Dario Argento's Trauma
**/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Christopher Rydell, Asia Argento, Laura Johnson, Piper Laurie
screenplay by Dario Argento & T.E.D. Klein
directed by Dario Argento
**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras A
starring Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham, Silvio Muccino, Claudio Santamaria
screenplay by Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini
directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw Listening to Dario Argento himself call Trauma "classic Argento" shakes the validity of author intentionality. The man's a legend, but he has no idea about the qualities that used to shine in his own work, and what comes clear for a fan of the "Italian Hitchcock" after a screening of Trauma is that the thrill is gone. It's one of those George Lucas situations where if it were anyone else shitting all over the legacy, there'd be a violent hue and cry instead of this collective embarrassed averting of gaze--a cheap ripper that steals scenes whole from better Argento flicks without a commensurate level of understanding of how to use them. Was a time that Argento redefined the slasher flick in the same way that countryman Sergio Leone redefined the Western; that Argento (like American rival and doppelgänger Brian DePalma) was appropriating bits and pieces from Alfred Hitchcock and rejuvenating them in films exhilarating for their willingness to do absolutely anything to anyone at any moment. Once lawless, Argento's pictures feel inconsequential now. Light and aimless.
Take a few scenes in a haunted, rainy Minnesota wood for instance. Though clearly evocative of identical moments from the opening of Suspiria, what comes through isn't the same sense of consummate, devouring, archetypal dread, but rather a peculiar feeling of comfort that nothing too bad's going to happen because the director's become something of an old fuddy-duddy. The killer rooted in childhood (Deep Red) isn't remotely frightening this time around, moored as this bogey is to a chthonic gecko and a bespectacled kid who becomes a literal projection of the antagonist's violent penis envy. A film about lack allegorized by its heroine's (Aura (Asia Argento--terrible, as is co-star Christopher Rydell)) anorexia and indicated by the surgical decapitation of her mother's (Piper Laurie) son at birth, Trauma is an endlessly interesting film for Freudians in particular, but there's a species of self-regard at play here that makes the picture navel-gazing in line with Hitchcock's own suspect forays into pocket Freud (see: Spellbound; the conclusion of Psycho).
You can't avoid fascination when your subject combines sexuality, an indictment of a certain cultural desire for Conradian secret sharing and wounds that never heal, and castration (as it manifests in decapitation)--tying it all together with a hazy French Revolution subtext the only purpose of which may be to thematically integrate the automatic garrotte/guillotine that is the killer's weapon of choice. Argento has the pot, the grounds, the water, and the electricity, but he can't figure out how to brew a cup of coffee anymore (he's in good company there: Spielberg, too, seems to have lost his way down the same road), and if Trauma has the potential to inspire a couple of fully-fleshed theses, it doesn't also have the power to inspire nightmares.
Almost the same things could be said of Argento's The Card Player, a film that looks a lot like it was shot for '70s television and whose basic premise is some unfortunate amalgam of video poker and Dee Snyder's Strangeland. It's unfair, perhaps, to expect Argento to ever make another film the equal of his Suspiria, Deep Red, or Tenebre (even second-tier Argento like Opera and Inferno would appear to be out of the master's reach), but Trauma, Sleepless, and The Card Player are pictures that suffer, ironically, from the tendency to imitate and refine that is the foundation for the fascination and allure of his work. Not unlike Stephen King, say, Argento is in the process now of cannibalizing his classics to ever-diminishing returns. It didn't work when he went after Gaston Leroux with his take on Phantom of the Opera, and it certainly doesn't work when he's giving his own stuff a second run through the auto-reference machine. The source material has to be something richly intellectual, I think, and the results appalling reason. I think of a palimpsest when I look at Argento's masterpieces, where the bottommost layer is Hitchcock's meticulous structure, revealed only here and again from beneath Argento's lurid, anarchic design.
In The Card Player, another black-gloved serial killer kidnaps young Argento's usual stable of nubile victims, then gets taciturn detective Anna (Stefania Rocca) and soccer hooligan-cum-down-on-his-luck bobby John (Liam Cunningham) to play poker with him over the Internet, with the stakes being the unfortunate's limbs. (The killer's weapon of choice is a box-cutter--suggesting something about 9/11, probably, but beyond just the flat fact of terrorism I'm loathe to speculate.) This inevitably leads to the unearthing of deep psychic trauma for Anna, a cursory pass at conflating poker with the meaning of life (although video poker doesn't exactly facilitate intimidation and bluffing), the recruiting of a young video poker "master," Remo (Silvio Muccino), to play for the good guys, and the discovery of seeds in the suitably-disgusting corpses that can't help but remind of the moths crammed into the victims from The Silence of the Lambs. It's closer to the genre chimera of The Stendhal Syndrome than to Argento's early gialli (and was in fact originally conceived as a sequel until Asia dropped out) but distinguishes itself, if only in a glancing way, by touching on the Intacto idea that luck might be a physical attribute. As far as an ideal of anarchy draped garish over purpose, The Card Player has squandered its chaos and uncovered too healthy a portion of its ratiocination.
What most disappoints, then, is the film's aggressive ordinariness. There's no sense of transgression--of the possibility of rooms full of razor wire or, almost more threatening, cats; of familiar themes and situations (and symbols) distorted into grotesque, disconcerting forms. It's a thriller about rules (win and she goes free, lose and she dies) and structure. With the exception of a few carefully-placed wrought-iron fences borrowed from Strangers on a Train and one swooping establishing shot that offers a tiny ping off the breathless camera passes of classic Argento, The Card Player could have been directed and conceptualized by any direct-to-USA Network hack with a formula procedural screenplay and a cast of earnest unknowns. Unfair to say that it's a failure because Argento directed it, I'm more comfortable suggesting that with expectations already at an all-time low, The Card Player is, by virtue of its mediocrity, a run-of-the-mill euro-cop exercise that's occasionally better than that and, consequently, already better than you'd expect.
Exasperating the disappointment of Trauma and The Card Player, previews for Suspiria, Opera, Deep Red, and (the Argento-produced) Dawn of the Dead play upon insertion of their long-awaited R1 DVD releases from Anchor Bay. (Trauma's trailer meanwhile accompanies The Card Player and vice versa.) These classic trailers remind that what used to be preparatory to what, as it were, "has become." Trauma's 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer* is sharp with a minimum of edge enhancement. Very minor banding and moiré problems surface here and again, but I have no real substantive complaints. Colours, too, bear that grain that I generally equate with films about ten years older than Trauma, but that's fine since my memories of '80s horror films are generally fonder than those of the '90s, anyway. Accompanying a Dolby 2.0 Surround track, the DD 5.1 remix is loud and aggressive--the rain effects, in particular, are dazzling. Profondo Argento: The Man, The Myths And The Magic author Alan Jones offers a feature-length commentary that's long on personal anecdotes and name-dropping and short on any kind of real insight into the picture. The yakker is more anecdotal than critical, in other words--what you'd expect from someone who refers to Argento warmly as "Dario" and counts the director as a good friend. Friendship isn't always a problem in business relationships, but sure enough, it is this time. I was sort of interested to hear that Bridget Fonda was considered for this film mainly because I haven't thought of Bridget Fonda in about five years.
In "Love, Death, and Trauma" (19 mins.) Argento reiterates that this is one of his most interesting movies (which I wouldn't argue) and, again, that it's "classic Argento," which, clearly, it ain't. (Simonetti will assert that his score for The Card Player is his best work ever, and, again, he's wrong.) Lots of clips from the film and plot regurgitation splits time with the maestro going over the screenplay's origins, confirming that this is a very personal story for him (his first marriage, Asia's half-sister Anna's anorexia, lots of subterranean unrest in this one) before going on about how great Piper Laurie is (sure) and how great Chris Rydell is (Ha!). I would have liked a little bit on the weirdness of shooting his daughter in a few distinctly vulnerable cheesecake moments, but that's probably none of my business. "On Set with Tom Savini" (8 mins.) is unfortunately self-explanatory footage of Savini's practical effects in motion, with just a brief look at the man himself towards the end. Five minutes worth of "Deleted Scenes" seem really to be extended versions of extant scenes with no extra character development, gore, or nudity. A trailer for the picture, extended poster and stills gallery, and Mark Wickum's excellent all-text bio of Argento rounds out the presentation.
Similarly, The Card Player's 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer displays a remarkable suppleness, honouring Irreversible DP Benoît Debie's flat, flavourless, Dogme-inspired cinematography. Colours are drab, camera movements (again with one or two exceptions) are unexceptional, but by the same token, there are few problems with edge-enhancement or banding. Simple technique/flawless transfer. Another DD 5.1 track does admirable, yeoman's work with atmospherics and ex-Goblin Claudio Simonetti's derivative score (derivative of "Tubular Bells" and of his former group's other soundtracks--if as inferior to both). Jones returns for another anecdote-heavy yakker that goes down a lot easier this time thanks to a higher volume of critical comments. He clearly likes this one less than Trauma, lending his behind-the-scenes comments a little meat. He offers theories as to why Argento has an international profile, how off-screen antipathy was melted by the two leads to good effect, and, best, why certain scenes do and don't work for him. His observation that The Card Player is a bloodless film about bodily humours is well-taken--wish I'd made it myself, as it cuts to the crux of the thing.
"Playing with Death" (13 mins.) features a lengthy monologue from Argento (in Italian with yellow subtitles) in which he confirms that cards are a metaphor for life, but most of the interview is given over to admiring his cast and crew and describing his inspiration. It's only a boon to hear from the horse's mouth if the horse actually has something to say. "Maestro of Fear" (17 mins.) is an interesting several minutes spent with Simonetti--probably made more so by its generous use of the incomparable score from Suspiria (still one of the two or three best scores ever composed for a horror film). A promo piece for the film again employs the Suspiria score in addition to B-roll and workprint footage. No real surprises waiting to be unearthed, in other words--ditto "Behind the Scenes" (6 mins.), wherein Argento recounts, once more, coming up with the idea for the picture. A four-page insert includes a text interview with Argento conducted by something called "La Republica." Mark Wickum's fantastic text bio of Argento is a mainstay by now, rounding out the presentation along with the aforementioned trailer for the film. Originally published: October 17, 2005.
*Note that neither Trauma nor The Card Player has been properly flagged for progressive-scan decks, so you may experience de-interlace problems during playback. return