With Blood and Black Lace, Mario Bava took a major step toward recasting the term giallo, literally Italian for yellow, which was once more generically associated with detective-type thrillers, particularly paperbacks with yellow covers that included the work of writers such as Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace. Due to the subsequent film careers of Bava and famed compatriots like Dario Argento, giallo came to be associated with a violently free-associative blend of crime and horror film. As Bava’s biographer Tim Lucas observes in the audio commentary on this disc, the giallo remains alive today, when other distinctively Italian film subgenres have faded into the past.
Lucas’s commentary allows modern viewers to imagine the newness that Blood and Black Lace represented for the thriller genre at the time of its release, though it was a financial disappointment that gained cultural cache retrospectively. In fact, the film still feels new—particularly Bava’s astonishing use of color, especially compared to the anemic palettes in which contemporary American horror films routinely traffic. Diverging from the black-and-white aesthetic of many noirs, and of prior thrillers and horror films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Black Sunday, Bava lavishes Blood and Black Lace with an explosive tapestry of hues that suggests a fevered dream state, mirroring the repressed desires and crimes of the characters.
Bava floods the eye with stimulation, overwhelming our senses so much that the subtle and ingenious plot rushes by in a blur—an effect that would come to be a major component of the giallo. Purples, reds, golds, greens, blues, and occasional stark whites inform the images, motivated by subjective rather than objective instincts. Telephones are as bright a red as the lush curtains that divide the private chambers of the fashion salon setting—a beautiful inexplicability that’s deeply disturbing in a film with many such gestures. (Though, as Lucas observes, at least one phone is black when used by a character not long for this Earth.)
There are gorgeous Italian countryside landscapes, and elaborate interiors that are marked not only by stylish colors, but by seemingly endless bric-a-brac that inspires a palpably uncomfortable sensation of clutter. The salon is rendered in intricate tableaus that show the women—not only the models, but crafts-women and hangers-on—as figures in an elaborate caste preoccupied by addictions and resentments. Boxes are strewn everywhere, statues dot the floor, while irrationally colored mannequins haunt the rooms like prior victims or stalled demons. Various kinds of scrims separate the planes of the setting, suggesting differing recesses of this society’s private and public skin, or multiple strands of consciousness.
An antique store the size of a warehouse provides the stage for Blood and Black Lace’s most famous set piece, the second of a string of fashion-model killings that fuel the narrative. The images of the antique store are so overloaded with stimuli that one’s tempted to freeze the frames merely to do an inventory, as it’s festooned with armor, lamps, columns, artwork, ornate mirrors, fainting couches. This isn’t including the cinematography in this sequence, which includes a haunting strobe effect and splashes of magenta that signal death. Not to mention a masked killer who vanishes in front of the intended victim’s eye in a boldly reality-bending flourish.
Bava’s occupation with stuff is tethered to a deeper purpose than self-amusement, though he has a wicked sense of humor. When the masked, blank-faced killer (who suggests a more malevolent, sanded-down mannequin) murders someone, the acts of violence disrupt the furniture of the settings, communicating a primordial sense of violation that informs the extraordinary events with an element of the everyday. Most audiences can’t relate to the notions of either committing or resisting murder, but we do grasp the unsettling possibility of a room torn upside down. Bava conjoins these sensations, making murder sort of relatable. The filmmaker creates these elaborate settings only to have them brutally thrashed. This chaos is accentuated by long dolly takes that refuse us the relief of quick cutting while proffering two implications that would become common to giallo and to later American slasher films: the audience or the director as killer/fetishist.
The killings in Blood and Black Lace are still disturbing, yet have the vitality of pop art. As in most gialli, the killings suggest the price that’s to be paid for fetishism, for regarding the shapely, strategically unclothed female forms and all the other eye- and ear-tickling stimulation that governs the aesthetic, as well as serving as the ultimate heightening of this stimulation. When the killer strangles a model near the beginning of the film, against a woodsy fairy-tale backdrop, Bava positions the camera low so that we can feel the weight and heft of the bodies. The woman is wearing a deep-red jacket, an article that matters for its gorgeous portentousness. The killer strangles her at an off angle, bending her toward the left foreground of the frame, giving us a sense of constriction and prolonged struggle. We’re aware of the bodies as they yield and push in conflict with each other, and this resistance is intensified by the victim’s anguished cries. In another killing, a woman is thrown by the masked interloper across a room from the foreground to the background of the image, knocking over a large bureau, the tumbling of the furniture wedding with the movement of the thrown body to impart to a forceful sensation that’s shocking and weirdly exhilarating.
Bava’s mixing of emotionally motivated color and object-centric tactility set the visceral template for the giallo. Thematically, Blood and Black Lace offers the giallo an irresolvable obsession with female violation that’s simultaneously cruel and heartfelt. Here, the murders are understood to reflect a debasement that suggests a furthering of the debasement of modeling, a suggestion that’s literalized by the killer’s placement of the bodies in hideous poses, and by a purposefully fake substitution of a dummy for an actress in a drowning scene. This thematic is complicated further by the identity of the killer, who reflects the fashion industry’s self-loathing and self-consumption, driven by a mixture of profound self-interest and neurosis that would be enormously influential to the subgenre at large. In a giallo, a woman’s worst enemy is often a woman driven to shirk the chains of status quo that shackle her.
This new 2K restoration of the original camera negative is absolutely gorgeous—one of the most beautiful transfers this critic has seen of a classic giallo. Colors are ripe and hallucinatory, most impressively and subtly the blacks, which are deep and well-differentiated. Flesh tones and textures are densely detailed, intensifying our impressions of the victims’ vulnerabilities. Image clarity is revelatory, though grit and grain are still present and balanced in a pleasing and print-honoring fashion. There are still what appear to be a few transitional blips, most notably at the beginning of a sequence in which a purse is placed at the foreground of the image, but these scan as honoring the fidelity of the source material, and are aesthetically striking and resonant anyway. The various Italian and English monaural tracks have been mixed with equal care, with an exacting grasp of diegetic/non-diegetic harmony. Carlo Rustichelli’s remarkable jazz score really sings here, allowing one to parse individual instrumentation on one plane, while bold violence is heard on another. This transfer accomplishes something that’s nearly as important as allowing the film to look and sound its best, offering abundant testament to the depth and intensity of the artistry exhibited by Mario Bava and his many gifted collaborators.
Tim Lucas’s audio commentary contextualizes Blood and Black Lace within Bava’s career, while providing fascinating histories for most of the participants. Lucas also springs choice purple phrasing that captures the film’s overheated aesthetic, such as describing the killer as “this monster of black and white let loose in a hot house of color.” “Psycho Analysis” is a terrific new documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre, tracing how the movement sprung from countless other inspirations, such as the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Hammer Studios, as well as the aforementioned “yellow” paperbacks. Lamberto Bava, Mario’s son and a director in his own right, evocatively notes his father’s craftsmanship, such as his propensity for drawing and hand-making artifacts. This information is complemented by additional interview footage provided in the panel discussion with Lamberto, Dario Argento, and several influential film critics, who wrestle throughout these supplements with the proper way to describe the ineffable mixture of control and chaos that defines the giallo.
Michael Mackenzie’s video essay, “Gender and Giallo,” is a brilliant examination of the male and female dynamics that inform thrillers that are often too easily dismissed for their misogyny. Mackenzie connects the giallo to the political and social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, using footage from a variety of films to reveal how the giallo explored a man’s increasing confusion in the age of a more assertive woman, who was often drawn by these films as a psychotic killer. Mackenzie compares “m giallos” to “f giallos,” illuminating how films with male protagonists differ from those with a female at their center. He acknowledges certain predictable patterns (males are allowed to be more active than their reactive female counterparts) while elucidating the less easily compartmentalized sense of loss that informs films that are often critical of society, likening it to a series of hypocritical cages with characters of authority who rarely discern the actual truth. Mackenzie doesn’t make this connection, but he lays the roadwork for a hypothesis that I’ve long personally held: that the respective careers of Douglas Sirk and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are significant influences on the giallo.
A variety of other odds and ends have been included in this exhaustive package: Yellow, a short giallo homage that lacks the playfulness of the subgenre; an appreciation by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, the creative duo behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears; a two-part episode of The Sinister Image concerned with Blood and Black Lace star Cameron Mitchell; a different version of the opening credits, restored from Joe Dante’s private print, and the trailer, as well as a host of artwork and essays that are included in a beautiful booklet. This set is a dream come true for horror fans.
Arrow Video’s gorgeous and supplements-rich package perfectly complements the bounty of sensory delights offered by Mario Bava’s influential and still extraordinary giallo thriller.
Cast: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Ariana Gorini, Dante DiPaolo, Mary Arden, Franco Ressel, Lea Krugher, Claude Dantes, Massimo Righi, Giuliano Raffaelli, Harriette White Medin Director: Mario Bava Screenwriter: Marcello Fondato, Giuseppe Barilla, Mario Bava Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Release Date: July 5, 2016 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz
Now Fassbinder’s 15-hour-plus epic runs at 25fps, as per the original German television broadcast.4
Until its self-described two-hour epilogue, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz is an engrossing psychological portrait of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), a Weimar-era worker bee whose slow corrosion of self both parallels and paves the way for the impending rise of Nazism. He’s a vividly realized allegorical golem, at moments passive and acquiescent, at others viciously in control. Emerging from a four-year prison stint at the start of Fassbinder’s 15-hour-plus epic, he plugs his ears and contorts his mouth in silent scream (the on-screen title reads: “The Torment Begins”), though he’s no mere victim of the pogrom’s progress slowly infecting the German id.
In retrospect, Biberkopf is more of an accumulative symbol, as he wears his ideologies—Nazi newspaper seller, drunk, underground criminal, pimp—like the latest fashions, discarding them when they violently fester or cease to be useful. The residue of his experiences—multifaceted, oft-contradictory—nonetheless remains, so the impression in the moment is one of revelation: With each narrative step forward, Biberkopf seemingly gains in clarity (the length of the work is a benefit, allowing for a novelistic density and, at times, a mesmeric depth of character), though Fassbinder is, in fact, merely setting up his metaphor-slathered patsy for an empty-headed last-act kill.
To his credit, Fassbinder’s highly problematic directorial intentions don’t emerge from the literal nowhere. The bibilical story of Abraham and Isaac is crucially invoked, played in voiceover counterpoint to a scene of a younger Biberkopf strangling his lover Ida (Barbara Valentin). This is the only glimpse we get of Biberkopf’s past—the only extra-narrative detail—and Fassbinder returns to it again and again over the course of Berlin Alexanderplatz, the same matter-of-fact shot-sequence replayed, each time with a different aural accompaniment, so that it burns irremovably into the psyche. This is the wellspring, the moment in time that births the character of Biberkopf and sends him flailing forth on a sacrificial ascension up the Teutonic mount. Yet it is finally lazy psychology, in toto suggesting that all of Biberkopf’s travails—and, implicitly, Germany’s—can be traced back to a singular point.
I don’t think Fassbinder entirely believes in this bill of goods he’s selling us, but he seems incapable of resolving the complex undercurrents of Berlin Alexanderplatz, preferring to indulge his (not incorrect) instincts toward self-destruction. In conception, the film’s two-hour epilogue is ingenious, a descent into absolute hysteria and madness wherein Biberkopf wanders through a politically and spiritually charged psychosexual dreamscape, complete with anachronistic musical cues from the likes of Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, and Kraftwerk.
Yet the experience of watching this intentionally incongruous coda is excruciating, and to no defensible effect beyond a shrug of the shoulders and an acknowledgement that literalizing the metaphysical isn’t Fassbinder’s forte. This is the sequence that helped me to understand Phillip Lopate’s otherwise erroneous dismissal of the film (“flat and indifferently realized, a TV mini-series directed by the yard”) in the closing paragraphs of his essay “A Date With Fassbinder and Despair.” I would personally urge Lopate to go back and re-view certain parts of Berlin Alexanderplatz, some of which rank with the finest work in cinema, though in light of where it all finally goes—a haphazard succession of sub-Anger sexual imagery, half-hearted slaughterhouse/Christ motifs, and the kind of head-slappingly pretentious apocalyptic imagery brilliantly skewered by The Critic—I’d understand his hesitation to do so.
Berlin Alexanderplatz’s best scenes revolve around more interpersonal matters, specifically in Biberkopf’s relationship with the treacherous Reinhold (Gottfried John), the man who indoctrinates him into the criminal underworld and who eventually kills Biberkopf’s prostitute lover, Mieze (Barbara Sukowa). When the duo first meets in the fifth episode, they agree to share several revolving-door lovers—when Reinhold tires of his latest conquest, he passes her onto Biberkopf. It’s a brilliantly sustained roundelay on Fassbinder’s part, aided and abetted by an incessant Windham-Hill-from-Hell underscore and by the metronomic rhythms of an endlessly flashing neon sign. In ultimate effect, it is second only to the film’s best scene—captured in a distanced, yet empathetic single take—in which Reinhold murders Mieze.
Fassbinder recognizes this as Berlin Alexanderplatz’s high point: Reinhold and Mieze moving as if on a woodland proscenium, helplessly trying to avoid a violent, practically preordained confrontation. When it comes, it’s awkward, messy, yet possessed of a cosmic significance, an act at once unintentional and inevitable. Even the mist in the fog-shrouded forest descends as if on heavenly cue. It’s telling that Biberkopf is nowhere to be found (he spends the majority of the episode off screen) and even more revealing that Fassbinder appends the tail-end of this sequence to the final moments of his ill-advised epilogue, as if trying—desperately, regretfully, impossibly—to recapture and reclaim a long-lost moment of clarity.
Criterion’s 2007 DVD notoriously featured a slowed-down frame rate to account for displaying the PAL-formatted original broadcast into the American NTSC system. The Blu-ray makes up for this by using the correct PAL frame rate, marking an immediate upgrade from the prior release. In all other respects, though, the Blu-ray, sourced from the same 2006 restoration as the DVD, offers merely an HD upgrade of the older discs. That said, the image still looks great, with the tactile 16mm cinematography offering strong contrast only occasionally marred by compression artifacts. The jaundiced amber color timing and rich use of shadow looks far superior in high-def than on the DVDs, and the lossless audio is slightly crisper than before.
The extras here, including two documentaries, one an overview of the series with interviews with cast and crew and the other a documentary on the 2006 restoration, have been carried over from Criterion’s earlier release. A 1980 documentary on the making of the miniseries captures Rainer Werner Fassbinder in action, impressively commandeering this epic film’s making. Peter Jelavich, a film professor and author of a monograph on the miniseries, contributes an illuminating interview on the miniseries, from its source novel to Fassbinder’s additions and interpretations. Most interesting is the inclusion of a 1931 adaptation of the source novel by Phil Jutzi. A booklet contains an old essay by Fassbinder reflecting on the book’s influence on him, a thorough analysis and appreciation of the series by director Tom Tykwer, an interview with cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger, and a summarizing critical essay by Thomas Steinfeld that expounds upon Biberkopf as a Job-like figure.
Criterion’s Blu-ray offers only a mild upgrade in picture quality from the distributor’s earlier standard-definition release, but now Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour-plus epic runs at 25fps, as per the original German television broadcast.
Cast: Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Franz Buchrieser, Annemarie Düringer, Ivan Desny, Hark Bohm, Roger Fritz, Brigitte Mira, Karin Baal, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, Margit Carstensen, Helmut Griem, Helen Vita, Gerhard Zwerenz, Raul Gimenez, Mechthild Großmann, Angela Schmidt, Claus Holm, Fritz Schediwy, Axel Bauer, Volker Spengler Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 940 min Rating: NR Year: 1980 Release Date: February 12, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Blu-ray Review: Takashi Miike’s Audition on Arrow Video
Arrow Video outfits the most notorious and profound of modern horror films with a vivid transfer.4.5
Twenty years after its release, Takashi Miike’s Audition still feels like the most visceral and evocative horror film since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are commonalities between the movies as well, as both are still discussed with a degree of skittish awe—almost as if they’re radioactive—and both bend narrative expectations to reveal social fault lines. Yet to view Audition only as a horror film, to continually emphasize the graphic power of its final act at the expense of what precedes it, is to ignore the film’s robust vision. Audition is a psychological drama, a detonation of romantic-comedy clichés, as well as a brutal examination of social isolation and malaise, and the gulf that often exists between men and women. Miike’s greatest film to date isn’t a gonzo shock artifact, but a furious and mysterious howl of despair.
Based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, Audition has a conceit that could easily drive a mediocre rom-com, though Miike emphasizes social texture, underscoring the insidiously trivializing elements of such formulas. Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a middle-aged widower, a little soft around the middle, who’s raising his teenage son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki). Worried about his father, Shigehiko says that Aoyama should marry again, with a flippancy that suggests how someone might ask a family member to pick up dinner on their way home from work. Shigehiko is generally sensitive and thoughtful but sees women as accessories.
Indeed, the most unsettling element of these scenes, at least for contemporary American audiences, is the casualness of Shigehiko’s objectification, which Miike presents empathetically. This objectification is understood to be complicated by grief, as Shigehiko and Aoyama are processing a loved one’s death, in addition to a protective guilt that’s common for children to feel about their parents as they develop their own lives. Achingly lonely, Aoyama senses Shigehiko’s guilt and agrees to look for a new wife. At the urging of his filmmaking partner, Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimara), Aoyama holds a fake audition for a melodrama as a way of fishing for young, attractive, and obedient women.
Audition’s linking of rom-com tropes with savagery has always been disturbing, though this equation is thornier in the wake of #MeToo. The first hour of the film can be read several ways, often simultaneously. Outwardly, the narrative resembles an innocuous romantic bauble. On another level, men hurt women throughout Audition, partially because the men see women as “others” to be enjoyed and procured when convenient—a sentiment that’s alternately celebrated and rued by pop culture, giving the populace a kind of ideological whiplash. (Rom-coms condition us to see lovers as objects aiding us on our paths toward fulfillment.)
Though poignant, Aoyama is nevertheless revealed to have bedded and discarded his assistant, whose pain he’s oblivious to as he pursues a dream woman. (In this and other threads, there are shades of another classic film of male manipulation and self-isolation: Vertigo.) Even innocent Shigehiko confesses to a fear of women, born in part from his dead mother, whose absence failed to prepare him for healthy relationships with the opposite sex. Shigehiko brings home a girl, and Aoyama cheers him on as one might an athlete making a score—a punchline that feels cute and characteristic of the jokes of many American or Japanese rom-coms but becomes retroactively sinister. We’re seeing men reinforce one another’s limited views of women as prizes to be won, which are to complement the men’s notions of themselves.
In the audition process, an exploitation that Miike ironically stages with the cheeriness of a broad comedy, Aoyama becomes quickly stuck on Asami (Eihi Shiina), a young woman who conforms so perfectly to a Japanese ideal of subservience as to seem deranged from the outset. This is one of the film’s great black jokes. Aoyama is so determined to see Asami in a particular way (as a reflection of his own pain) that he misses her personal agency, overlooking her in the way that men in this film habitually overlook women. What Aoyama fails to see in Asami is a chasm of alienation and madness, fostered by the abuse of men, which far exceeds his understanding and experience, and which is expressed by her intelligent yet somewhat affectless eyes and coiled, wiry frame. She’s more than willing to educate him in the ways of her true self, in an act of torture born of vengeance, love, and reckoning.
In many of Miike’s most outrageous films, violence is a matter of gleeful aesthetic that’s impressive but fairly easily shaken off. Though far from being Miike’s most explicit film, Audition is his most disturbing for the patience he displays. Miike mounts a character study that’s rich in psychological ironies, portraying men and women as irreconcilably separated by social boundaries and personal traumas that must eventually be exorcised by violence. Aoyama and Yoshikawa can share a drink and a smoke at a bar and enjoy one another in a way that they can’t enjoy women, which is reflective of the behavior of many men in real life. This sadness, as well as the ghastly asymmetry between Aoyama’s deception and the punishment it eventually incurs, keep the film from being a pat male-hating parable. (As Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns observes in an interview included with this disc, feminism doesn’t enjoy the stature in Japan than it does in the United States.) Like Hitchcock, Miike sympathizes with his male characters, yet he’s enough of an artist to see in his women what his men cannot. The women of this film perceive this mutual male enjoyment and yearn for it, and this is partially what Asami’s torture of Aoyama represents: a demand to be truly seen.
Miike also understands that men pay for their sexism, as this is a source of their feelings of hollowness. When Asami paralyzes Aoyama and sticks him with acupuncture pins and saws his foot off with fine wire, actions which Miike stages with a galvanizing calmness, she traumatizes him while providing him with a perverse catharsis. Aoyama’s fear of women has finally been realized and justified, as he’s seeing the heart of Asami’s sickness. But this interpretation is complicated by several slips in time and perspective. When Aoyama is paralyzed by drugged whisky, he flashes back to dates he’s had with Asami, which gain new significance, and which Miike rhymes with Aoyama’s encounters with other females, most perversely including his son’s date. In these sequences, Miike renders a free-associative vortex of male neuroses, in which women become interchangeable harbingers of longing and pain.
In these recollections/projections, Aoyama also sees images he shouldn’t be able to see, such as Asami’s apartment, to which he’s never been, and a burlap sack that contains a man whom she’s disfigured and taken prisoner, feeding as one might a dog. At a certain point in his drugged state, Aoyama flashes back to the night he slept with Asami in a hotel, only this time he checks his feet with relief to see that they’re still there. Aoyama’s torture and degradation might only be the fantasy of a guilt-ridden man, then, which is but another kind of horror, as this interpretation suggests no catharsis, no bridging of the gulf between Aoyama and Asami.
Asami’s torture of Aoyama suggests an explosion of the pent-up gender hostilities that fuel pop culture. As Audition progresses toward its no-exit finale, Miike gradually informs its atmosphere with the aura of a horror noir, and so the film grows sicker and more neurotic before our eyes. (The turning point is the first glimpse of Asami in her apartment, staring at her phone in anticipation of Aoyama’s call as the human bag sits in a corner. Later, when the phone finally rings, her lips curl into a blood-freezing smile.) Restaurants and alleyways go from being white and sterile to shadowy and inflamed with redness, as Aoyama begins to envision—or hallucinate—fleeting scenes of Grand Guignol atrocity. Yet, unlike many modern horror films, Audition understands such atrocity to be built on a seemingly banal bedrock of illusion, elusion, and accommodation that’s as scary, in its way, as a cooing wraith strapped in fetish gear, who, when confronting a lover, feels as if she’s facing her maker.
This 2K restoration of Audition by Arrow Films is a significant improvement over prior home-video editions, which have often sported soft, splotchy colors. The colors of this image are quite vivid, particularly the blues of the ocean in an early scene and the reds of Asami’s infernal world, but there’s still quite a bit of grain and a sort of brownish tint that are probably inherent to the film’s source materials. Overall, however, this image is attractive, with quite a bit of startling and newly apparent details. The 5.1 channel DTS-HD soundtrack is subtle and disconcertingly immersive, especially in the film’s final act, with aural flourishes distributed astutely across the various speakers. This track is also much cleaner than those of prior editions, with considerably enhanced clarity.
A new audio commentary by Takashi Miike biographer Tom Mes offers a terrific deep dive into Japanese film culture, particularly the straight-to-tape cinema in which Miike began his career. Mes also tackles Audition’s head-spinning thicket of subtexts, elaborating on how Miike foreshadows various events with the repetition of motifs and camera angles. This criticism is complemented by a new interview with Miike and an appreciation by Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns that’s been ported over from a prior edition. Miike admits that he wonders if he disappointed audiences by never making another film with Audition’s impact, while Rayns wrestles with the film’s ambiguous gender themes and how they resound within larger Japanese culture. Interviews with most of the cast members and an audio commentary by Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan have also been carried over from prior editions. This very solid package, rich in observation and context, is rounded out with an assortment of trailers and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin.
Arrow Video outfits the most notorious and profound of modern horror films with a vivid transfer, and with supplements that wrestle intelligently with its many mysteries.
Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura, Renji Ishibashi, Ren Osugi Director: Takashi Miike Screenwriter: Daisuke Tengan Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: February 12, 2019 Buy: Video