Tuesday, 16 January 2007

The Bloodstained Butterfly / Una Farfalla con le ali insanguinate

Following a seemingly insignificant credits sequence that it is worth paying attention to in its own right – I shall say no more, on this, however – this 1970 giallo from Duccio Tessari proceeds to introduce a wide array of characters, identifying their familial and professional relationships and roles:

Marta Clerici

Françoise Pigaut

Sarah Marchi

Maria, Sarah's mother (Ida Galli)

Alessandro, her husband

Giulio Cordaro, lawyer (Günther Stoll)

Giorgio (Helmut Berger)

Eriprando Villarosa Venostra, Giorgio's father

Diamante, Giorgio's mother

Following this, the action shifts to a park in middle of storm. One of a pair of girls, clad in yellow – i.e. giallo – macintoshes and hats, interrupts Françoise's murderer, who flees before the girls' nanny can raise the alarm. Nevertheless the man, clad in a concealing hat and coat, is seen by several eye-witnesses, including a woman in a lover's lane, Gabriella Justi, who later picks television presenter Alessandro out of a police line-up.

Chi l'ha vista morire? – she did

Coupled with Alessandro's lack of an alibi and an array of evidence against him – a distinctive car-seat cover, a muddy raincoat whose cleaning nevertheless fails to remove a singular chemical trace, a bloodstain on his shirt; with the strong emphasis on the forensic, police procedural and legal aspects of the case unusually engaging for a giallo – the case against him is compelling.

His friend and defence counsel, Giulio, nevertheless manages to discredit Gabriella and cast doubt on the relevance of the the scientific evidence. This is still, however, insufficient to definitively save Alessandro. He is thus compelled to reveal that at the time in question he was with his mistress, Marta Clerici, who cut her hand on broken glass, hence the bloodstain.

Unfortunately for Alessandro, Marta cannot be found nor can he satisfactorily explain why he should have hidden the shirt if this was all it was. Thus, he is convicted of Françoise's murder; the case seems over.

At this point, however, we learn that Giulio and Maria have themselves been conducting an affair and so conspired to use events to get Alessandro out the way.

Then, with Alessandro still behind bars, there is another murder in the park, similar enough to that of Françoise to suggest that Alessandro was indeed the wrong man...

Revisiting this 1970 giallo from Duccio Tessari, I was compelled to question my own earlier judgement, that he was a master of the classic giallo.

The first thing to say here – and those not in the mood for some random pseudo-intellectual ramblings might well want to jump to the end – is that it is not in terms of the film being in any way lacking. Writing, direction, performances and most everything else are uniformly accomplished – if I were to single out one thing especially it would have to be Gianni Ferrio's evocative score, with its fusion of Tchaikovsky and lounge/jazz – and combine to make for an enthralling piece of giallo cinema.

Rather, what I found most thought-provoking about the film was its deployment of what would conventionally, too straightforwardly and readily, be identified as flashbacks. For, as with the repeated re-visions of the gallery sequence that Sam Dalmas plays through in his mind and which Argento doubles for us on the screen in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage what we often seem to have here are more like “crystal images” of the type described by Gilles Delezue, “the uniting of an actual image and a virtual image to the point where they can no longer be distinguished,” and which he identifies as a key component of the modernist cinema of the “time-image”.

Thus, as the police construct a version of Françoise's murder and as the various witnesses to it give their evidence, we are not being presented with a true picture of what happened – which is what Dalmas works towards, even if he can only grasp this truth by gradually abandoning his old interpretive frameworks for understanding the world – but rather a demonstration of a kind of Nietzschean perspectivism in which there are not so much facts as interpretations.

Is this image someone's memory or a reconstruction? Is it true or false? Or, as with the likes of a Resnais film, is it ultimately indeterminate and unimportant in relation to what is it perceived and believed to be?

Here we might note, for example, the vaguely Last Year at Marienbad-style conversation between Giorgio – and ambiguous haunting and haunted presence whose status as hero, suspect and / or red herring remains unclear until the end – and Sarah Marchi, an exchange that singularly fails to indicate the truth of their past encounter, possible ulterior motives, and so on; or the cross-cutting between Giorgio's solitary walk down a street in the present and with Françoise in another, possibly imaginary, time. (In relation to the first of, Inspector Morisini's throwaway “haven't we met somewhere before” remark to Giulia in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage seems hopelessly weak by comparison, both unnecessary and unsatisfactory.)

“You had short hair and you were going to the sorority school. You didn't notice at all - it was long. Yes, of course, it was long. And you wore it down to your shoulders, like this. I wore it in braids, always in braids - my mother made me. Anyhow, now we really know each other. Right.”

“Maybe fables become facts under oath.”

Or, in more concrete, less cinematically imaginative terms – although the contrasts between the TV studio and the home, monochrome and colour etc. still show Tessari's desire to do something more than just get the film in the can as efficiently as possible – there are the early exchanges between Alessandro and footballer Giorgio Chinaglia where they debate a players' strike on the sports programme. Is it a case of the big-name stars protecting their own positions, thus prefiguring the kind of self-interest that is later echoed in Giulio and Maria's betrayal of Alessandro? Or is it (also, perhaps) an honest expression of solidarity with the more rank-and-file, in relation to a otherwise random political banner that Giorgio passes and Tessari's camera lingers on later on.

A mediated reality - the reporter, the TV and the 'real' images

Such moments could also, one supposes, again be examined in relation to Nietzche and Deleuze, as exemplars of the “power of the false” whereby what is false may also be the more life-affirming. (Nietzsche: “Memory says, I did that. Pride replies, I could not have done that. Eventually memory yields.”)

While Marta, who was not wearing her glasses at the time she saw Alessandro, and the treacherous Giulio admittedly have somewhat banal reasons for endeavouring to impose their versions of the truth, the character of Giorgio is far more interesting in this regard, precisely because of his existential estrangement from his family, privileged background and world as a whole, and corresponding commitment to his own particular set of values. ("Father, our family motto reads "Born a bastard to become a king." Well, I never got a crack at the king. On the other hand I wasn't lucky enough to be born a bastard.")

Whether his actions in relation to these are seen as affirmative or destructive is another question; all I will say is that The Bloodstained Butterfly's resolution is one of the most morally ambiguous in the entire giallo canon. It answers one question – who killed Françoise – but asks you a whole lot more. (Nietzsche again: “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil”)

Again, then, one comes back to Argento and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, as a film whose endings – a Psycho-like psychologist summing up the case, in which a man “who loved not wisely but too well” sought to cover for his murderous wife, and the departure of Sam and Giulia for the USA – likewise contrive to be ambiguously, undecideably, modern.

But – and this is the point where we welcome those uninterested in these theoretical digressions back – whether a film is modern or classical, what really matters, following the “two kinds of music” distinction attributed to Kurt Weill, Duke Ellington and others, is whether it is good or bad.

The Bloodstained Butterfly is undoubtedly good and, even based on the version I saw and from which these screen caps come from, well worth seeing; while there are Italian and Spanish DVDs out there unfortunately neither is fully satisfactory from the non-Italian speaker's perspective.


Whiggles said...

I have the Spanish DVD of this release. It is actually completely English-friendly, and the forced Spanish subtitles can be disabled fairly easily. However, it is somewhat cut, missing the "introductions" to the various characters, and I suspect that additional material may be missing elsewhere. I understand that the Italian release is completely uncut, but, like you said, is not English-friendly.

K H Brown said...

I read your review in the course of writing this and should have been clearer, that what we are looking for is an uncut OAR version with Italian audio and English subtitle options. I suppose the existence of an Italian release gives hope, suggesting the materials are there just waiting some enterprising company.



Anonymous said...

Sure you know this by now, but the OOP Eyecatcher dvd presents it in 2.35:1 and offers an Italian audio with English subtitle option. Is it the best-looking giallo dvd I've ever seen? Not by a long shot, but it's certainly serviceable, and isn't nearly as dupey, say, as the NEW dvd edition of Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (which, to my eye, looks consistently awful from beginning to end).

Cheers on your analysis of classical vs. modern--as I started the film I was leaning toward the former; by the time I got to the end, the latter ... in addition to your point about the "flashbacks," I also find it compelling that the film mostly resists designating any single, main protagonist. (In that way it reminded me, for a nanosecond, of the similar "protagonist hopping" to be found in Inferno.) ... of course Argento's film is on another planet from Butterfly, but the narrative strategy still makes the film (to me) more compelling than it might otherwise be.