The daughter of Italian screen icons, cult horror filmmaker Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi (Dario's screen muse and former writing collaborator), Asia Argento is riding the crest of her own wave as an avatar of idiosyncratic cool.
Currently drawing critical praise for her scene-stealing turn in Catherine Breillat's Une Vieille Maitress (The Old Mistress), which opened ACMI's Focus on Breillat season in October, Asia Argento's "moment" seems nigh. It was as early as 2002, however, that New York's The Village Voice was taking notice of Asia Argento, heralding her as an "international starlet del giorno, showbiz kid, polymath auteur [and] big talker" in the wake of the U.S. release of Scarlet Diva (2000), the "60s-style lurid-and-cool" semi-fictionalised fractured fairytale of a young Italian starlet, Anna Battista. Michael Atkinson reviewed it thus: "When twenty something hotsies make movies about their lives, hard-driving narcissism is a given, but what a world we'd live in if Argento's Hollywood counterparts had as much imagination and nerve. Few of them, at any rate, have Argento's reserves of lonesome passion and unspigoted woe" (1).
Before breaking into the international scene, Asia appeared in Italian television series and genre films co-written by her father Dario (Lamberto Bava's Demons (2) among them), before making a credible foray into dramatic features at age seventeen in Nanni Moretti's Palombella Rossa (1989). More feature films in her native Italy followed, as did Davide di Donatello Best Actress awards in 1994 and 1997 (in films directed by Carlo Verdone and Peter Del Monte respectively).
More notoriously, Asia has appeared in four features directed by her horror auteur father. While by all accounts the production of Mother of Tears (shot in Rome and Turin in late 2006) set the scene for a warmly convivial 'family reunion' – Asia's mother, Daria Nicolodi, appears in a cameo in the yet-to-be-released final instalment in Argento's 'Three Mothers' trilogy - Asia concedes a certain ambivalence regarding the earlier films she made with padre Argento (Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome and The Phantom of the Opera) in which the characters she played were variously violated, debased or otherwise traumatised: "I never thought it was weird that my father would have me naked and raped in his movies until a friend pointed it out to me. I never even thought about the possible subtext. Nor do I have the psychological tools to decode his latent feelings. Perhaps I haven't wanted to either..." (2). The potential for meaty psychoanalytical readings to emerge from viewing these films in close proximity notwithstanding, these films are absent from our season in favour of films which better express the individual artistic impulses at work in Asia and Dario Argento's respective bodies of work.
Deep Red, Suspiria and Inferno are all drawn from Dario Argento's career-making first decade, as a writer/director who artfully fused and transformed the giallo and horror genres. The films by Asia assembled in this season similarly represent an early career decade in both her endeavours as writer/director and actor, most notably in films directed by Abel Ferrara - a crucial figure in Asia's evolution as a director (3) – whose New Rose Hotel (1998) and Go Go Tales (2007) 'bookend' the films in which Asia features. Asia's directorial efforts - Scarlet Diva (2000) and her English language debut as a helmer, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004) - photographed by Eric Alan Edwards, who also shot Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and Larry Clark's Kids - attest to a developing style that is as energetic and stylistically bold as her performances are disarmingly unselfconscious. Her talents as a fledgling writer/director notwithstanding, Asia's screen presence – a heady mix of 'f*ck off' insolence, abrupt tenderness and sinewy, animal physicality – is likely to keep her squarely in frame despite her ambitions to keep working behind the lens. Olivier Assayas, who directed Asia in this year's erotic thriller Boarding Gate (the film which opens our season, following festival screenings in Official Selection at Cannes this year) raves about his star: "Asia simply puts it out there very courageously. She's innately rock 'n roll, which isn't very common among actresses. She's all instinct with an uncommon intensity. Each take she comes up with something new [and] she has a nearly unreal bond to the camera". Tony Gatlif, whose most recent musical excursion into Romany culture, Transylvania (2006), also features in ACMI's season, speaks in similarly unambiguous terms about his working relationship with Asia: "With Transylvania, for the first time, I felt like I was shooting a woman's soul through Asia Argento. Asia doesn't protect herself during the shoot, neither physically, nor psychologically. She abandons herself totally without holding anything back".
No less a cutting edge purveyor of culture than the Melbourne Underground Film Festival saw fit to bestow its annual Best Actress award on Asia Argento in 2003 for her self-styled turn in Scarlet Diva; a performance that The Village Voice pegged as "masochistic, brave and go-for-broke". It defines Asia's unapologetically gutsy approach to her evolving art: "I always loved this Brando line: 'Acting, not prostitution, is the oldest profession.' Baudelaire said art is prostitution. When you're giving something so intimate to the world and being paid for it, that's no different; but artists also get pleasure. We do it for ourselves. It's a really funky kind of prostitution" (4).
- Michael Atkinson, 'Naked Ambition' in The Village Voice, August 7–13, 2002
- Alan Jones, 'Asia Argento - Scarlet Diva' in Senses of Cinema, September 2002
- "When I decided to direct Scarlet Diva I very much wanted to be the female [Abel] Ferrara" Asia Argento quoted in 'Asia Argento – Scarlet Diva', Alan Jones, Senses of Cinema, September 2002
- Jane Dark, 'Fever Pitch: Asia Argento branches out in the family business' in The Village Voice, August 7–13, 2002