In her directing as in her acting, Asia Argento exudes a wounded intensity that brings to mind a very young child who doesn’t know how to get the attention she craves except by acting out. Misunderstood, her third feature as a director, is only slightly dependent on the self-pity that informed her last effort, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but it feels similarly airless. You never question the authenticity of the emotions, but you may get tired of the operatic way in which they’re expressed, and of the solipsism that exempts the main character from any attempt to understand others while bemoaning the fact that no one loves or understands her.
That limited perspective is less jarring than usual because the main character is a child, nine-year-old Aria (Giulia Salerno). Plunging into the heart of Aria’s dysfunctional family from the first volcanic scene, a family dinner in which Madre (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sulks and terrorizes the children while Padre (Gabriel Garko) lashes out at her, Argento captures a child’s-eye view of chaos and volatility of a blended family headed by two charismatic narcissists, whose approach to parenting is to either smother their daughters with adoring but alarmingly boundary-free attention or reject them out of hand. Even the colors are saturated, the blues and greens Argento favors drawing even more attention to Salerno’s wide blue eyes.
Not surprisingly, the parents separate soon after that opening scene, leaving Aria to shuttle between their two households, not quite at home in either one. Salerno’s enormous, searching eyes, the gravity of her bearing, and the fury with which she commits to Aria’s stormy emotions make it impossible not to feel for the girl, especially when even her half-sister, Lucrezia (Carolina Poccioni), a poisonous cream puff, takes her father’s favor as a license to treat her sister with cruel contempt. In their father’s apartment, where Lucrezia has a lavish pink room while Aria sleeps in a spare room crowded with extra stuff, Aria is Cinderella all over again.
But the scenes establishing her parents’ neglect and Lucrezia’s torments start to feel repetitive after a while, as Madre keeps going abroad for an unspecified period of time with her skeezy lover, Padre keeps raging at Madre and ignoring her, and both repeatedly fail to be there when their daughter needs them. Aria herself gets a little tiresome as her constant refrain about being unloved begins to suggest a narcissist’s inability to truly connect with anyone. The boundary-dissolving, us-against-the-world identification between Aria and her best friend, Angelica (Alice Pea), seems sweet and age-appropriate at first, the two assuring each other that they’re different than everyone else and just like one another—until Angelica breaks away and accuses Aria, with a fury that indicates years of frustration, of having been forced to do things that made her uncomfortable. Without Angelica, Aria is as isolated at school as she is at home, snubbed by all her classmates except one poor love-struck sap whom she treats as badly as the others treat her. Even Aria’s cat usually seems eager to break free when she grabs him for a needy hug, oblivious to his pinned-back ears and scrabbling feet.
If any doubts remain by the end as to whether this is a portrait of a young narcissist or the story of a strong-willed, sensitive young girl who’s neglected at home and bullied at school, the self-deluded, self-pitying final shot tips the scale in favor of the former. Staring at the camera with a look of wide-eyed innocence, Aria says in voiceover: “I didn’t tell you all this to play the victim, but so that you know me a little better. And perhaps so that now, you will be a bit kinder with me.” She may not have intended to play the victim, but that’s just what she wound up doing. And surely all that bullying should have taught her that asking people to be nicer to you just hardens most of their hearts that much more.