Scarlet Diva

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With the age of digital video in full swing, the auteur has the opportunity to make a significant comeback. Now, it's entirely possible for someone to write, produce and direct themselves with greater ease, without the prying eyes of a massive film crew. While this could be a recipe for disaster in some productions, it will certainly make for some interesting filmmaking.

Add Asia Argento, now the youngest woman director in Italian history, to the list of behind-camera talents worth watching. Her SCARLET DIVA is a fascinating work.

No doubt, many will be drawn to the SCARLET DIVA for all the wrong reasons, and with unrealistic expectations. Forget the glowing reviews in Village Voice and other notable publications across the world. The lurid poster doesn't say it all, so across the U.S. release is pasted a ridiculous teasing quote from Rolling Stone magazine. "This is the film that should be called XXX," it says (a quote you'll notice I have not reproduced for the cover image).

Not that SCARLET DIVA doesn't have plenty to wet the appetites of exploitation film lovers the world over. It has plenty of unnerving and erotic imagery to leave people content. It's just a shame that some folks want to lump it into the same category as the latest Zalman King trash.

Never mind that Rolling Stone is a magazine that continues to thrive, despite losing all it's credibility years ago. Starting out as a striking response to the shallow and commercial world, it has become the very thing it once stood against, with greater offense and much sooner than expected. Once trumpeting new voices in music, the new Stone once fired their music critic for daring to stand against Hootie & the Blowfish. Once featuring the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison on their covers, they hit their low in the nineties. Their cover was now Playboy has-been Jenny McCarthy, sticking her tongue out while squirting mustard onto a foot-long hot dog. Subtle. All the Hunter S. Thompsons and all the P.J. O'Rourkes can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

But, I digress. This isn't a review on the shambles of Rolling Stone magazine. It's a review of the gritty, at times melodramatic, but altogether pleasing SCARLET DIVA.

Argento plays the title role, Anna Battista, International model, actor and sex symbol. Adored by millions, she gets no satisfaction from it. Although living her life in the public eye, it's remarkable what the public does not see. She lives an existence that is at times decadent bordering on self-destructive. She drinks, does drugs, smokes like a chimney, forms loose bonds with questionable (although some very kind) people and is sexually promiscuous while being repelled by most things sexual. Although the world sees her, they can't touch her in her bubble of isolation. "I'm a fundamentally lonely girl," she tells an interviewer, "It is very hard for me to love someone."

The film chronicles her life as it goes through a number of altering changes. First, she meets a musician named Kirk (Jean Shepard, in his film debut), a seemingly benevolent romantic who thinks he is the son of Elvis. She falls in love with him after one night and over the next few months, never stops thinking about him, even though he is thousands of miles away. Unsure of what will eventually become of the relationship, she continues to pine for him. Kirk also leads her to something that will change her life forever, if she lets it.

Her career is another subject of great longing and resentment. Anna is sick and tired of being everyone else's puppet. She is a talented and respected actress but still deals with the vipers out there, feeding on her. Even after winning an Italian Best Actress award, she must fend off the advances of fat American producers who try to molest her. They see the sex symbol, not the artist. "It's terrible to be an actress in Italy," she says, "You always have to show your tits on covers and be sexy all the time. It's bullshit."

Anna wishes to make an artistic statement, writing and directing her own semi-autobiographical film, SCARLET DIVA - the same film reviewed here. Yes, it's a paradox that could give you a headache if you think about it for too long.

In Anna/Asia's world, there are predators and there are prey. The prey are those who scream just to have their voices heard and the predators are those who pervert and destroy everything they stand for. SCARLET DIVA is a very blatant attempt to be heard over their voices. For every time one feels like they are drifting along, the boldest thing to do is assert oneself artistically. For everyone who tries to appease the users of the world, compromising and getting beat down, the boldest thing is to be a true independent.

Everyone tries to use her in this film. They either want her money, her image or most often, her sex. Everyone wants to get in her pants and no one wants to get in her head. Their decadence comes off almost as demonic as they try to drag her further into a personal hell.

Asia's father, Dario Argento, explores the monsters and maniacs of the world with a fantasy-like vision. She on the other hand, seems hell-bent on shining a bright light on the monsters that exist around us in everyday life.

When someone is given this much control over a semi-autobiographical project, it's probably going to be a study in narcissim and self-indulgence. Why then does SCARLET DIVA not feel narcissistic or self-indulgent? Argento's performance rarely feels like one and it seems like she's exorcising many personal demons. The break-up of her family, her simultaneous fascination and repulsion with celebrity parents, her sexual awakening, clubbing lifestyle and abuse inflicted on those around her are all subjects I didn't have time to describe here. They are all put in stark view in this film. It's likely that in even greater hindsight, Asia would have more to say if she were filming SCARLET DIVA today, since she has recently become a mother.

This is Asia Argento's show, and the whole production rises or falls because of her. Her style isn't too similar to her famous father's. But not only does Asia prove herself to be a capable filmmaker in her own right, but one of skilled and haunting artistry and showcasing some incredible editing techniques (with help from Anna Rosa Napoli).

There are a few unlikely humorous moments as well. One scene where a woman Anna can't remember (European adult star, Selen) is as funny and awkward as it is erotic. Another image in the film features Vera Gemma, daughter of spaghetti western icon Giuliano Gemma, admiring herself in her own cowboy get-up.

SCARLET DIVA does have brief moments when it gets a little too big for it's britches. The temptation with material like this is to fall into dizzying melodrama, something which DIVA comes all too close to succumbing to a few times.

Still, it's great to see a film told from the heart, that not only has the best intentions but executes them with haunting imagery and great talent. SCARLET DIVA is one heavy movie. It's a brutally honest expose of the predators and prey around us, but an oddly soft and romantic one that is ultimately about redemption. Portraying herself as someone who reaches out for any meaningful contact, she makes that contract with the viewer, with great relief, contentment and some regrets - yet, without any apologies.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis