[spoilers ahead; some images NSFW]
I know quite a few people who dismiss this movie as crap. They take the over-the-top gore, the seemingly flattened, overheated characters (I’d call them Grand Guignoled), the surface-goofy Goblin score, etc. etc. and roll their eyes and move on to something else. They argue that it’s simply Argento going through his giallo motions, running out of things to say within the trappings of the genre (ending up trapped). They argue that, even with flourishes like the bravura Louma crane shot, there simply isn’t enough to take seriously or hold one’s interest.
I can see and acknowledge all of those arguments pretty easily; in truth, I felt something along those lines when I first watched the film. Watching it a few times, though—especially watching it while listening to the Thomas Rostock commentary—keyed me into just how much more is going on above, below, beyond the sometimes ridiculous surface. How much more, on a narrative level, is being accomplished. And how, because of this, it stands as one of Argento’s most complicated works.
Let me point out a couple examples below (and again, these comments are deeply indebted to Rostock’s commentary, something really worth listening to; if you’re interested at all, you should stop reading this review and seek out his commentary [his Profondo Rosso commentary is tops as well]):
1. Rostock outlines, for instance, the almost mind-boggling extent to which Argento pursues the notion of doubles and doubling in the film—that this is indeed one key to understanding and appreciating that film’s movement as a film. (The fact that I missed this completely on a first viewing [other than to think to myself, ‘Hey, doesn’t that incidental character look a lot like that other incidental character?’] really caused me to appreciate just how attuned Rostock was to what Argento as a filmmaker was accomplishing.)
Rostock points out that nearly every character in the film has a double—visual double, narrative or plot-functional double—and that some of the characters (the main character Peter Neal and his secretary Anne) have multiple doubles. Rostock also points out how nearly every significant object or location or plot point in the film is also repeated, multiplied, etc.:
E.g., there are two traffic accidents; two significant and mysterious scenes featuring a phone booth; the appearance/arrival of two typewriters in Neal’s apartment; two prominent (somewhat identical) pieces of sculpture that figure into the plot; two murderers; two menacing bums; two plane rides; two missing rings of keys; etc. etc. etc.
Perhaps the most effective use of this doubling comes in Argento’s casting of Eva Robins as the “woman on the beach” in the film’s flashbacks. Turns out that Eva Robins is a transgender actress/model very famous in Italy. In the flashback scene she teases a group of four adolescents on the beach; later she is killed by one of the film’s two murderers. She is clearly meant to wind up critics that accuse his (Argento’s) films of sexism, the male gaze, misogyny. But we literally, in this physical, actual person, get the ultimate doubling:
She is both male and female, both sexually attractive and (potentially) sexually repulsive. (And is narratively significant both for the fictional character that she plays in the film AND the non-fictional life she leads outside of that film.)
The beach that these flashback scenes are filmed on was an infamous spot for “illegal, and taboo sexual acts”—a spot that some Italian viewers w/could recognize immediately as a real-life location of “aberrant” sexual rendezvous and crimes. Further, the way the scene is shot heavily references the Tennessee Williams’ film Suddenly, Last Summer, in which Elizabeth Taylor acts as the sexual temptress on the beach in order to ensnare adolescent males as sexual partners for her cousin Sebastian.
2. Something else to notice: the overwhelming presence of frustrating and mysterious gaps in the film’s continuity (frustrating both in terms of mystery genre conventions, and frustrating in terms of the viewing experience).
E.g., in Tenebrae the use of accepted, recognizable detective plots are telegraphed from the beginning of the film as being key to understanding and following its plot. Peter Neal is a writer of detective fiction; he quotes from Sherlock Holmes as a way to better understand or solve the murders in the film; the Italian inspector investigating the case is an avid mystery reader who constantly brings this up; etc. etc.
What’s great, though, is that Argento subverts all of these through the actual filmmaking—through the actual shaping and visual rendering of the plot. Beyond the double and dream-logic stuff that the Rostock commentary cites, Argento uses some of the same “narrative gapping” that can be found in a number of his other films, most notably Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Profondo Rosso.
The best and most sustained example of this occurs when Peter Neal is scheduled to do a TV interview about his book. The interview is mentioned in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film. Twenty or thirty minutes later, after a number of murders, it finally appears that it’s going to occur. I would argue that it can be broken down into four or five pieces:
— Neal goes with his agent Bullmer to the TV station; both are waiting in the hallway for the host of the TV show. When he arrives, he says to Neal “I’m going to do about 20 or 30 minutes with you.” Neal asks, looking around the hallway they’re sitting in: “Here?” The host laughs, almost dismissively, and replies “No.” What follows is a pre-interview that lasts 5 or so minutes and never really goes anywhere. During this time a technician comes and declares that it’s time for the interview.
— Cut to Neal and the TV host in a long shot in the studio, with Neal’s agent Bullmer standing 10 or 20 feet away. As Bullmer looks on, we hear the host say in the background: “I’d like to start with a resume of your work…” Just as it appears that the interview proper is about to start, the police inspector and his assistant come into the studio and stand next to Bullmer. Bullmer notices them, says something like, “They’re about to start—they’ll probably be 20 or 30 minutes so why don’t we go outside…”
— Cut to Bullmer and the two police officers walking through the hallway and having a fairly throwaway conversation about the fact that the police can’t figure out how Peter Neal is connected to the murders.
— Cut to Peter Neal outside now, apparently 20 or 30 minutes later, post-interview, leaning on the roof of a car and talking to the police inspector, without Bullmer, without the police inspector’s assistant. The spatial and temporal dissonance that this causes is amazing to me—clearly a significant amount of time has passed, clearly several characters have moved in and out of several of the different spaces we’ve just seen; at this moment, they are operating and existing somewhere else in the film (importantly, a somewhere else that we, as viewer, have no access to on account of the way that the scene, up till then, has been edited).
Through the editing, Argento basically edits around what was presumably supposed to be the centrally important scene—either centrally important because of the exposition one could expect in it, or centrally important as the “site” of some sort of major plot point or reveal—and instead gives us only the secondary and tertiary action happening around it. It manages to be disorienting and complicated and sophisticated all at once, and in the middle of a movie probably best remembered for the T&A that shows up in the lesbian murder scene …
The long and short of it is: Tenebrae is a film that bears repeat viewings very well, a film whose repeat viewings reveal the depth and breadth of what Argento can get up to.
NOTE: Currently Rostock’s commentary can be found on the Arrow Blu-ray/DVD of the film; one caveat: the transfer on the Blu-ray and DVD are both pretty atrocious, afflicted with the “machine noise” that has popped up in so many of the cult Italian releases in the past few years. A much better transfer (though with forced English subs and no Rostock commentary) is available on the French Wild Side release. I own both, and there really is no comparison, transfer-wise, between the two.