Primo Amore is as moody as Matteo Garrone’s previous feature, The Embalmer, from which it seems to have pilfered much of its metaphoric import: Somewhere in the woods of Verona, in a gothic abode that may have been an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a goldsmith, Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan), and an art-school model, Sonia (Michela Cescon), enact a masochistic game that could have been concocted by Catherine Breillat. Taxidermy and goldsmithing are Garrone’s points of departure for his audio-sensory anatomies of physical obsession: Just as the creepy taxidermist from The Embalmer sees the foxy Valerio Foglia Manzillo in the same way he does the dead animals he preserves, the Pygmalion-esque Vittorio looks to shape Sonia’s body as he does the gold trinkets in his smithing shop. Call the film Anatomy of Jenny Craig.
Like the opening scenes of Hiroshima Mon Amour and Father and Son, Primo Amore‘s best sequence evokes the unrest of its character’s lives in the way they wrap their bodies around each other. Garrone displays a profound affection for the shape of things—it’s as if he’s looking at the hands, fingers, nipples, and the many imperfections of the human body from some mystical beyond. Vittorio, though, doesn’t share Garrone’s respect for Sonia’s barely overweight body, or the gently flowing grass outside his Verona home (which brings to mind the sensuous ripples in the sand from Hiroshi Teshigahara’s famous Woman in the Dunes), wooing her after an uncomfortable blind date if only to get her to move in with him and help her to shed the excess weight.
Though Garrone doesn’t concern himself with the niceties of exposition (Sonia seems to agree to Vittorio’s masochistic weight-loss program somewhere in the film’s off-screen space), he does have a way of pointing out the obvious (“Don’t ever disappear,” says Vittorio to his starving girlfriend), in essence making the film’s ambiguities feel anything but. Primo Amore‘s wordless art-school sequences are stunning for showing (literally) the different ways men perceive the female body, but Garrone’s contemporary concerns seem at odds with the gothic-y underpinnings of his aesthetic approach. It’s as if the entirety of the film—pitched somewhere between Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse and Francois Ozon’s Criminal Lovers—has been built around a single smithing metaphor. Because this erratic tonality fails to establish or reinforce any sort of dialectic between reality and artifice, the film seems bewildered, not unlike Sonia, whose attraction to Vittorio isn’t believable. But that she allows herself to be shamed by the man suggests that she isn’t nearly as confident as she leads on. That, then, may be the film’s bitter truth.