False Memories and Fearful Feminism: The Cinema of Dario Argento

Through such films as "Deep Red" and "Suspiria" Argento probed questions of seeing, memory, wounded pasts, and convoluted gender roles.
Matt Carlin

Suspiria. Courtesy of TK.

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shot Dario Argento’s debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), believes it to be “the blueprint for all Argento movies.” It first introduced the gloved hands and the knives. It displayed a tendency towards strange supporting characters and underlying fetishes. As a film about seeing and memory, Argento would essentially remake the film in 1975 as Deep Red, but would incorporate these fractured images and wounded pasts into nearly all his characters and the films that would follow. His cinema is one of convoluted gender roles and impotence. Argento’s films evolve and progress over time, but always keep traveling back to these same questions, essentially using the framework of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in various settings and situations in his attempts to dig deeper into these issues.

It is an investigation that begins two years prior to Argento’s directorial debut, with 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a Sergio Leone picture based upon a story co-written by Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci. Looking to subvert the western, Bertolucci and Argento proposed incorporating a female into the proceedings. The plot turns on top-billed Claudia Cardinale’s arrival in the old West. Her fiancé has just been killed and she finds herself in a battle over train tracks and land. Ultimately, the action happens around her, rather than with her, and she watches helplessly from the background as Charles Bronson and Jason Robards do the shooting. Much of Cardinale’s character would become the backbone of the archetypal Argento protagonist.

She enters a world of dark chaos as an outsider, arriving from the city of New Orleans. With her family-to-be assassinated, she is alone and immersed in a situation she does not fully understand. Leone displays this Argento trope terrifically in a scene set at a bar. She enters, after learning that there is nothing left for her here. The barkeep tries to talk her up. Suddenly the wind picks up outside and one hears gunshots and screams. All around her is danger and Cardinale’s enclosed world grows ever smaller. At the end of the sequence, the bar door opens. Jason Robards, the cause of the ruckus, enters—and Cardinale’s story is now enjoined with a wild West she hardly understands.

The fish out of water is essential to Argento—a human out of his element.  In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Tony Musante plays an American in Rome who witnesses a murder. David Hemmings from Deep Red is a London jazz pianist in Rome; Jessica Harper in Suspiria (1977) is an American visiting a German school. Argento’s characters are outsiders forced into a dark underworld of a land that is not natural to them.

Argento would make physical Cardinale’s sense of helplessness in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, as Musante finds himself witness to attempted murder while trapped in some sort of architectural glass box. The assault happens directly in front of him, however the glass encasement of the building prevents him from involving himself.

It should be mentioned that while the plight of the characters in Once upon a Time in the West resembles that of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this should not immediately be attributed to Argento alone. Bertolucci’s early filmography certainly investigates similar situations and it was Bertolucci who was said to have provided Argento with the 1949 Frederick Brown novel The Screaming Mimi, which inspired The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

During the same period Argento made his debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Bertolucci made The Conformist, both films shot by Vittorio Storaro. Both question and subvert the concept of power and masculinity, and in fact both tell a chillingly similar tale.1  In The Conformist, a homosexual incident early in Marcello Clerici’s life forever scars him. A chauffeur made sexual advances at him as a boy. He winds up shooting the chauffeur and flees, believing him dead. The film, awash in memory and flashback, is one of a desperate man who will attempt anything to obtain a normal life, and who strangely enough seems more confused with aspects of homosexuality than with the act of attempted murder.

Bird’s story begins ten years prior to its plot when a girl is sexually assaulted. She survives, and is years later confronted with a painting of the assault. Latent memories resurface when she sees her past on canvas; however, she identifies not with the victim, but rather with the killer. Both films revolve around fractured psyches unable to fully reconcile the sexual trauma of their past.

Storaro has stated he and Argento wished to show beyond “what would be considered a view of normal life. So certain conditions of the human experience are certainly emphasized in order to have emotional impact.” Storaro’s interest in memory and emphasized experience was also shared by Bertolucci. The Conformist is awash in surrealist colors and hypnotic camera moves. Vincent Minnelli would claim that the look was inspired by his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), a World War II chamber drama that deals with the horrors of war thru cinematic expressionism.

While Argento shot Bird in a heightened-reality style, he would expand upon Storaro and Bertolucci’s Technicolor nightmares with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli in 1977 in his own hyper-color fever dream, Suspiria. However, it was actually two years prior, with 1975’s Deep Red in which Argento fully realized his films dealt in the world of nightmares. “The film was a nightmare so all the facts were exaggerated,” Argento said.

The freedom of dream logic also allowed Argento to exaggerate his thematic obsessions. In Deep Red the director often accused of misogyny tackles gender issues head on. David Hemmings’ character states that “It is a fundamental fact that women are…are weaker, well they’re gentler” than men. In fact, everything about Deep Red subverts his thinking. His female partner beats him at arm wrestling at the outset. Having been had physically, Hemmings later on discusses how men have the monopoly on intelligence. He states this while both chasing a deranged female killer and being aided by another woman. Neither of which are particularly gentle. On top of this, the plot turns on another impotent male: Hemmings is forced to watch the murder from a city street, helpless.

Hemmings has to challenge his memory to recall a missing piece of art he saw at the murder scene that has since disappeared. He is certain somehow that this is the key to solving the mystery. It is the same game Musante played with his memory in Bird. Interestingly enough, in hindsight one can say Musante’s vision was corrupted by the sexist cultural image of the helpless female. His mind renegotiates the images he has seen, it not occurring to him the woman might be attacking, rather than being the attacked. “He has a memory that is completely false,” Argento has said of this scene, “And memory becomes the theme. That is another obsession of mine.”

After Deep Red, Argento would push his nightmare cinema past the natural boundaries of reality by replacing the serial killer with a coven of witches. Surrealist lighting doubling down on the work of his friend Storaro combined with a phenomenal score by Goblin create an absolutely frightening un-reality in Suspiria. The incredible success of the film would solidify Argento’s reputation as a horror filmmaker. The cast is nearly completely female and Argento again plays with images of seeing and false seeing. From here on out in Argento’s work, he would rely more and more on female protagonists rather than female villains.

Another obsession that would continue alongside his concern with memory and female issues is the director’s fascination with art. Argento’s predilection with the arts would come to their culmination in 1996’s The Stendhal Syndrome, another take on Bird’s tale.  Previously, paintings in Argento films held clues to liberate the protagonist. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage they provided the motivation behind the killings; in Deep Red, a reflection on an artwork actually revealed the killer’s identity. In The Stendhal Syndrome, Argento turns this on its head, taking us on a journey with police inspector Anna Manni, who is profoundly affected by works of art. Art in this film serves to imprison and submerge. Argento shoots several effective sequences where Manni goes powerless and appears to enter into the artwork. In actuality, she loses consciousness. The killer in this picture capitalizes on this.

The film, while a step back towards the realistic, still exists outside of reality in a nightmarish psychological world of the troubled police inspector. The opening makes this perfectly clear: the music pounds and the camera glides as effectively as it did in the opening of Suspiria, except the scenes depicted are that of a woman simply visiting an art exhibit. This is not the tale of a woman comfortable in her world. She too is from out of town, visiting Florence from Rome in the hopes of catching a killer. The nighttime lighting is dreamlike, but more like a dark nightmare full of grays and chalky blacks. Manni’s apartment is not much more inviting: a desk lamp shines a sickly green light against the walls.

The rest of the Argento traits are found here as well. The power of being lost in the paintings causes Manni to lose her memory. Later in the film she meets a French student named Marie. Much is made of the unisex nature of this name. After the killer rapes Manni, she, much like the killer in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, suffers a mental collapse that causes her to relate to her offender. She cuts her hair. There are some comments on how she looks like a boy.

After a gripping sequence in which an act of compassion is turned by Manni into an act of aggression she confesses, “I wanted to fuck him like a man…the way that men do.” In The Stendhal Syndrome, as in most of Argento’s work, the relationship between men and women is in disrepair; an agreement long since broken by men.

By the end of The Stendhal Syndrome it is revealed that Manni has killed her rapist, but has since continued killing in his name, believing him to be inside of her. In a sense, this too is a remake or reimaging of the events of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage told from the killer’s perspective rather than the helpless male outsider.

The Metrograph series ends with The Stendhal Syndrome, and that might be a good stopping point currently for those considering the journey of Argento. It is hardly contested that his recent output is far removed from his heyday. Perhaps he has run out of things to say. However, as he is still active in filmmaking today, one can only hope we haven’t yet awaken from all of Argento’s best nightmares. 

Dario Argento runs September 21 – 28, 2018 at the Metrograph in New York.

1. Special thanks to Micah Simpson for alerting me to this insight.

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