Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Occhi di cristallo / Eyes of Crystal

This 2004 Italian-Spanish co-production starts off in bold style with a frenetic chase through winding alleys and back-streets as cops Giacomo Amaldi (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Frese (José Ángel Egido) pursue and catch an attempted rapist.

Unexpectedly Giacomo then shoots the man in the leg, explaining to his shocked partner that it's for “when he gets out of prison.”

Reflections in a golden eye: extreme ocular close-ups are in abundance as we might expect in a film entitled Eyes of Crystal

While useful for establishing character – Giacomo's “issues,” we later learn, stem from the tramautic legacy of his first love herself being raped and murdered – it also proves a touch inconsequential, a breach of procedure that leads to no complaint or inquiry and has no further bearing on the various stories about to emerge...

The first involves a killer who, after indulging in a spot of taxidermy (from Psycho through Jeffrey Dahmer, have taxidermists ever had a positive representation?) unceremoniously guns down a young couple in a waste-ground with a hunting rifle, along with the peeping tom who was spying on their lovemaking. We also learn that the man has a missing pinkie.

Amaldi and Frese are assigned the case.

The second sees their older colleague Ajaccio (Simón Andreu) go into hospital for tests that prove him to be suffering from a brain tumour, already at the inoperable and soon to be at the causing hallucinations and changes in personality stage...

The third finds attractive female student Giulietta (Lucía Jiménez) being stalked and coming to Amaldi and Frese for help, with younger man soon taking a personal interest in the case.

The fourth sees an antique dealer sell a 19th century doll to a mystery buyer – i.e. our killer; obviously a man of means – who murders her and removes her arms.

The blue eyes of the broken sex doll?

Suspiciously some surgical tools have disappeared from the hospital. Meanwhile, Ajaccio awakens to find someone having written his name on his torso in a wax pencil of the sort used for marking where surgical incisions are to be made...

As Amaldi and Frese continue their investigations and the killer continues on his mad quest, all the Pieces – to cite a rather more trashy old school production that has more relevance than Eyes of Crystal's makers would probably care to admit – start to come together...

The sign of the cross

The mystery element of this neo-giallo (although it should be noted that director Eros Pugliessi seems to want to avoid the use of the G word) never quite comes off, it being all too easy for the seasoned genre veteran to work out who the killer is from the suspects and red herrings set up – the sinister doctor, the other student who always seem to be wherever Giuditta is etc. – and, perhaps more importantly, not framed as such.

Some suspect characters

Likewise, while the reason behind the killer's missing finger is ultimately explained us, in all its phallic symbolic glory, it lacks significance as far as the policemen are concerned and, as such, perhaps functions more as a kind of reverse McGuffin, more important to us than them.

The convergence of the different story threads necessarily meanwhile imparts a degree of contrivance which, whilst certainly no worse that those seen in countless classic gialli, is more problematic on account of the film-makers' aspirations. Although blame can probably be apportioned here to author Luca Di Fulvio on whose novel L'impagliatore the film is based, I would have preferred to see at least one of the sub-plots remain more isolated.

This would, I think, have helped better illustrate the theme of contingency versus destiny running through the work and concomitantly the danger of reading too much significance in to what could be a random detail, as highlighted by Amaldi and Frese's discussion of what the killer's cryptic writings, as found at the scene with another victim lacking body parts, might mean.

Amaldi and Frese debate the meaning of a potential clue in a characteristically functionally shot police station sequence; Puglielli's direction itself leaves little to chance

For, as Amaldi remarks, it's often that the meaning we impute that is the more important, as a kind of personality test. And as far as Eyes of Crystal goes, I think what is revealed therbey is a somewhat schizoid personality, that of a film which tries to have it both ways in appealing to both genre and art cinema or horror and psychological thriller type audiences and does not always successfully reconcile the contradictions that emerge thereby.

What I mean here is the kind of authenticity that an Angst, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer or Seul Contre Tous evinces against a Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, of being willing to present extreme, all-too-real violence – in all its forms – in an unflinchingly, hopefully repellent way, and to avoid the cliché of the brilliant serial killer playing games with the authorities.

It should however, also, be noted that while Eyes of Crystal has such a killer, at least the buddy cop pairing departs from the Se7en model somewhat in making the younger Amaldi the educated, cultured type and displacing the retiree role from the older Frese onto the third party Ajaccio.

Likewise, the film-makers could undoubtedly point to the name recognition of the latter against the former group of films and argue that the plague on both your (grind and art) houses approach of Angst and company is one with a more limited appeal, just as my own preference for those works that take this approach is also an expression of a particular strategy of distinction in that “look at me, I'm harder-core and culter than thou” way.

In more genre based terms it also, perhaps, something of the authenticity that a The Bird with the Crystal Plumage exhibits against a Sleepless, that difference between the film-maker compelled to get what he wants to say out there, without really knowing if there was the audience waiting to be constructed, and the one making a calculated pitch towards a more or less known, pre-existing audience. (Sleepless is neither a bad film nor a bad Argento film specifically, more just another one on both counts.)

Again, however, this is not surprising from the point of view of a young director mindful of developing a long-term career, just a way beset by compromises and arguably less likely to lead to future masterpieces.

It's at this point that, despite all the above reservations and criticisms, I should emphasise that I thoroughly enjoyed Eyes of Crystal, found it an accomplished work and firmly believe that Puglielli is a talent who absolutely deserves the opportunity to make more films of whatever type he – and hopefully not so much the marketplace – desires.

His direction is confident. Indeed, if anything its perhaps even over-confident, insofar as there are times – the use of a Jacob's Ladder style shaky head effect in the flashbacks, for instance – where a technique seemed to be there more because it was available than for what it contributed to the meaning of the scene, with that sense of form determining or over-riding content.

Elsewhere, however – note the way the cross-shape of the wire frame for one of the killer's stuffed animals near subliminally introduces a visual motif that links him in with Ajaccio's enigmatic flashbacks, for instance, or the ironic juxtaposition of Giacomo and Guidetta's first and abortive date with a supporting character's fatal encounter with the killer – he nails it.

The technical credits are good, with attractive compositions and cinematography and a surprisingly bold score centred around a madrigal type piece, whilst the performances – filone fans will note the presence of Simon Andreu, a frequent face in Luciano Ercoli's contributions to the genre in the 1970s – are of a higher standard than many would expect from a giallo.

The Frightened Woman...

... and with good reason

One factor that would appear to contribute here is the use of Italian rather than English dubbing. I wondered if the film had originally been slated to be dubbed, insofar as all of the books Giacomo reads whilst researching the occult and the textual inserts are (somewhat incongruously it has to be said) in English. It would certainly be interesting to have seen the film dubbed to ascertain if and how that affects the experience; one assumes for the worse.

A final thought, meanwhile, is that whilst the use of Sofia as a backdrop does not particularly hamper the film, I could not help wondering what a more concretely defined location might have brought to the film; Turin springs to mind as an ideal location on account of the occult theme. Or perhaps that would have been to invite the Argento comparisons (“When I write a film now I always visualise Turin”) Puglielli otherwise seems to want to maintain some distance from – at least for now.

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