marks Argento as one of the most interesting horror/thriller filmmakers of his generation 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. It was a lukewarm pool of glinting claret, as opposed to the gushing geyser of still-hot and thick blood that many had hoped it would be.

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 of viscera – 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 and opulent glory.


Anonymous said…
Sounds like a visually stunning film, but mired in some 'questionable' characterization :)
Jenn said…
You said, 'For an Argento film, 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.'

Seems like a contradiction, calling the movie Giallo and all. Which I take issue with, it's too self-referencing. But anyway, I, like all the other obsessives out there, love Argento and his early work, but can't seem to get on board with the latest stuff. Mother of Tears was a big disappointment aside from some of the overly gorey set pieces, and stuff like Do You Like Hitchcock and The Card Player is just Argento-lite.

I will, of course, see Giallo asap, but can't say I'm super stoked or anything, which is a shame given my undying devotion to Argento in general.

Rock on
dylan said…
I've never really been an "Argento guy", but I was really hoping this film would live up to the "return to form" chatter I've been reading/hearing about. I still want to see Giallo, it just bums me out that you weren't blow away by it. I trust your judgment (as you are the consummate Argento expert) and unfortunately I'll probably share your same thoughts. Either way, great review!
Matthew Coniam said…
I'm still intrigued enough to want to see it, not least because of Seigner, whose performance in Frantic I've always loved. Hmmm, though. It just seems like there really are only so many times you can go back to the same well.
Were you serious, though, when you implied Liam Cunningham was good in The Card Player? The audience I saw it with, at the 2004 London Fright Fest, were in fits of laughter at the guy...
I must confess, I didn't see Mother of Tears, despite being in Italy at the time of its release, but though I do admire Suspiria, my favourites are definitely the non-supernatural gialli, so I'll give him another try...
Love your site - especially the wine!
Best, Matthew
Tower Farm said…
As someone who recently sat through DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? and THE CARD PLAYER... and JENIFER... good god... I will probably see this, but I am in no rush.

I really love the site. I will be watching for future posts!

James Gracey said…
harajukujam: Yes, the film looked pretty stunning - though nowhere near as visually compelling as other films by Argento - it more closely resembles the look of his recent and more restrained films.

Jenn: I quite enjoyed some of the self-referential aspects of the film, though apparently the director prefered to play this aspect down. The script was written as a homage to Argento's work. As a fellow Argento devotee, I'm sure you'll find something of interest in it though. I love your site by the way - good work.

Dylan: It seems that every Argento film since Opera (or thereabouts) has been touted as a 'return to form.' While I am aware of the criticism his recent work has received, I've still enjoyed most of it - especially stuff like Sleepless and even The Card Player. It showcases the fact that Argento is never content to rest on his laurels and continues to experiment with style and tone with each film.

Matthew: I too am a huge fan of Seigner - and was so dissappointed with her performance in this. And yes, I was serious when I said Liam Cunningham provided one of the best performances in an Argento film - I really liked him in The Card Player and thought, while its certainly not one of his best performances, he really breathed life into the character and did what he could with such a tepid script.
By the way - I really liked the chapter on Phenomena you contributed to Art of Darkness.
Great stuff!

Tower Farm: Giallo is definately a step up from Do You Like Hitchcock and the Masters of Horror episodes. I think The Card Player gets a bit of a rough deal sometimes. It seems to improve with each viewing in my opinion. Thanks for dropping by and for your kind words - hopefully chat to you again soon.

Right, I'm off to lie down in a darkened room for while.
Guillaume said…

I agree that Liam Cunningham was very good,but the big plus for me was Stefania Rocca,maybe Argento's best leading lady...she was really good in this film.

"Giallo is definately a step up from Do You Like Hitchcock and the Masters of Horror episodes. I think The Card Player gets a bit of a rough deal sometimes. It seems to improve with each viewing in my opinion."

I like THE CARD PLAYER and JENIFER,and i enjoyed too,to a lesser extent DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?,so i guess that i will like GIALLO!

(only Argento that i don't really care about are the very uneven PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and SLEEPLESS)
I want so badly for the film to be a return to form, but I am trying not to let expectation get the best of me. Im just hoping to at least be able to separate my love for Argentos previous films and try to review it without bias when it hits the US

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