Thursday, September 20, 2007

Beatrice Monkey at 32

Two time David di Donatello (The Italian Oscar) award winner Asia Argento was born Asia Aria Maria Vittoria Rossa Argento 32 years ago today on September 20th 1975 to Italian film legends Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi. Born in the year of one of her father's greatest films, the legendary DEEP RED, Asia has been in the Italian spotlight virtually all of her life.
Asia Argento is a lot of different things to a lot of very different people. To many she is one of the last great Italian Horror icons and is mainly known for her work with her father, Lamberto Bava, and Michele Soavi. To others she is an action star from XXX and a major sex symbol with any number of her modeling shoots hanging on many a young mans or young woman's wall. To a handful of important modern female directors like Sofia Coppola and Catherine Breillat she is a peer, collaborator and friend. There are other hats as well: Poet, DJ, Muse, Documentarian. The list is endless for this woman barely in her thirties. Perhaps her most unknown persona is as the double Donatello winner in Italy, as some of her most heartfelt and effective work is all but unknown to most English Language audiences.

Essentially growing up on and around film sets, the young Asia made her acting debut at the age of nine in the Italian miniseries SOGNI e BISOGNI (1985). Good notices in that led quickly to her feature film debut in DEMONS 2 (1986), a Lamberto Bava film co-written and produced by her father. DEMONS 2 was a fairly disappointing sequel to Bava's fantastic DEMONS (1984) but Asia was memorable as the frightened little Ingrid.
Asia had a difficult childhood at times due to her parents separation among other things, and was said to have begun writing poetry at a very early age. Often alone or with her half sisters Fiore and Anna, Asia's early aspirations were to be a writer and not an actress but she felt oddly at home on the set of DEMONS 2, and soon after found herself working with her mom and director Luigi Cozzi in a short lived Italian Giallo television series.
Her career really started to take off in 1989 just after her 14th birthday with her first starring role in Cristina Comencini's ZOO. Working with one of Italy's few female writer and directors no doubt would later fuel the most controversial part of Asia's career. Even more noteworthy than ZOO was Asia's role in young Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH, an audacious and winning Gothic Italian horror picture that would mark the future DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE director as one of the major new talents in Italian cinema. As in DEMONS 2, Asia was very memorable in a smaller role and THE CHURCH remains one of the definitive Italian Horror films from the late eighties.
1989 would also bring Nanni Moretti's PALOMBELLA ROSSA, a dramatic film that would bring the young Asia to an entirely different audience from her horror work. ZOO and PALOMBELLA ROSSA would be the first signs that Asia Argento was going to be more than just her father's daughter.
After taking a few years off to finish school and continue writing, Asia returned to Italian screens in 1992 with a starring role in Michele Placido's CLOSE FRIENDS. This intense film was a critical and popular hit and would make Asia one of Italy's youngest and most respected stars.
1993 would bring one of the most anticipated and disappointing films of Asia Argento's career. TRAUMA (1993) would mark the first time that Asia worked under her father's direction, unfortunately the production is one of Dario's weakest films and Asia's career was briefly hurt by its muted reception. In hindsight I don't think TRAUMA is as bad as many fans consider it. Had Dario pulled away from the Americanizing aspects of the production, then I think it could have been a really solid film. As it stands, it is a flawed but at times interesting work. Asia's performance as the bulimic Aura has been criticised in many circles but I find her odd and slightly mannered performance one of the most moving in Dario's canon. TRAUMA is a strange film and one of the biggest missed opportunities in Dario Argento's career.
Depressed from the TRAUMA reception, Asia would step behind the camera for the first time with an odd and surreal short in the anthology film DEGENERAZIONE. I remember seeing this for the first time in the mid nineties, and being immediately struck by Asia's short segment and thinking to myself that she could possibly end up directing.
1994 would mark a rough time for the Argento family when Asia's beloved half-sister Anna was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. She would throw much of anguish into her next role, Carlo Verdone's LET'S NOT KEEP IN TOUCH, which would garner Asia her first Donattelo and re-establish her as one of Italy's greatest young actresses.
Needing perhaps to have a little escape, Asia next travelled to France to film the intense Patrice Chereau film QUEEN MARGOT (1994). The role was a small one but it would give Asia the opportunity to work with an actress she has often been compared to, the intense and beautiful Isabelle Adjani.
Asia returned to Italy after the success of the bloody and brilliant QUEEN MARGOT and filmed the excellent ensemble film BITS AND PIECES (1997). This great film would also feature a young Monica Bellucci and Dario Argento himself in a rare acting role.
1996 would be possibly Asia's most important year as an actress, with two high profile roles in which she would deliver the best performances of her young life. She would win another Donattelo for TRAVELLING COMPANION, Peter Del Monte's great little film that teamed Asia up with the iconic Michele Piccoli. TRAVELLING COMPANION is a real jewel of a film and it is thankfully available on disc here in the States. I highly recommend it for anyone who just knows Asia Argento through her more genre oriented work.
The second role for Asia in 96 would be even more noteworthy than TRAVELLING COMPANION. I have thought since I first saw it in 1997 that Dario Argento's THE STENDAHL SYNDROME is one of his great works, and that Asia's performance as the police detective Anna is one of the most memorable of the nineties.
It is a film that still divides many people but I am hoping the upcoming Blue Underground special edition set causes perhaps some fans to revisit it. It is a work that has haunted me greatly since I first saw it ten years ago and it is the film that established Asia as one of my favorite modern actresses.
Her intense work in TRAVELLING COMPANION and THE STENDAHL SYNDROME would mark a turning point for the twenty-one year old Argentio and she took over two years off after them. In that period she wrote her first book, the autobiographical I LOVE YOU KIRK (1999).
She would return to Italian screens in 1998 with the comedy VIOLA KISSES EVERYBODY and then she signed on to film a picture with one of her major heroes, New York's own Abel Ferrara.

Ferrara's NEW ROSE HOTEL (1998) is either one of his greatest films or one of his worst. It just depends on who you ask. I was a bit bewildered by the film the first time I saw it in 1999 but re viewings have put me in the camp that consider it one of Abel's greatest and rewarding films. Asia is splendid in the role of the conniving Sandii and she frankly steals the film from both Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken.
Asia and Ferrara would have a combative but respectful partnership and she would later film a much talked about documentary on the maverick director (which, by the way, if anyone has a copy of please throw a brother a bone and drop me an email for a trade). Ferrara and his late collaborator and MS 45 star Zoe Tamerlis are often named as Asia's biggest influences and the connections, especially in the second half of Asia's career, are easy to see.

1998 would finish up with two more notable films, Michael Radford's B.MONKEY and her father's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. B.MONKEY is a film I am very fond of; with its sleek look, great soundtrack and Asia at her most charismatic. Unfortunately Miramax savaged the film in editing and the version that is out is severely compromised. I really hope that Radford is able to get his original cut out one day as I think it is a sublime little romantic crime film.
Asia looks lovely in her father's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA but the film is a disaster. Easily the worst work that either Dario or his daughter have ever delivered, it remains the only Dario Argento film that I don't enjoy revisiting. I don't even like thinking about it.
The new decade has been a delirious and frenzied ride for Asia Argento. She would break to American audiences in the action packed XXX (2002) and then as, the should have been, star of George Romero's LAND OF THE DEAD (2005). The part in the Romero film was fitting as the great director had first met Asia as a little girl while preparing his DAWN OF THE DEAD with her father in the late seventies.
The last seven years have also seen Asia becoming more and musical minded with late night DJ gigs and guest spots on a number of albums, including a scorching Trash Palace JE'TAIME MON NON PLUS with Placebo's front man.
The early part of the decade would find her performances seeming to suffer a bit. Films like LOVE BITES (2001), RED SIREN (2002), and THE KEEPER (2005) would do little for her career and she seems frankly bored at times in them. Unfortunately these films are much more readily available in America than her earlier fine Italian work, and I believe this is one reason she isn't more respected among English language audiences.

More interesting in the first half of the decade was Asia the writer and filmmaker. 2000 saw the release of her SCARLET DIVA, an overwhelmingly intense and confessional debut film that would mark her as one of the most uncompromising artists of the decade. SCARLET DIVA is a mess at times but there are times when Asia really catches moments so personal and so intense that it is quite astonishing. Her follow up feature, 2004's THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, would be even more intense and perhaps even more flawed. Despite there shortcomings Asia Argento's work as a writer and director have quickly established her as a true voice. I am extremely curious to see what she is going to deliver next.
The last few years have seen Asia the actress thankfully return. Now a mother and seemingly more focused than ever, with this year's Cannes festival premiering a whopping four high profile films. No longer just Dario Argento's daughter, she is one of the most sought after independent actresses in the world and with uncompromising directors like Abel Ferrara, Sofia Coppola and Catherine Breillet all singing her praises, Asia Argento is destined to only get better.

Of course the big film right now is MOTHER OF TEARS. Dario Argento's newest film is getting more attention than any Italian horror film in probably 25 years. It is fitting that it re teams not only father and daughter, but also the estranged Daria Nicoldi is back in the fold. Regardless of its virtues or flaws, the upcoming MOTHER OF TEARS is an important film for all involved, for Italian horror fans and finally for the genre itself. I am extremely happy that Asia is involved in it.
Asia recently wrapped the interesting Bertrand Bonello's new film and she is currently shooting Michael Civetta's sure to be controversial COIN LOCKER BABIES.
It is hard to believe that Asia Argento has accomplished so much in just thirty-two years. Out of all the young actors and filmmakers on the scene, Asia Argento is one to really watch. I wish her all the best and a very happy birthday.

NOTE: All of these wonderful photos (the first shot is from her official site) are from the essential Ode To Azia website which is linked to the right. I have said it before, this is one of the best stops on the internet.

-Jeremy Richey, 2007-


Cinebeats said...

Great birthday tribute to Asia, Jeremy! I really enjoyed it. The Church is still my favorite Asia film, but I also liked her a lot in Queen Margot and Land of the Dead. There's a bunch of her films that I also still need to see and you've reminded me to make more of an effort to do so. I also want to see The Stendahl Syndrome again since I disliked it the first time I saw it, but I've read a lot of positive stuff about it since then (including your own thoughts) which make me want to revisit it.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Kimberly,
I love The Church!!! Isn't it a fantastic film. I wish more of her Italian films were available. I have some so so quality copies of many of them and she does some really wonderful irks me that is mostly her post XXX stuff that is commonly available as much of it isn't as strong.
I will be curious to hear your reactions to re-watching might still dislike it but I'll look forward to your thoughts either way...thanks for the comments

Neil Sarver said...

I'm with you, she's totally amazing all around.

Allow me to join in the love for both The Church and The Stendahl Syndrome (totally looking forward to the new DVD), which I saw a midnight showing and still think is actually one of Dario's best, hopefully the new DVD, which early word is good on, will help show that to more people.

aaron said...

I second the other commentators -- excellent appraisal of Ms. Argento's accomplishments thus far!

I was able to procure an advanced edition of the Blue Underground release of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME last month at the Rue Morgue Festival of Fear in Toronto, and I can report that the transfer has thankfully been cleaned up from the original negative, making it a vastly different experience than that ghastly Troma release from a couple of years ago. The extras are as engaging as they are intellectual (the female author of the book on the phenomenon that inspired Argento is interviewed for over twenty minutes).

Also, this has made me want to see THE CHURCH more than ever!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Neil and Aaron,
IT is really great to hear from some other Asia fans and I love hearing the nice words for her work.
Sounds like the new DVD of Stendahl is going going to be a winner...I can't wait to get my hands on it...thanks again for the comments..

Rogue Spy 007 said...

Hey Jeremy. This is a fantastic birthday tribute to Asia. You did a great job with it. She so richly deserves. I love and adore Asia. She's very beautiful and extremely sex. She's also quite the talent. Even if the films she plays in aren't always that good, Asia still shines in them. I've loved her in everything from Demons 2 to Land of the Dead. I really loved her in B. Monkey. She's an amazing woman who is gifted in so many areas.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
It is so great to hear so much love for Asia. Very gald to hear I am not the only one who likes B Monkey as well...tahnks for the comment

Neil Sarver said...

I also liked B. Monkey and was unaware, although I'm unsurprised, that it had been re-edited. I'd be quite interested to see the original version as I thought it was a movie that had more potential than it managed to realize.

colinr said...

Great job Jeremy and happy birthday Asia! I'm looking forward to getting the new version of The Stendhal Syndrome - I remember being fascinated by the way the film twisted and turned, becoming one type of film and then another which, along with the relatively slow pacing, can frustrate the audience but which felt quite daring. One of the moments I really liked was in the scene where Asia is talking on the telephone in her bedroom and the camera slowly turns onto its side during the conversation. I didn't think the CG was much good, but luckily those moments are very short.

I quite like both of the Demons films - I like the way the films both create and sustaining a claustrophobic atmosphere (that bursts out into the wider world in the end), and create a world where bizarre twists are the icing on the cake - perhaps the best being the sudden appearance of the helicopter at the end of the first film!

I often thought Asia was an adorably cute looking child, which makes which makes thinking about where we leave her minor character in Demons 2 feel more disturbing! I'd agree that the first film is slightly better, but I find both to be wonderfully wacky, illogical and gross guilty pleasures!

I thought La Reine Margot was a wonderful film, and I'm glad it seemed to come along at just the right time for Asia, so that her success even in a minor role was an encouragement after the failure of Trauma (which, like yourself, I also found a little disappointing (although still fascinating!), but more for her father's uncertain direction and strange shifts in tone the film took than for Asia's committed performance)

B Monkey is perhaps one of my favourite of Asia's performances so far. I also feel it might be Rupert Everett's best part and his performance is very good too. The film as a whole is also very good - I like the way the film seems to make rather cliched romance material seem touching again, rather than feeling too sappy!

Land of the Dead as a film has been growing on me. While I didn't feel the film was a disappointment the first time I watched it, it didn't grab me the way Romero's earlier films in the series had. However on watching it again a couple of months ago I started to like the film much more and even feel that the plot is deceptively simplistic and that once we get past that having watched the film once we can just enjoy being in the world the film creates (I'm starting to feel less concerned about plot spoilers when I discuss films I love, although I still try to give a warned, because it seems that the things that make a film so great and constantly rewatchable once we know what is going to happen are not exactly connected to the plot, but in how the film tells its story. A great plot can be messed up by poor storytelling and alternatively a poorly written or thought out film can become a fascinating and wonderful film if it is handled in the right way - for example the Demons films, which aren't exactly what I'd call coherent plotwise but which are fascinating for all their other elements).

I thought Asia gave a good, unselfish performance in Land of the Dead, and I can see this film slowly seeming better and better each time I rewatch it (I still find it strange that my favourite scene of the film, the one where John Leguizamo's character encounters the next door neighbours in Dennis Hopper's privileged apartment, was a scene that was only added for the unrated DVD! That scene is a true Romero classic in the way it masterfully mixes zombies, personal tragedies and its social commentary!)

I haven't seen the Ferrara film at all, but it sounds like one I'm going to have to track down!

It has been such a long time since I last saw Bits and Pieces that I'll have to dig out my video and watch it again. In fact I might try and have an Asia Argento weekend soon, since I've just picked up the DVD of La Reine Margot and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. I even have an unwatched DVD of Dario's Phantom of the Opera, which has been in my 'to watch' pile for a couple of years now, mainly because I'm worried about watching it because it sounds very poor (but, hey, I'm a completist so I have to have at least one copy of all of Argento's films, don't I?(!))

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Neil,
All this love for B Monkey has me wanting to do a post on it...I need to check how much was cut out but my memory tells me at least thirty minutes...Bloody Miramax!!!

Thanks so much Colin for your great comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to leave such in depth thoughts...Have fun with your Asia weekend...sounds like a great one to me.

Thanks again for all your comments.

Michelle said...

An extraordinarily beautiful, talented and very cool woman! In her 32 years she's already achieved so much that most others haven't in a lifetime.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Michelle,
I agree with your thoughts. Asia is incredible.