A cry from its maker's id--where it no doubt howled for years--Asia Argento's "Scarlet Diva" is pure narcissism run deliriously amok. The Italian actress, currently out-scowling Vin Diesel in "XXX," is the daughter of horror director Dario Argento, whose résumé includes grisly 1970s shockers such as "Deep Red" and "Suspiria," but whose legend for the outrageous has been increasingly outstripped, in more ways than one, by his attention-grabbing offspring.
In 1996, the then-21-year-old starred in her father's grotesquerie "The Stendahl Syndrome" as a homicide detective who in the course of an investigation is stripped naked and raped, all under the pitiless gaze of the camera. Watching the film then you could only feel that either the Argentos were paragons of a certain kind of European cool (if somewhat more outré than the Swedes) or completely out of their minds. "Scarlet Diva" now, however, makes it plain that what runs through this family's veins isn't ice but molten lava.
Shot in digital video, "Scarlet Diva" is Asia Argento's first feature--she wrote it, directed it and stars in it, from first scene to last. Part confessional, part endurance test, the semiautobiographical story traces la dolce vita--and often acido--of Italy's biggest movie star, Anna Battista, through a series of erotic encounters with an assortment of men and one ardently insistent woman. Along the way, Anna falls in love with a singer whose idea of romance is to leave her a pair of his used leather jeans, endures a whopper of a drug-induced freak-out and frantically dodges a sleazy Hollywood producer (played by cult painter Joe Coleman). And, to her lasting credit as an artist, as a madwoman and as a diva learns ... absolutely nothing.
As in one of those 18th century novels about female virtue, everyone wants some of Anna--the difference being that in contrast to the put-upon heroines of those earlier fictions, Argento's alter ego is mostly obliging. It isn't that she's a bad girl; rather, as with Ado Annie in "Oklahoma!" she just can't say no. For all her shenanigans and lapses in good sense, there is something essentially sweet, even naive about the character, a trait shared by her director. Argento would probably like us to see this naivete as having to do with the eternal soul of the artist or even spiritual immanence (she does have an angel tattooed on her belly), but her storytelling is at once too raw and seriously overcooked to bear that kind of weight.
One of the most self-indulgent vanity projects in memory, "Scarlet Diva" is extreme in every sense save for the one area that likely matters most to Argento--as art. It's a demented kitsch mess (although the smeary digital video does match the muddled narrative), but it's savvy about celebrity and has more guts and energy than much of what will open this year. If nothing else, it has the courage of its own lunatic convictions: When Anna first sleeps with the singer, she murmurs that she's actually shy--then quickly strips to nothing but her stockings, shoes and tattoos, a feather boa snaking around her throat. She may be bashful but Anna--and Argento--know exactly how to get your attention.
Unrated. Times guidelines: graphic adult language and behavior; includes simulated sexual activity and illegal drug use.
Asia Argento... Anna Battista
Jean Shepard...Kirk Vaines
Joe Coleman... Mr. Paar
Luce Caponegro Selen... Quelou
An Opera Film S.R.L. Rome production, released by Media Blasters Releasing. Director and screenwriter Asia Argento. Producers Claudio Argento and Dario Argento. Music John Hughes. Cinematographer Frederic Fasano. Editor Anna Rosa Napoli. Production design Alessandro Rosa. Costumes Susy Mattolini. Running time: One hour, 31 minutes. In English and Italian, with English subtitles.
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