ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Scarlet Diva: Her Body, Her Ashtray

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by Erich Kuersten

In the tradition of Fellini's 8 1/2, Italian actress Asia Argento's feature length directorial debut tells the autobio-fictional story of Anna Batista (Argento), a young Italian actress struggling to find a to get financing for her own film (Scarlet Diva?), while looking for love and trying to stay two steps ahead of an ever-accelerating nervous breakdown. Where the film differs from Fellini's semial work is in the difference between the life experience of an Italian male--one revered as an artist--and a younger female worshipped/devoured as an object. The arcs of their respective stories veer off via their age and gender differences, united by their shared culture (Italy and the cinema) but divided by the mirror wall of "seeing" and ideas of ownership and sexual entitlement. It's due at least in part to cultural and gender prejudices differences that Scarlet Diva is often considered audacious self-exploitation, while 8 1/2 is revered as a critical masterwork.


The outrage generated by Scarlet Diva, compared to the "excusable" behavior of the womanizing protagonist in 8 1/2, is a fascinating dichotomy: Anna Batista sleeps around, scores hash in Paris, then hooks up with an Australian rock singer for a one-night stand. She discovers she's pregnant with his child and decides to keep his baby even though she has no intention of stopping her drugging and self-abuse. She has a bummer K-hole trip at a London photography studio, is almost raped by a sex-crazed American producer (Joe Coleman) at Cannes, whose invitation to screen test in Los Angeles she nonetheless accepts. She burns herself with a lit cigarette, chain-smokes, smokes more hash, etc. all while pregnant.


Now, as an attractive young Italian actress “import,” Ms. Argento is not "supposed" to be brutally exploring her dark psychological undercurrrents and portraying herself as an irresponsible mother, especially not in Italy! Aye, mi Madonna complejo! With her honorary acceptance into the Hollywood elite comes a reputation to uphold, even if one should earn a "bad girl" based in part on one's numerous tattoos. Thus, if Asia is to direct herself in her own film, it should fit the accepted parameters of foreign female-helmed indies: either a biopic about a similarly "other" female artist ala Camille Claudel or Frida (preferably with death or electro-shock therapy at the end) or else a feel-good Cinderella story about a neurotic Italian waitress with a kookily furnished apartment and a boyfriend who drives a scooter.


Instead, Argento drops Scarlet Diva on us. Audiences gasp; males expecting titillation are angered. Chicks expecting a chick flick feel uncomfortable. A good Italian girl-even a bad one--just doesn't talk about these things, let alone show herself doing them. She certainly doesn't chainsmoke while pregnant! More than anything else, this inner child abuse seems to strike viewers as the most unforgivable aspect; Asia Argento is branded an exhibitionist, a masochist, and the most horrible of crimes for a female, self-indulgent.

This is a shame, since if looked at with the same close reading afforded the works of Fellini, Kurosawa, or Welles, Diva yields vast analytical riches:




Considering she's the daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento (Suspiria, Opera, Deep Red, etc.) and has acted in films since childhood (starting with Sogni e bisogni at the age of 9) it's not surprising Argento has a high pain threshold. In the films of her father she has been stalked, killed and sexually assaulted many times over, and these traumas seem to carry through in the harsh masochism of Scarlet Diva. It's as if her dream/alternate "cinema" persona has grown up right alongside her. One is Asia, the actress, writer, director and artist; the other is Anna, the traumatized victim of giallo horror movies and sleazy art films. With Diva, Anna and Asia collapse into each other in a nervous breakdown; Asia becomes the obsessive eye gazing through the Psycho Bates Motel keyhole lens at Anna's self-induced post-shower debauchment. But to accuse her of being self-indulgent for doing this is like accusing Picasso of being a Cubist. If Picasso's celebrated method deconstructs "seeing," Argento's deconstructs the act of "being seen."


            In a key scene of “unseen-ness” Anna shaves her armpits while gazing at herself in the bathroom mirror, a cigarette dangling from her lips. We learn in her audio commentary that she filmed this scene alone (via digital video camera on a tripod). Even with her exhibitionistic desire slightly fulfilled by the knowledge of a future audience watching her, Asia seems unbearably isolated. Thus we find ourselves implicated in the scheme of Anna's own artistic crisis; she wants to be both Picasso and Une Demoiselle des Avignon but she needs us as the designated "male" camera/audience, to witness her loneliness. The mirror/self-portrait of split solitude is, as far as she can tell, empty. The scene becomes like one of Picasso's later self-portraits with nude model otherwise it has no value. The difference lies in the lack of a male artist exploiting a female object for other men to see... here is it is the nude self-portrait of nude model (self) and this makes the male viewer uncomfortable. Poor thing! 


Here she shows much more courage than Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) the "bad boy" of 8 1/2, whose art is based on constant running from this sort of self-reflexive pain. Is it that the critics label the running from this sort of pain as art while the confrontation of--and wallowing in--pain is self indulgence, assuming it's an attractive woman doing the self inflicted damage? We refuse to validate the complex layers of performance embedded in the self-destructive acts of women and girls, acts (i.e. cutting and anorexia) for such acts challenge not just the social order but our own interior organization of self, which is based on denial of secret desires (ala Lacan's jouissance.)





In the Stendahl Syndrome (1996), directed by her father, Asia plays another Anna, a homicide detective from Rome who tracks a serial murderer/rapist to a Florence museum where she subsequently falls into the titular syndrome, a phenomenon where the power of art knocks people (usually Italian) into psychotic fugue states. This illness ties in with the killer's own love for art, and later to Anna's survival of his attacks. Anna thus becomes obsessed with sexual violence and self-mutilation as art. Via her death drive-based wiederholungszwang (repetition compulsion) she repeats her trauma until it finally has an outcome she can accept (which I shan't spoil!). As a reflection of this, Scarlet Diva seems to be Asia's own wiederholungszwang, her artistic cutting of herself, releasing the scarlet flow which enables her to "own" her past personal and cinematic traumas via film, to reclaim her body from the vampiric gaze of People Magazine.


This is where the problem comes in. Glamor magazines don't like it when a star takes her own pictures. It's okay if her genius father knocks her into a fugue state, it's cool if he wants to explore issues of trauma, art, and complexes via the instrument of his daughter's body, but once she starts playing herself, suddenly the blood doesn't seem like dyed corn syrup anymore. Society deems her (sexy female) body too valuable to be left in the hands of an "irresponsible" (female) mind.


            As Carol J. Clover writes in Men, Women & Chainsaws: "In narrative and cinematic imagery, it is the female body that structures the male drama." To wrest her body from the male prison, Argento must use terrorist tactics, a sucide bomb-like coup. When a credentialed male director depicts Argento's body in torment, we can bemoan the sadistic male gaze, revel in it, or suffer masochistically according to each his own way of labeling their jouissance, but When Asia visits torment onto her own body, we're shut out of the loop. This threatens the typical film critic's faith in his/her "culturally sanctioned" gaze; this is a movie that does not "need" a viewer. Thus conventional negative criticism of Scarlet Diva is akin to the warden saying an already escaped convict's route of escape “doesn't work.”


If Asia hadn’t directed herself, or if she had perhaps cast a man in the lead role, would the film still have been "a fascinating train wreck" as so many have called it, or would it be considered "a cult classic post-modern masterpiece ala 8 1/2, but with more sex?" The films of Abel Ferrara are what spring to mind here: gut wrenching explorations of Catholicism, sin, drug use, misogyny and mother-fixation, shot on shoestring budgets and pulling no punches. Critics can and do safely praise Bad Lieutenant (1992) and King of New York (1990); they are made by a Bukowski-esque fringe figure, a genuine auteur (sanctioned as such by Cahiers du Cinema). In praising Ferrara, critics prove they are hip, and willing to back the controversial horse, so long as it's a proven stallion. Not even a self-declared "enlightened" or "liberal" writer is going to forgive a female artist who makes them uncomfortable a priori to her being dubbed a genius by whomever they consider the genius-dubbing status quo (likely a combination of The New York Times, anyone French, their other writer/academic friends, and Artforum). Such critics are the types who unwittingly enforce pigeonholing even as they lament it from their tenured podiums.  



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