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IFComp 2023: Barcarolle in Yellow, November 18, 2023
In Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, a director, mistresser of actresses, has a vision of some thespian Beatrice that will elevate his existence into a purified dedication to the Art she can safely symbolize for him, angelically neuter of her own content, so like an apparition, she comes to him from the night, offers him a ride home, and he explains an idea of a film, barely pretensed as fictional, of a man’s degraded existence melting like snow before the woman of the spring, a salvation, and she listens with 60s prettiness flair that curlicues the banter, considering whether such a person is capable of love, of redemption, of art, never failing the perfect smile and tone that mercifies the despair, except once, when the car comes to a stop, and he tells her to turn the headlights off: the tension, the stare, the pretending neither.
This tension typifies much of 60s/70s cinema’s aestheticized verselust, perhaps most explicitly in the giallo genre, with its sensuous dissociations starkening in lightning strikes an ultraviolence predation: "I love your work,” a fan enthuses, to which the actress ripostes: “You mean, you love to watch me die.” In the giallo, we drink in absinthe aesthetics, neon sharps equally of glamor and sleaze that pairs “the shadowy interior … a palette of brown wood, blue jeans and purple silk” with the “mingling with the cooing tones of the can-can girls on a break.” Although the game initially feints into a spaghetti western, a telegram summons us into a train chugging through the storm, where we hear the first whispery incantations of a Goblin soundtrack: “You open your hand, and let the storm claim the piece of red silk, as it disappears carried by the wind a second later. (Why? Was that in the script, or was it your idea?) / Outside the gates, rain falls on the canals in silvery splatters.” The police, languid cigarette smoke, credits in italics: “Starring Eva Chantry as Herself….”
As herself? Yes, asserts the giallo’s brazen delirium, oohing oozing into lurid voyeurism where the camera’s gaze surfeits nakedly male desire in its intrusive omnipresence, to entwine the reel with the reel: “Trembling, you peel off your soaked dress. If this was a scene, the camera would be sliding down as you do, catching the goosebumps in your soft skin to emphasize your vulnerability, and ending with the wet heap on the floor … You run a hot bath, waiting until it’s half full to slide in, with a sensual moan of pleasure. Again, if this was a scene, the camera would catch you from behind, lingering on your nakedness as you raise one leg, then the other, and ease into the steaming water. / Does it matter that it’s a scene or not? Only if you’re acting for the audience, as your old teacher used to use. If you’re doing it for yourself, then the camera is always on.” Luxuriating in the bath, but only insofar as the faceless yet ever more pressing audience insists, dictatorial demands flooding in, as whenever you struggle to know what to do next, the hint screen slips you the next bit of script (in)((sin)uating) sensuous headiness invoked into dreamspace: “You close your eyes and listen to the patter of the rain on the windows. Fury and violence without, softness and beauty within. A metaphor for something or the other…” This pane of glass, the barrier between you and the camera, the screen and the audience, is precisely the illusion the metafictional directness of the giallo threatens, suddenly breaking in a torrent of shards, inviting in peacock preens of patriarchal brutality as readily in the fictional layer, “You run anxiously, trying to find a hotel or shelter from the rain, cold and miserable in your sodden clothes. Suddenly, a flash of lighting stops your dead on your tracks. There’s someone right in front of you … Then the light is out, and so is the knife. You fall on your knees, looking at the blood flowing into the drenched cobblestones. The next stab is through your eye, and then you see no more” as in the metafictional layer: “You’re drifting off, when a noise awakens you. Someone is knocking on your door. Again. It’s a firm, masculine way of knocking. Here comes the outside world, wanting in. You get out of the bath and towel yourself dry quickly. Who the hell could it be?” Tension of the masculinized violence of desire latent in the camera’s slow pans equivocates the film, the filmmaker. The constant terror of the indeterminacy of the demon.
That this veers haphazardly into very uncomfortable spaces accords to the unsubtlety horrors of the giallo, where the stylized tropes run so blatantly rampant that the aesthetic judgment lies largely in whether the work’s directness rips its paperthin premise to reveal a certain grinning stupidity that fails to say anything but the obvious or, in the more successful exemplar Suspiria, the semisupernatural dizziness spins itself so wildly that it dissociates into a witches’ sabbath of suggestions that let light in like stained glass. Barcarolle in Yellow threatens both outcomes through its fracturing metafictional pane. In some scenes, like the confrontation with Leona in her apartment, the game revels in its stylish semantic porousness to achieve an apropos phantasmagoric slipperiness: “Before you can touch the door, it swings open by itself. Behind it is… nobody, and nothing. Taking a deep breath, you go in, and climb the spiral staircase, ascending as it coils upon itself, tighter, higher, until you reach the high place you seem to remember like a dream … Your ideas melt in Leona’s presence like wax in the sun. … “Tell me, Eva, how have you been feeling? Do you sometimes think… things are not quite real? As if you were reading a piece of fiction and suspending your disbelief for the sake of being a part of it… or, in other words, acting?”” In others, however, the unsubtleties run crude, which nauseates when handling such intense subject matter: “You open the door a crack, as you often do when you’re about to be murdered luridly. Or raped. Often both: occupational hazard. / Through the crack, dramatically lighted, you can see a vertical slice of face: that of the director! The slice includes a brown, intense eye, an aquiline nose, a bit of smiling lip and some seriously square jawline … His eyes go wide as they follow every curve of your naked body, his voice sounds a little raspier. “Oh my God, Eva… do you always open the door in the nude? You’re amazing. Let me in, baby, I can’t wait to have you…”” It’s hard to recover any of the tensed stylized mood in the wake of such winces, so we’ll simply slip out of the cinema into the pouring rain, where we might regain the shivery extravagance.