Saturday, September 21, 2013

Viewing Notes: TRAUMA (Argento, 1993)

Trauma, 1993, d. Dario Argento
scr. Argento, T.E.D. Kline
with Asia Argento, Christopher Rydell, Piper Laurie

Looking at this mostly for research on a larger project about the problems, pleasures and classification of post-Opera Argento, so we'll bypass the topic for now. Here we see Argento making his first American feature (after directing half of 1990's Romero collab Two Evil Eyes), probably history's only giallo set in Minneapolis. Like Deep Red (1975; blood), Tenebrae (1982; dark), Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005; thriller history and grammar, voyeurism, Hitch cultism) and Giallo (2009; duh redux), Trauma has one of those on-the-nose titles that announces the auteur is going to investigate a pet theme to the hilt and head on. Nearly all of Argento's stories trace an exploding arc of bloody chaos backward to its origin at the scene of some damaged psyche's inciting incident: it's always about trauma. Sometimes that trauma belongs to the killer, sometimes the detective/investigator, sometimes something in-between. In Trauma it rains down on the just, unjust, and all of Minnesota alike.

Not that everyone is specifically, personally born in pain in Trauma's world, but it is a slasher with a decapitation theme as its murder gimmick and it opens with a montage of paper models depicting the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror's guillotine recurs in the 20th century midwestern US as hand-held motorized garrote always used in the rain. The wound of history is open from the start, unhealed and forever purging the current moment into existence, the heavens a-weep!

David (Christopher Rydell) and Aura (Asia Argento) meet morbid-cute when he spots her about to jump off a bridge and talks her down. He's a recovering drug addict and local TV news art director, and she's an anorexic teen daughter of Romanian psychics, who have settled in Minneapolis, as Romanian psychics do. These are our protagonists, both troubled and traumatized, with David covering the Anima-Impaired Artist-Detective duties while Aura picks up the Highly Sensitive Paranormally-Gifted Girl torch from Suzy in Suspiria and Jennifer in Phenomena. In short order, Aura is reluctantly remanded to her creepo psychiatrist (Frederic Forrest), her weirdo mom (Piper Laurie) conducts a spooky seance that goes terribly awry, and everyone starts getting decapitated. And as her parents are murdered and she screams in the rain, Aura witnesses the requisite subtle clue that is misunderstood/ignored/repressed/forgotten.

As the Killer goes about the business that the black-gloved must go about, the victims are largely medical professionals, which would seem to put the physically and mentally not-okay Aura somewhere near the center of the crosshairs. And surely David and Aura become further enmeshed, variously investigating and being further victimized, as that is how slasher/mystery business is supposed to play out. And surely the stalk-and-slash setpieces will be the primary spectacle (Brad Dourif's head severed by a necklace/elevator assault, then plummeting toward the camera in a complex quote fusing Vertigo and Deep Red), and they are excellent and lively when graded against typical American thrillers of the period, if less dazzling in the company of classic period Argento murders.

In this phase of Argento's cinema it is as if the fairy tale logic of the Three Mothers films has seeped into his gialli, which are more traditionally locked into genre strictures. Even Argento's earliest thrillers are atypical Art Gialli, but with Phenomena, Trauma, Stendhal Syndrome, this free-associative strain has fully deformed the narratives. Puzzling themes, apparently unresolved subplots, and inexplicable vignettes jut out at right angles from the main trunk of the plot. Trauma's mystery practically plays out in the background as the film is increasingly preoccupied with the afflictions of its fragile split-focus protagonists.

Protecting Aura from having her head sliced off would not seem directly linked to treating her anorexia, much as the enigma of the eponymous disorder of The Stendhal Syndrome is not readily tied to that film's primary plot about serial rape and identity disintegration. In David's determination to save her, it all gets bound up together, his life crumbles around this white knight rescue fantasy, and he relapses into drug addiction and despair. (It does happen to all rather be bound up together, actually, Bad Doctors being the epicenter of the Headhunter, the eating disorder, the drug abuse, and so on and so on.)

As the mystery works its way back to the originating trauma, a disastrous birth ending in death, the protagonists move toward death/rebirths (Phenomena's insect theme returns, focused on the butterfly/soul connection, here also constituting an Eros and Psyche motif). Along the path, the film considers Aura's anorexia from various angles. Firstly, there is Aura herself: hostile and tormented, defensive and closed off, placed in the abyss between broken mirrors. Her capacity for trust demolished, she pushes back when offered any assistance, and with good reason: her damaged existence has been sculpted largely by the authority figures (mother, doctors) claiming to help her in the first place. Every helper is corrupt, every savior is suspect, including David.

As David's concern for Aura grows, a coworker provides a clinical Freudian psychological profile, claiming that subjects supposedly all experience the same recurring incest dream: a horror/wish/memory in which the father looms, about to close in for a kiss. Even if it were accurate, the one-size-fits-all description of a personality type does not address origins of the disorder, practical medical issues or treatment, and is presented as a prurient pop psych diagnosis (and this information, apparently, is all from daytime talk shows).

After this crash course, David wanders Minneapolis and sees every street haunted by the specters of anorexic girls, the dead, dying and unreachable. This mournful passage moves from the abstract diagnosis of a Problem in Modern Society into a deeply felt sadness, as David begins registering the helplessness of caring about someone who you are not equipped to aid. Still later, after Aura has disappeared again, David is broken and strung out, and stands before a store window displaying John Everett Millais' painting Ophelia. As the designated artist figure of the film, he draws the connections between the drowning young woman driven to madness, the troubled teenager he loved, and himself. The image is of Ophelia at the last moments of melodious lay, it depicts a scene that is described but unstaged, and gives it back to Ophelia. Drowning but not drowned, floating away but afloat. At this, his lowest point, drowning in self-pity, David reaches an empathetic epiphany, and reflected in the window glass, he catches a glimpse of a clue that will lead him back to Aura.

Trauma's closing shot pans right across the final crime scene, past cops sneering at the embracing protagonists, moves down the suburban street and up to a second-story balcony. A reggae ensemble is playing up there, crooning a variation on David and Aura's final dialogue, that nothing can now go wrong, that someone will be loved. And a tall, terribly thin woman we have not seen before dances as the band plays, and she is Anna Ceroli, Asia Argento's two-years-older sister (born to Daria Nicolodi and sculptor Mario Ceroli). And as the credits roll over this mysterious, somehow reassuring image, the upbeat Caribbean dance music crossfades into Pino Donaggio's aching Julee-Cruisesque ballad "Ruby Rain" (The title evokes blood and precipitation, and those lyrics?: "I miss you/ so badly… tears are nothing in the rain/ jewels of pain…"). The camera pushes in on Anna, suddenly bathed in a blown-out golden flare, hair billowing in a wind that has risen from nowhere, just Anna swaying and twisting and dancing in the inexplicable light, in the loveliest, most lyrical of all Argento's closing shots.

The closing credits fail to announce it, but, you have, of course, been watching Trauma.

Viewed on: 9/21/13 — DVD (Anchor Bay; Region 1)

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