Getting its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival, Asia Argento’s Misunderstood is ostensibly about a nine-year-old girl’s difficult childhood brought on by the wildly inappropriate parenting skills of a pair of narcissistic celebrities and/or bohemian artists. That being said, its depiction of a childhood devoid of authority is often so playfully strange that it seems a celebration of anarchy more than a lament.
The father (Gabriel Garko) is a popular action movie star who sports sunglasses and bleach-blonde frosted tips, smokes pot in front of his kids, and showers his other daughter—a busty teen who seems always on the verge of exploding out of her all-pink outfit in her all-pink bedroom—with almost incestuous affection. The mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg), meanwhile, disappears for weeks at a time on erotic adventures, brings home men who talk about “pussy” in front of the kids, and makes out with a tattooed boyfriend almost half her age on the couch next to them.
But I was jealous. This childhood seemed mostly like delirious fun to me. I grew up in the early 80s just like the protagonist Aria (Giulia Salerno) did. But I never did anything interesting. Like most Americans my age, I spent my entire childhood staring zombie-like into a TV. The greatest tragedy of my childhood was that I missed the first season of Mork & Mindy because my mother made me join the church choir. But Aria gets to live! After her father kicks her out of his apartment to send her back to her mother’s, she wanders the city at night till she ends up hanging out in a park with some prostitutes who get her high, and she falls asleep on the side of an embankment curled up with her cat. She spray paints the walls in her mother’s apartment with her mom’s punk-rock boyfriend, then rides through the streets on his shoulders, yelling at random people to fuck off. She goes to a New Wave show with her father. She attacks a woman at a market stand with water balloons while wearing smeared lipstick and a fright wig. She steals people’s mail and reads their most intimate secrets. One day, she and her friend smoke so many cigarettes they start gleefully puking everywhere. And she does all of this accompanied by random bursts of machine-like dance beats, early 80s swooping synthesizer soundscapes, and emotionless doomed gay voices singing indistinct words in songs with no choruses. But Aria rarely seems sad. Her fashion sense itself manifests the teetering excitement of the world she lives in. I saw this nine-year-old in a denim skirt with multi-colored patches, skin-tight yellow leotard pants, a hot-pink skinny tie with black polka dots, and a funky knit sweater that made her look like a renegade grandma librarian about to hop on a moped.
There was also a subplot where she’s in love with the cool boy at school—though, not so much with him, but with his shock of bleached hair that covers one side of his face—but I wasn’t crazy about this part. I kept wanting to shout out to the screen, “No, Aria! You’re too good for him! Go back and smoke some more cigarettes!” The ending, too, was a disappointment. It’s brief, thank God, but it comes out of nowhere. As if suddenly feeling guilty for providing us so much pleasure from this derangement, Argento seems to have felt obligated, like Joseph Breen, to condemn all this glorious anarchy, punish our heroine, and send her audience a message. Why, Asia? Why? The movie would have been so much better if it had ended with the girls smoking—or maybe with Aria flying atop the spinning blades of a helicopter hurtling toward the very heart of Rome, screaming with insane glee.