Audiences at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival might have been less surprised by a glimpse of Asia Argento's anus — the sole body part she has yet to bare onscreen — than by the revelation that somehow, somewhere, she had become not only the most fearless actor of her generation, but also one of the most intelligent and commanding. Premiering within days of each other came a pair of intense, quizzical, bracingly confident star turns. In Boarding Gate, a deceptively offhand, deeply strange thriller by Olivier Assayas, Argento plays an ex-hooker caught up in kinky sex and shady global capitalism. In The Last Mistress (the San Francisco International Film Festival's opening-night movie), a brainy bodice-ripper from Catherine Breillat, she hits a career high — in fact, tears the roof off that gilt-paneled motherfucker — as a savagely energetic, supremely volitional courtesan. Together with her instantly infamous cameo as a stripper on intimate terms with a slobber-mouthed Rottweiler in Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales (which also plays at the festival), Argento's Croisette trifecta earned her the sobriquet the "Queen of Cannes," some long-overdue critical respect, and pride of place in the jerkoff fantasies of submissive cinephiles worldwide.
The story of Asia rising goes back to 1993 when, at the age of 16, she disrobed for her father, legendary giallo maestro Dario Argento, in the aptly named thriller Trauma. Going back to that squirmy moment confirms that Argento has always been the least embarrassed of performers, as comfortable flaunting her tits as she is flubbing through the silliest of roles. Key to her electrifying presence is her guileless, resolute commitment to the silly, sleazy, horny, hysterical, ill-advised, over-the-top, and out-of-control. These are human qualities like any other, but name another actor who fleshes them out with comparable seriousness and élan. The things around her make up a sort of Eurotrash Walpurgisnacht: obnoxious groupies, lascivious movie producers, drug dealers, jet-setting, desultory buttsex, S&M gone awry, gnarly K-holes, botched photo shoots, tender admissions that what she really wants to do is direct ...
Key to Argento's electrifying presence is her guileless, resolute commitment to the silly, sleazy, horny,ill-advised, over-the-top, and out-of-control.
And she did, with tremendous virulence of vision, in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which had the misfortune to be released in the wake of the JT Leroy revelations and the consequent resentment of a suckered media. Charged with crimes against authenticity by a culture that, from Reena Spaulings to reality TV, could hardly give less of a shit, The Heart was double-damned for taking on a monstrously debased childhood as its subject, then committing to represent it with unflinching directness and disquieting lyricism. It's a terrific, troubling achievement, a compendium of horrors radiated by queasy but authentic empathy, perfectly realized in its tone of ecstatic abjection. Critics balked so hard they verbally barfed ("execrable," "unwatchable," "overbearing," " vile beyond redemption"), but filmmakers recognized an exquisite resource. Gus Van Sant gave her a cameo in Last Days as a thong-wearing phantom haunting a crypto-Cobain mansion; George Romero armed her against the zombie menace in Land of the Dead, and Sofia Coppola cast her, brilliantly, as the Comtesse du Barry in Marie Antoinette (2006), which served as a test run for Argento's monumental performance in The Last Mistress.
Lady Vellini is rumored to be the "illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a famed Spanish matador, [who] led a shady life in Seville before being rescued by a marriage to a wealthy English baronet." She is introduced as an odalisque, horizontal on a daybed as she greets her longtime lover, the aristocratic Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou). When she rises, the movie rises with her— alert, on guard, tumescent. The Last Mistress tells, in flashback, of the explosive affair between these two, starting from Vellini's intractable dismissal of de Marigny's advances, proceeding through a duel for her affections that leaves him wounded but alive, on to a lightning reversal of mind that brings her lips to his hairless chest, sucking his blood in amorous rapture.
Critic Amy Taubin has chastised male critics who, bewildered by Argento's volcanic dynamism, resort to language ("creature," "force of nature," etc.) that strips her of will. That's exactly right: Argento may be a conduit for massive energies, but she determines the course and point of release. Vellini isn't passively in thrall to a cataract of passion; she evaluates options, sizes up sentiments, thinks though implications, then acts on a choice. When she goes, she goes all the way.
Best of the Fest
Our critics' recommendations from this year's films.
Q&A with Medicene for Melancholy Director Barry Jenkins
Local film director gives this town a dose of its own Medicine.
Glass, Jazz, and Black Francis
Music takes the stage at the Film Fest.