I’ve always loved Asia Argento because, as both an actress and a public personality, she is tough, hard, and sexy all at the same time. She’s not one of those actresses who feels the need to hide who she really is. Watching her on-screen, you realize that she doesn’t give a fuck whether you like her or not. Instead, she’s going to do whatever it is that she wants to do and, if you’re lucky, you might get to watch. Some hold her responsible for the erratic output of Dario Argento’s post-Opera career but those people far too often fail to take into account that Asia, with her naturally off-center presence, has often been the most interesting thing about Dario’s later films. (Say what you will about Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome, and Mother of Tears, they’re all better with Asia than without her.) Asia Argento is one of those talented actresses who could never have played Ophelia because no one would ever believe that she would so easily drown. Instead, she’d simply pull herself out of the water and then go kick Hamlet’s ass for being so indecisive.
In the year 2000, Asia Argento made her directorial debut with the underrated Scarlet Diva. In Scarlet Diva, Asia plays Anna Batista, a 24 year-old Italian actress who, having won both acclaim and awards in Italy, is now being tempted with offers to come out to Hollywood. Over the course of this frequently (and intentionally) disjointed film, Anna is forced to deal with the dark reality of being young, rich, and famous. (Yeah, yeah, I know you’re rolling your eyes but just calm down…) After being told that she’ll costar with De Niro, she finds herself playing Cleopatra in a hilariously bad movie that does not co-star Robert De Niro. She meets a sleazy producer (Joe Coleman) who invites her to his hotel room and then promptly undresses and demands that she “earn” a part in his next film. Anna runs from him and the naked producer chases after her with the camera focused (in close-up) on his hairy ass all the way. While dealing with all of that, Anna also find time to visit her best friend in Paris, just to discover that she has spent the last two days bound and gagged in bed. She also buys drugs underneath a highway overpass and suffers from frequent dream sequences and flashbacks to growing up with her mentally unstable mother (played by Asia’s real-life mother, Daria Nicolodi).
And yet, during all of this, Anna can still find happiness because she thinks that she’s in love with rock star Kirk Vaines (Jean Sheperd, playing a role that was written for Vincent Gallo). When Anna discovers that she’s pregnant, she decides not to have her usual abortion and instead to keep the baby. However, when Kirk reacts to Anna’s news with indifference, it leads to one of the longest (and most emotionally raw) running sequences that I have ever seen, as the pregnant Anna flees down the streets of Rome…
Just to judge from the movies that various actor have made about the trials of being a star, fame is a special sort of Hell, the type that is dominated with surreal dream sequences and frequent claustrophobia. That’s certainly true of Scarlet Diva, which is perhaps one of the most self-indulgent films ever made. And yet, it’s that very self-indulgence that makes Scarlet Diva so much more watchable and, in its own way, likable than most debut films from actors-turned-directors. For all the drama and pain that Anna goes through, Asia Argento seems to understand just how narcissistic this film truly is and, in a few scenes, it’s evident that she’s gently mocking her own “poor me” self-indulgence.
Ultimately, Asia seems to be saying that Anna (and probably, at the time she made this film, Asia herself, since she has said that this film is partially autobiographical) is her own worse enemy. Hence, this film — which was made with an admirable lack of concern about going too far or for being TMI — is a massively cathartic work for all of the rest of us who are also occasionally our own worst enemy.
Yes, Scarlet Diva may be a self-indulgent, narcissistic film. It’s also a very brave and honest film that deserves a lot more praise and attention than it has received.