In Catherine Breillat's costume drama The Last Mistress, one character remarks of another: "She doesn't justify for many the power she has over some." The woman in question is the notorious Señora Vellini, played by Asia Argento — but the reference could serve just as well to describe Argento herself.
With her unsettling gaze, vulnerable-yet-coiled body language, and predilection for portraying women who are either born disruptive or else have disruption thrust upon them, the 32-year-old native Roman is the definition of provocative, the very antithesis of prim, the cynosure of all eyes despite her less-than-classic looks. She's been acting since she was ten, specializing in period pieces, horror films, and shockers of the sort popularized by her father, director Dario Argento, who gave her the lead role in The Stendhal Syndrome, as a delusional young detective hunting a killer rapist.
Never one to shy away from showing off her voluptuous body if it helps move the story along, the busy Ms. Argento has worked in more than forty films (Queen Margot, Love Bites, Gus Van Sant's Last Days, George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, Tony Gatlif's Transylvania, her father's version of The Phantom of the Opera, et al.) since 1985. If you're casting a lusty vampire, a predatory prostitute, or the victim of same, look no further. She's the Queen of Pulp. Argento's prolific prurience has established her as the latest Euro "It Girl," in the tradition of Brigitte Bardot, Nastassja Kinski, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Isabelle Adjani.
The cinema gods have decreed this the Season of Asia. Perhaps coincidentally, no fewer than four Argento vehicles are showing in the Bay Area between now and the end of summer, including a rare triple play in the San Francisco International Film Festival: The Last Mistress, the elder Argento's Mother of Tears, and Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales. With all due respect to acting honoree Maria Bello, the fest should have just gone ahead and made up some kind of similar award for Asia Argento — she's earned it for sheer output, if nothing else.
The must-see of the trio is the Breillat. Art audiences who flocked to the recent hit The Duchess of Langeais yet thought it sorely lacked a tattooed derriere can rejoice in La Argento's portrayal of La Vellini, a scandalous free-thinking married woman, circa 1835, about whom all of Paris loves to gossip. Her on-again, off-again affair with an easily distracted nobleman, Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Aït Aattou, an actor far prettier than his leading lady), provides the opportunity for yet another dramatic examination of l'amour fou and the stifling effect of bourgeois mores on people who would rather make love on a tiger rug than fight duels.
Argento revels in the part. At first publicy dismissed by Marigny, the exotic Sra. Vellini returns his scorn until the poor fellow is completely enchanted and can't stand it anymore, after which she doles out her favors sparingly. When he marries, she stalks him on his honeymoon, dressed as an Arab. The filmmaker wields La Vellini's wantonness like a weapon — she confesses to modeling her character, adapted from Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel, on Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich's The Devil Is a Woman — but the contempt for conventionality is pure Breillat. The Last Mistress opens the festival, Thursday, April 24 at the Castro.
There's no time for sitting around drawing rooms chatting in Mother of Tears. Originally titled La Terza Madre as the final part of Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy with Suspiria and Inferno, the film plunges into a supernatural helter-skelter immediately after a coffin is excavated with a strange urn chained to it. Don't open that urn! It contains demons, an evil monkey, and a magical red blouse belonging to Mater Lachrymarum, the malevolent Mother of Tears whose return to the world means big trouble for Sarah Mandy (Ms. Argento), the art researcher who first lets the witch out of the box. Soon Rome is invaded by cackling female tourists with heavy eye makeup and other ham actors, notably old reliable Udo Kier as a doomed exorcist. Poor Sarah mostly runs screaming from all this. You might consider doing the same, but don't. It's satisfying, trashy fun, ideal for one of the festival's "Late Shows," Friday, April 25 at the Kabuki.
Go Go Tales, schlockmeister Abel Ferrara's newish, Italian-produced "screwball comedy," features Ms. Argento as a stripper in a Manhattan go-go bar, where Willem Dafoe, Rob Hoskins, Matthew Modine, Sylvia Miles, Burt Young, and Anita Pallenberg go about their business in an apparent homage to John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie — only without Mr. Sophistication. Apparently Dafoe channels Ben Gazzara. It's just another midnight snack at "The Late Show," Saturday, April 26 at the Kabuki, repeated on April 28 and 30.
As you read this, Olivier Assayas' Boarding Gate, the fourth Asia Argento film of the season, may still be running. It's one of her most ambitious jobs, but she's constantly defeated by the screenplay, incoherent Eurasian folderol about a call girl inexplicably drawn to a gangster (Michael Madsen) who treats her mean. When the movie finally gets away from Madsen in the second half and follows her to Hong Kong, we expect relief but there is none. Terrible dialogue, kinky sex play, knives, drugs, masturbation, karaoke — the things an "It Girl" has to put up with. Asia is young and she'll get over it. Meanwhile, invest your time in The Last Mistress.