Friday, 15 June 2007

La Corta notte delle bambole di vetro / Short Night of Glass Dolls

[Warning: this discussion contains potential spoilers]

Communist-era Prague: A foreign journalist, Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) awakens in a catatonic state. Unable to move or speak, he desperately tries to recall what happened before he undergoes an autopsy...

“I'm dead?! I'm not dead” – Gregory comes to in the morgue

Fragments return: his Czech girlfriend Mira Svoboda (Barbara Bach) whom he planned to help leave the country... his colleagues at the press bureau, including boozy Irishman Jack MacPherson (Mario Adorf) and concerned ex-lover Jessica (Ingrid Thulin) ... their attending a social function graced by prominent party members and other nomenklatura... Mira's mysterious disappearance immediately thereafter...

A setting more appropriate for the gothic than the giallo?

Mira and Gregory in happier times; note the butterflies on the wall

Was it the authorities themselves who were responsible? Certainly the police were less than helpful, conducting only a perfunctory investigation and trying to dissuade Gregory and his friends from undertaking their own, which led to the discovery of a young woman's body in the river. But it wasn't Mira...

Perhaps all is not lost...

A couple the enigmatic visual fragments - shards of crystal? - that flash through Gregory's mind's eye, out of place and time

Doctor Karting pays a visit to the morgue and notices something is amiss: his old friend's body continues to show no signs of rigor mortis nor is it cooling down...

Spurred on by this, Gregory recalls uncovers a chain of mysterious disappearances, then the murder of an informant before his eyes... On the dead man's body a potential clue, a membership card for the prestigious Klub 99 ... Simply an association of music lovers or something more sinister, seeing as all the missing young women gave recitals there...

Can Gregory remember the truth that will set him free?

Although narratives told by a dead or dying protagonist are a familiar device in noir – Double Indemnity, DOA, Sunset Boulevard, Point Blank etc. – and indeed crop up in the occasional giallo such as The Double, there seems something characteristically Italian – excessive – about crossing it with a satanic conspiracy out of Rosemary's Baby for added exploitation potential.

More butterflies, in their glass cages...

Yet as a giallo in terms of the narrow post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage definition, Aldo Lado's debut feature stands out precisely on account of eschewing most of the themes and motifs audiences had come to expect from the filone by way of black-gloved killers stalking beautiful, scantily dressed women and impelled by quasi-Freudian repetition compulsions.

While this obviously lessens the scope for set-pieces, with the most overt concessions to the filone audience in the murders of Gregory's informant and subsequently one of his friends being positively restrained – the use of the train station as backdrop in the former case also recalling The Cat o' Nine Tails to again demonstrate that less is sometimes actually more (shocking) – there is little doubt that Lado has an assured grasp of technique, his material and – most important of all – their ultimate indivisibility and the need for each to inform and be co-present in the other.

Juxtaposing fragmentary montages of random signifiers with longer dramatic scenes in which their meanings unfold like a wings of the butterfly, a recurring motif in the film, the writer-director draws the viewer deeper and deeper into a nightmare reminiscent of Kafka or Poe in which hitherto casual remarks – Gregory's “I'd better rescue Mira from the body snatchers” – and details – Mira's name apparently translates as “Peace Freedom,” and as such speaks of an outlook at odds with the established, entrenched order – retrospectively attain key significance.

Much the same can be said of the throwaway experiment in which a scientist colleague of Karting's demonstrates that tomatoes feel pain, a meter rising whenever he penetrates their flesh with a needle: it may seem like just more egregious science of the Four Flies on Grey Velvet sort, but then allows Lado to draw comparisons with Gregory's equally inert form ironically showing no signs of life, while the way in which the technocrat crushes said tomato as he reproaches his colleague for sentimentality retrospectively alludes to his role in the conspiracy.

Lado arguably draws attention to his art a bit too much on occasion

At the same time, however, it is also the surfeit of instances such as this that arguably conspire to take the film down a notch precisely by overburdening it with significance at times. Here one also notes a crucial difference from Rosemary's Baby: whereas Polanski leaves it up to the (hyper)attentive viewer to notice that a cabbie can also be seen during a satanic orgy, Lado cuts in a flashback insert of a prominent cultists at work and play.

The habituees of the Klub 99 remind one of the vampires in Polanski's Dance of the Vampiresyou're going to meet death now, the living dead...

Minor errors of judgement aside – and as a first film it has to be said that this displays a level of assurance and control that's up there with Argento's debut – Short Night of Glass Dolls is nevertheless an enjoyably different take on the Italian thriller deserving of the acclaim it has belatedly received.

Thinking about it in relation to Argento's one also wonders if the influence went both ways, insofar as the mission statement of Lado's cultists – “We will hold the reins of power in the world… Our bitterest enemies are persons who love freedom… We need the young to keep us alive. They must become as us. They must think as we do. And those who rebel must be sacrificed” – doesn't sound that far removed from that of their immortal witches of the Three Mothers films who “don't want anything to change”. (“There is politics,” as Argento has said in interviews; just not an easily identifiable and quantifiable politics.)

Likewise – with this being a device that broadens the scope of the film out to make it less a direct reference to Communist repression in Czechoslovakia in the immediate aftermath of the Prague Spring than a general comment on the mentality of all too many ruling elites regardless of time and place, to thereby perhaps explain just how Lado was able to make the film under the auspices of the hard-line regime – we can also note the reference to branches of the secret society all over the world. It also curiously calls to mind Elio Petri's eerie, typically idiosyncratic take in the political-occult-gialli – generic taxonomy clearly creaking here – in Todo Modo.

Jessica reaches the “screaming point”

Performances and technical credits are as good as one would expect from the likes of Bergman regular Thulin – an actress equally at home in The Damned and Salon Kitty – and the Morricone / Nicolai composer / conductor one-two, contributing an appealing combination of the restrained, elegant yet sinister (Mephisto?) waltz and minimalist cues based around heartbeat and breath rhythms, neatly suspended between the diegetic and non-diegetic and underscoring the more suspenseful moments.

Lado's comments on the film on the Anchor Bay DVD are interesting. He explains that the inspiration for the film came from the case of an outspoken Italian judge who was effectively “buried alive” by an appointment in Sicily. It was originally known as Malastrana, referring to the distinctive district in Prague that forms the backdrop to the action, before this was deemed too esoteric for the likely audience. Accordingly the more generic animal title Short Night of the Butterflies was decided upon and promotional materials prepared, only for the too-similar sounding The Bloodstained Butterfly to beat it to cinema screens. It's a shame because the butterfly – delicate, fragile, emphemeral – is used throughout the film and is more meaningful than the Glass Dolls title. But, by any other name this is a giallo that warrants your attention...

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