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.
If that paragraph sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the exact same paragraph that I used to start my review of Asia Argento’s directorial debut, Scarlet Diva. I have no shame about recycling that paragraph for my review of Asia Argento’s third directorial effort, Misunderstood, largely because Misunderstood is, in many ways, a companion piece to Scarlet Diva. Whereas Scarlet Diva was based on Asia Argento’s life as an international film star, Misunderstood is based on her famously dysfunctional childhood. And, much as your enjoyment of Scarlet Diva was dependent upon how much you already knew about Asia’s life, how you feel about Misunderstood depends on whether you know that nine year-old Aria (Giulia Salerno) will eventually grow up to be Asia Argento.
Aria is the daughter of celebrities. Her father (Gabriel Garko) is a famous actor who appears to be incapable of maintaining any sort of emotional attachment with his family. Her mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg, made up to look like Asia’s real-life mother, the actress Daria Nicolodi) is an unstable and emotional musician who bitterly feels that she’s sacrificed her career for both her husband and her children. She spends her time dramatically playing her piano and angrily arguing with the neighbors.
When we first meet Garko and Gainsbourg, they’re shouting at each other while eating dinner, a scene that should be painfully familiar to far too many of us. It’s not surprising when Gainsbourg and Garko tell their three daughters that they are getting a divorce. One of the daughters — who is obsessed with the color pink — goes to live with Garko. Another daughter stays with Gainsbourg. As for Aria, she finds herself constantly shuttling back and forth between her parents. The film’s dominant image becomes one of Aria walking down a street, often between homes, while carrying a black cat with her. (Her cat, by the way, is named Dac. My black cat is named Doc. That’s just one of the many things that made me relate to poor Aria.) Aria is desperate to be loved but she’s almost too desperate. Even her best friend eventually says that Aria is too clingy.
Misunderstood has been getting mixed reviews here in the States but anyone who has ever had to watch her parents split up will be able to relate to Misunderstood. As I said, it helps to know that Aria will eventually grow up to be Asia Argento because, otherwise, parts of the film would be almost unbearably sad. For those unfamiliar with Argento’s previous directorial efforts (Scarlet Diva and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things), it may take a while to get used to her exaggerated directorial style but, ultimately, it must be remembered that the film is not meant to be a literal representation of reality. Instead, we are seeing things through the prism of the adult Asia’s memories of her dysfunctional childhood. Asia Argento also proves herself to be a great director of actors and Charlotte Gainsbourg gives an amazing performance as an all-too human monster.
Reading some of the reviews of this film, all I can say is that many critics have misunderstood Misunderstood. Is Aria always likable? Of course not. Does the film occasionally attempt to alienate the audience? Yes, it does. However, that’s always been the appeal of Asia Argento. Largely as a result of the childhood that inspired Misunderstood, she never feels the need to pander as a filmmaker. For those willing to give the film a chance, Misunderstood is an insightful look at what it’s like to grow up unwanted. Asia is proving herself to be just as memorable a director as her famous father at his considerable best.