If last year’s Cannes Film Festival had designated a queen in addition to the usual prizes, the crown would without a doubt have gone to Asia Argento, who made one hell of an impression with unforgettable roles in three films. The daughter of influential Italian horror movie filmmaker Dario Argento, Asia has appeared in several of her father’s movies, but has carved out a career and a persona all her own. Standing at the intersection between B-movies and the arthouse, Asia slightly slurry, famously tattooed, somewhat goth and often unclothed is a fearsome and fearless actress, not to mention a published novelist and the director of two features. Not one to underplay a part, she’s made a career out of her willingness to go to sometimes off-putting and strange extremes and her ability to remain hypnotically watchable, if not so safe for work, in the most unusual of roles. One thing’s for sure she’s no simpering ingenue. Here’s a look at some of our favorite moments from a few of her films so far (along with a few spoilers, so watch your step).
Boarding Gate (2007)
Directed by Olivier Assayas
“Boarding Gate,” which opens tomorrow, is a woozy, jet-lagged thriller that seems to take place in the same ruthless universe as Assayas’ 2002 “Demonlover.” Complicated corporations, illicit and legitimate, continually require pitiless and sometimes violent acts from those working under them. In the first half of the film, that violence is mostly verbal Asia plays the shady Sandra, who pays a visit to her former lover Miles (Michael Madsen), a one-time hotshot whose business empire is crumbling, and who’s only interested in getting her back into his life. They duel in his office over their past S&M-tinged sex life, a sharp-cornered push-and-pull war of words that’s stepped up a notch when Sandra heads over to his house at night. The film’s iconic image is of Asia stalking around Miles’ expensive pad in spiked heels and black lingerie toting a Luger, but there’s a earlier bit that tops all of that. While battling it out with Miles in his office and reminiscing about their old, semi-abusive times, Asia hikes up her dress and caresses her crotch. It’s a move she’s repeated in at least one other film as signature gestures go, it’s certainly an unexpected alternative to, say, twirling your hair or batting your eyelashes.
Scarlet Diva (2000)
Directed by Asia Argento
“It’s terrible to be an actress in Italy,” says Anna Battista (Argento). “I said enough of this, no more sexy Italian film star, I want to become an artist.” And so Anna sets out to make a movie of her own called “Scarlet Diva,” and since we’re actually watching “Scarlet Diva,” it’s quite safe to assume that Anna is a thinly veiled version of Argento herself (although if Argento was really so sick of her image as a sexpot, she probably should have cut at least a couple of “Diva”‘s parade of totally indulgent soft-core porn scenes). As a coherent movie, it’s basically a mess; as a fragmented glimpse into a young woman’s fucked-up self-image, it’s kind of amazing. And if it is all just autobiography then it’s fun to consider how crazy off-camera Asia must be. Did she bang a hash dealer for kicks? Has she had multiple abortions? Does she often get into random lesbian trysts with unfamiliar large-breasted women who swear they’ve met before?
Two scenes belong in the pantheon of Great Moments of Asia Weirdness. In the first, an assholish Hollywood producer convinces Anna to sign onto his movie (a Gus Van Sant script called “Cleopatra’s Death!”) and then tries, with limited success, to upsell a back massage into some oral sex (“Suck my balls! Is it too much to ask?” he indignantly barks at the reticent starlet). In the second, Anna disrobes in her bathroom mirror, and primps herself in the nude for three fascinatingly bizarre minutes. She shaves her pits while smoking a cigarette as a prelude, then smears makeup all over her face as she breaks down in tears, then licks her armpit, recoils in horror, and licks it again. Is it indulgent hogwash or nakedly honest filmmaking? Like the rest of “Scarlet Diva,” it’s kind of both.
xXx (2002) / Land of the Dead (2005)
Directed by Rob Cohen / George A. Romero
Argento’s had two flirtations with the mainstream; ironically, she played just about the same role in both. In “xXx” she’s Yelena, a prostitute with a preternatural gift with weapons (turns out, Yelena’s only posing as a hooker, she’s really an undercover agent for FSB Russian Intelligence). In “Land of the Dead” she’s Slack, a prostitute with a preternatural gift with weapons (turns out Slack’s a character in a George Romero movie, where everyone is deadly with a sidearm). In both, she serves to satisfy the target teen male audience’s appetite for edgy eye candy, but her chemistry with her leading men (Vin Diesel and Simon Baker, respectively) is pedestrian at best. In “xXx” she shares a smooch with Diesel so tentative it looks like she’s never kissed anyone before in her life (which makes you wonder how Yelena passes for a hooker) And she puts a lot more passion into her big introductory fight scene with a couple zombies than anything that with Baker, who Slack follows around like a scared puppy. It’s easy to see why Romero and Rob Cohen cast Argento in roles that are, on paper, right in line with her hypersexed persona, but neither character affords her the opportunity to take any real chances or do anything truly outlandish. Where’re the taboo-busting love scenes? She’s mostly a damsel in distress with a penchant for fishnet stockings. It’s like casting Michael Winslow and then not having him do any kooky sound effects with his mouth.
The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Directed by Dario Argento
Now I’m not a parent, but if I were, I have to believe I wouldn’t even want to think about my daughter getting sexually abused. Well, not Asia’s dear old daddy Dario; the “Suspiria” director cast his daughter in the lead of his 1996 “The Stendhal Syndrome” and then proceeded to torture the hell out of her for the amusement of audiences everywhere. In one particularly disturbing scene meaning particularly disturbing even if the star wasn’t biologically related to the director Asia’s character, a police officer with a condition that causes her to be physically overcome by hallucinations anytime she sees great works of art, is attacked by the criminal she’s assigned to track down. He rapes her and slices her mouth open with a razor blade; Argento, striving for nothing but cinematic clarity, shows it all in close-up. She passes out, but wakes up just in time to watch the guy shoot another victim in the mouth (the shots of the bullet slowly piercing the poor woman’s cheek and traveling ever-so-gracefully through her mouth and out the other side are amongst the first uses of computer generated imagery in all of Italian cinema). Allegedly Argento had several other actresses in mind for the role but eventually settled on his daughter, which kind of makes the situation both better and worse (better because, hey, at least his daughter wasn’t his first choice for ritualistic torture, worse because when no one else would do it he apparently figured, ah, what the hell, she’ll do). Does the fact that Asia’s character eventually turns the tables on her abuser, stabs him, shoots him, bludgeons him and tosses him off a cliff make the whole sordid affair any less unsavory? If you’re the kinda guy who’s comfortable filming your daughter getting raped, I guess the answer is yes!
Phantom of the Opera (1998)
Directed by Dario Argento
Argento has always had a thing for Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera. His last great masterpiece, the 1987 film “Opera,” was clearly inspired in some way by the tale dewy understudy lands the lead in a play after the star is injured, only to then be forced to watch her friends be slaughtered by a mysterious killer with connections to her childhood who sticks pins under her eyes so that she can’t close them. (Well, that last part is all Argento’s.) Unfortunately, he also created a slightly more direct 1998 version of the tale that even hardcore fans of his work shake their heads at. In “Phantom of the Opera,” Asia plays Christine Daae as Leroux would never have imagined, catching the attention of the “phantom” played by Julian Sands, deformity-free and kind of hunky, if in need of a good shampoo and blow-out right off the bat, either with her voice or her habit of going braless under sheer white dresses. And, with his telepathic powers and ability to talk to rats, he strikes her as quite a catch, too to the point where she tells her wealthy baronial suitor she’d rather just be friends, and trysts instead with her rodent-defending lover in his candlelit subterranean lair. “Phantom of the Opera” is hopelessly hokey, equal parts cheesy period piece, cheap slasher flick and Skinemax saga, but it does have one memorable moment. The baron, heartbroken by rejection, runs off to a bathhouse orgy to indulge in a lot of opium, and hallucinates that his love is there and willing. Asia dribbles wine down her dress, strokes her own heaving bosom and waggles an impressively long tongue at him. It may be the least erotic supposedly erotic display even filmed, but there’s an impressively scary frisson to it, as if Asia were flaunting all conventional ideas of what could be considered a turn-on. [Check it out on YouTube.]
The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004)
Directed by Asia Argento
This adaptation of JT Leroy’s first novel came out a few months after the supposed 20-something former male prostitute turned writer was exposed as a fraud. An endless fantasia of white trash child abuse, of trailer parks and seedy strip-clubs, the film finds Asia playing Sarah, a meth-addicted hooker who retrieves her young son Jeremiah from idyllic foster care to drag him around the country while she does drugs, sleeps around, lets her boyfriends beat and rape him and periodically abandons him in cars and other people’s houses. Asia, gamely trying to layer a Southern accent on top of her heavy Italian one, channels a very rundown Courtney Love, with bad skin, bleached hair and tops that slide off her shoulders as she and Jeremiah eat out of the trash. Soon she’s putting makeup on the boy and curling his hair, putting him in a slip and telling him “We’re beautiful girls, aren’t we?” All dressed up and no place to go, he shimmies out and seduces her boyfriend while she’s at work. It sounds twisted to sell the scene as a highlight, but it’s actually “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things”‘s one shining display of restraint Asia only puts herself in, standing in for the underaged actor playing the son supposedly channeling her. And so, what could have been an unwatchably disturbing and legally dicey moment of exploitation becomes merely a fantastically uncomfortable one.
[Photos: “Boarding Gate,” Magnet Releasing, 2007; “Scarlet Diva,” Media Blasters, 2002; “xXx,” Columbia Pictures, 2002; “The Stendhal Syndrome,” Troma Entertainment, 1996; “Phantom of the Opera,” Allumination, 1998; “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” Palm Pictures, 2006]