Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Col cuore in gola / With Heart in Mouth / Dead stop - Le coeur aux lèvres / Deadly Sweet / En cinquième vitesse / I am What I Am

What are the chances: two avant-garde gialli, sharing the same core cast of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ewa Aulin, being released in the same year?

But if it's inevitable that some comparisons are thus drawn between Death Laid and Egg and With Heart in Mouth, the two films are also distinct enough to also warrant consideration in their own right.

Whereas Questi's film has a small town / rural setting, Brass's is set in swinging London, a location that server to foreground its indebtedness to Blow Up even before we get a photo-shoot turned nude romp scene; a shot of a poster for Antonioni's film, and the actual quotation of the director's words on colour and modern consciousness in relation to The Red Desert.

Then there is the narrative approach taken by the two films. Death Laid an Egg is the more detached, with the viewer being placed on the outside as an observer on the four central characters and their various conspiracies with and against one another. With Heart in Mouth is more conventional, with the viewer being placed with Trintignant's protagonist, Bernard, as he investigates a murder-mystery.

This mystery is also conventionally embodied in the person of a woman, namely Aulin's character, Jane Burroughs. We are first introduced to her, her half-brother Jerome and their (step-)mother in the pre-credits sequence as they identify Jane’s father, the apparent victim of a hit-and-run.

The narrative ‘proper’ starts later, as Bernard and Jane encounter one another in a nightclub, following which Bernard discovers the body of its owner, Mr Prescott and Jane, who proclaims her innocence of the crime.

Doing the heroic cum fall guy thing, Bernard rescues Jane from Prescott’s men and thus finds himself in turn pursued by them– including a cigar-chomping dwarf and a guy with a penchant for Nazi uniforms – and generally wondering what he has gotten himself into…

So too might the viewer, as Brass uses a dazzling array of techniques including ultra-rapid fire montage editing; multiple split screens; seemingly random shifts from colour to black and white; incorporation of newsreel and documentary footage, the latter showcasing a wide gamut of London culture, subculture and counterculture of the time; pop-art graphics and comic book intertitles (some drawn by Guido Crepax); colour filters; mirror-based compositions; extreme spaghetti western style close-ups; Godardian jump cuts; quotations from Lao Tse and Mao; frames within frames; accelerated motion; self-referential remarks from Bernard/Trintignant about being an actor, and just about anything else you care to think of.

Unfortunately it’s also a case of less is more when compared to Death Laid an Egg. Though Questi’s film also indulged in some of the above, most notably through co-author Franco Arcalli’s jarring editing, the general impression one got there was of something which had actually been thought through, where form and content were intertwined in a chiasmatic, poetic manner.

Here, by contrast, it seems like Brass has simply opted to throw everything he can at the screen in the hope that some of it sticks.

Undoubtedly some of it does and the results are always interesting to look at, if ultimately something approaching “a tale of sound and fury, told by a madman, signifying nothing.”

Still, Brass’s enthusiasm, energy and courage are to be commended, along with his admirable lack of pretense, that sense that he isn’t taking it too seriously and that it would thus be wrong for the critic to do so.

But, again, Death Laid an Egg proves the more successful film here. To invoke some other filmmakers – and ones who obviously influenced the directors – it is as if Brass is doing black comedy via Godard, with the results feeling somewhat forced, whereas Questi and Arcalli are doing comparable grotesqueries via Bunuel, with the results more natural(istic).

And then there is the music: whereas Questi and Arcalli’s film has a suitably avant-garde score by Bruno Maderna, Brass opts for jazz rock with Hammond organ freakouts, generally deployed in a relatively unironic way.

Not that in itself the music is bad, being by none other than Armando Trovajoli. Nevertheless, that he is the father of Italian film music rather than an out-and-out modernist composer again suggests a relative willingness to compromise, even if a precedent here could also be discerned by comparing the unsettling sounds of Giovanni Fusco on Antonioni’s The Red Desert with the rather more audience and market-friendly ones of Herbie Hancock and The Yardbirds on Blow Up.

Still, it’s all good music, if we want to invoke the only distinction that arguably matters…

In sum, a frustrating yet rewarding experience that, alas, isn’t quite as rewarding as its closest counterpart but which can still be recommended to anyone still uncertain of whether the giallo film could be art.

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