The Italian Giallo films of the 1970’s have recently fallen back into favour with a certain kind of cinephile; stylishly pulpy slashers and thrillers produced by auteurs like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci have become more likely to be embraced by the arthouse than modern horror fans. Just take a look at the films most nakedly influenced by the genre in recent years - Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and the collected works of Belgian directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. These are films crafted by people who love the genre, and yet they are also fairly tiresome academic essays on the conventions that bind the stereotypical Giallo film together. A deliriously trashy and purely visceral cinematic experience has become (whisper it) somewhat highbrow.
Director Nicolas Pesce, hot off his cult hit The Eyes of My Mother, has decided to take a stab at Giallo with this adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s novel of the same name. It’s a peculiar novel to adapt in such a pronounced style, especially considering that Murakami’s works are often described as the closest thing you can get to David Lynch in a literary format. However, by adapting with a Giallo style, albeit one comparatively muted to other recent works attempting to imitate the genre, its intellectual aspirations are laid bare. What would otherwise be a recognisably twisty thriller instead transforms into something approaching a critical analysis of conventional gender roles within one of horror’s more regressive sub-genres. It sounds interesting on paper, but as it explores ideas so similar to narratively bolder Murakami adaptations (most notably Takashi Miike’s Audition), it can’t help but feel decidedly unengaging thematically.
Transported from Japan to an uncanny valley New York City, Christopher Abbott stars as Reed, a new father who suffers from violent delusions; we’re introduced to him preparing to murder his baby child, only for the baby to “speak” to him and tell him to kill a prostitute instead. So, he leaves his wife (Victoria’s Laia Costa) and child behind and checks into a hotel, devising an ill thought out plan to lure his victim into a false sense of security under the pretence of fairly vanilla S&M. When Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) arrives, Reed almost straight away offends her due to his sheer discomfort at being thrown into a sexual situation with a woman who isn’t his wife - which quickly leads her to commit an act of self harm that drastically changes his murderous plans.
In its early stages, it’s easy to be seduced purely by Pesce’s stylistic mimicry; an opening “Our Feature Presentation” title card straight out of a 70’s grindhouse theatre is the perfect introduction to these cinematic thrills, before we’re swooped away into a New York City landscape that feels like it was painstakingly crafted using miniatures. There’s a woozy, neon lighting scheme along the skyline that, when projected onto apartment blocks that look like Lego bricks, creates a disorienting effect that (at least initially) gets you into the surreal, untrustworthy mindset of this film. This mindset is aided by a brilliantly muted performance from Christopher Abbott, whose mild mannered nature makes him even more viable as a psychopathic presence.
But when the narrative machinations start pulling into gear, and the film starts to reveal that these specific archetypes may not be as commanding as we’re lead to believe, no amount of style can stop the overarching familiarity. The analysis of gender roles feels of apiece with those in Audition, but whereas Miike brought those to a bloody, natural conclusion, Pesce remains somewhat distant, ending on an inconclusive note that doesn’t add any further complexity to what has been discussed before. At a certain stage, it becomes less of a hallucinatory nightmare in the vein of Audition, and far closer to an allegorical examination of the very nature of fetish, like Phantom Thread with more gore and significantly less charm. To say more would be to spoil, but these ideas have been explored better (and in some cases, bloodier) elsewhere.