There are some works of art that so boggle the mind that nothing you can say about them quite seems adequate. Such is the case with Asia Argento’s film (she wrote, directed, and starred in it) Scarlet Diva. This film is simultaneously so awful and so wonderful that it leaves me exhausted and defenseless. And I don’t mean that it’s so-bad-it’s-good, a la Ed Wood. I mean that it’s simultaneously both bad and good, in completely novel ways…
Scarlet Diva is an incredible exercise in self-aggrandizing self-mythologization.
Argento as an actress has long seemed to me to be larger than life, I suppose because of the way she simultaneously flaunts her sexuality and signals her contempt for the male (or female) viewer who is taken in by, or responds to, it. (Not to mention the more-than-perversity with which she plays starring roles in a number of her father’s films, which require her character to be raped and assaulted in unflinching detail).
But Scarlet Diva, I think, tops everything else she’s done. Argento plays a young Italian actress, much like herself, whose ambition is to establish herself as an artist by writing and directing an autobiographical film called Scarlet Diva. She’s also a hyper-romantic, desperately carrying the torch for a handsome rock star with whom she had a one-night stand, and who has subsequently forgotten her. In the course of the film, she wanders through endless rounds of bad sex, bad drugs, sleazy photographers and producers, more bad sex, plus a couple of kitschy surrealist dream sequences, and flashbacks of a disturbed childhood (characterized by, yes, more bad sex and bad drugs).
The film was shot entirely on digital video, and shows it: with lots of fast cuts, gratuitous close-ups, fake verite sequences with handheld cameras, genrally washed-out colors, and inadequate contrast (so that you can’t really see what’s going on when it’s dark). Argento eschews her father’s gorgeous formalism, in favor of an (oxymoronic, impossible, ridiculous) Dogme95-meets-Fellini amalgam.
Moreover, the film really wants to to be daring and outrageous and transgressive, but this all comes across as Eurotrash fake decadence, too calculated and style-conscious to be really convincing.
And yet, and yet… My friend Laurie Weeks said that Scarlet Diva was “awful, yet strangely compelling.” And I have to agree. The film absolutely wins me over, on the strength of Asia Argento’s dogged determination to put herself (or her character) through every possible humiliation, in the name of her own greater glory (a glory like that of the Blessed Virgin herself, as implied by one identificatory shot almost at the end of the film). It’s a matter of will. I don’t doubt Argento’s absolute sincerity, nor her dedication to an outre, crazed romanticism as over-the-top as Prince’s in the vastly underrated Under the Cherry Moon. Nor do I doubt the cold calculation that paradoxically yet necessarily enables that sincerity and that romanticism.
So we have a film that revels in female degradation in order to make an ostentatiously feminist point against such degradation; a cri de coeur that wallows in every cliche imaginable, and by that very fact is wildly original; and an act of self-mythologization so breathtakingly arrogant and narcissistic that it can only express itself in the colors of abject humility.
Which is why this film wouldn’t be so great if it weren’t also awful; a tasteful, or innovative, cinematic style would only get in the way of Argento’s self-exposure. I wouldn’t want Asia Argento any other way, than as extravagant and garish as she is in Scarlet Diva.