Tears for fears: Versatile as well as vulpine, Asia Argento plays in three films during the SF International--one of them being Dario Argento's "Mother of Tears," pictured here with Argento in leather at left. Another, "The Last Mistress," opens the Festival Thursday. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Asia Argento, In Full Flower

Dennis Harvey April 23, 2008

Motherhood has supposedly had a slowing-down effect on Asia Argento, though at present evidence points rather wildly to the contrary. Not only does she star in this week’s San Francisco International Film Festival official opener, Catherine Breillat’s costume intrigue The Last Mistress, she also figures heavily in two other SFIFF features. Both are programmed in the culty "Late Show" section: Go Go Tales, Abel Ferrara’s most acclaimed film in years, and The Mother of Tears, a latest horror opus directed by her own fan-idolized gorehound dad Dario Argento. A couple weeks ago yet another vehicle opened commercially, Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate, which is entirely dominated by her feverish and highly physical performance.

Conventional logic might suggest all this visibility means it’s "breakthrough" time for Asia Argento, that moment when an actor goes from being a familiar face to a marquee name that can singlehandedly draw folks into the multiplex, or at least the arthouse. (In Europe she’s already quite well-known.) But as her project choices among other things bear out, Argento probably isn’t very interested in becoming a "star" in the conventional sense. In fact, she seems the girl most likely to run from any such fate.

Mainstream American audiences know her for one thing: The 2002 action blockbuster xXx, with Vin Diesel as James Bond-with-tattoos-meets-xtreme-sports hero "Xander Cage" and one of the worst would-be catchphrases in recent history ("Welcome to the Xander Zone!"). Asia was his equally hot ‘n’ edgy romantic interest and ally in stopping bad guys from, y’know, ending the world ‘n’ stuff.

When that film got released, a publicity push ensued of the kind that’s typical for Hollywood films but seldom experienced (or desired) by European actors. She did not pursue that avenue further—though you may well still think she’s sexy (or even a "bombshell"). This is, after all, a woman who debuted as a screen actress at age 9—the same year she published her first volume of poetry. Now in her early 30s, Asia Aria Maria Vittoria Rossa Argento has since added to that resume as a fashion photographer, DJ (punk and metal preferred), novelist, singer, avid amateur cook, scenarist and director—the latter on everything from a Marilyn Manson video to two features so far.

The first was 2000’s Scarlet Diva, a deliberately scabrous portrait of a druggy, bisexual, freakaholic Italian actress/multitalent looking for redemption while spiraling out of control. She played the title role. The very different (but equally envelope-pushing) 2004 The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was an adaptation of writings by J.T. LeRoy—the S.F. based alleged ex-prostitute and drug-addicted transsexual author who turned out to be a literary hoax. Argento cast herself as a nightmarishly irresponsible mother to the much-abused effeminate young male protagonist in a highly stylized tale of serial child abuse that also managed to employ Manson, Peter Fonda, Winona Ryder, veteran Italian sexpot Ornella Muti, Lydia Lunch, even cultier musician Hasil Adkins, Jeremy Sisto, and her own onetime fiancee Michael Pitt (Last Days, Funny Games U.S.)

The trilogy of films at SFIFF (plus Boarding Gate) reveal different facets of Asia the Actress. It’s a profession she now wears pretty well. Though philosophical about such things now, Asia—daughter to Italian horrormeister Dario and his ex-wife frequent star Dario Niccolodi—once expressed considerable misgivings about participating in Dad’s horror films (and even earlier, those of his protegee Lamberto Bava). Looking like a less-benevolent Tim Burton, the elder Argento is a master of the macabre whose highly visual artistry perhaps peaked in the ’70s (Suspiria, Four Flies on Grey Velvet), but who remains a champion of the grisly and bizarre—if not of narrative logic or performance sculpting.

She may now enjoy working with Pop, but he hasn’t done her any favors in the artistic-credibility department. That includes Mother of Tears, a late conclusion to the witch trilogy Dario commenced with 1977’s great Suspiria and 1980’s muddled but striking Inferno: It’s that kind of ridiculous I’d watch again in a minute. If Asia can’t summon up a credible performance here, well…who could?

Instead, she earned her acting spurs in other people’s—non-blood-relations that is—movies. It was surprising when she acquitted herself well in supporting Isabelle Adjani’s Queen Margot, a zesty 1994 French costume epic. Thereafter her screen career diversified in fascinating, unpredictable ways: Opposite Michel Piccoli in A Travelling Companion; New Rose Hotel, her first with the transgressive Abel Ferrera (about whom she made a short documentary at the time); frequently naked in 1998’s noirish B. Monkey, a warmup for the extreme character lifestyles of Scarlet Diva and Boarding Gate; as Eponine in a mini-series Les Miserables featuring everyone from Gerard Depardieu and Jeanne Moreau to John Malkovich.

As if that weren’t enough proof of coolness already, she then worked with Jean-Marc Barr, Harvey Keitel, Dennis Hopper, Gus Van Sant, George Romero, Sofia Coppola and Tony Gatlif.

In The Last Mistress she gives a ferocious, larger-than-life performance as a 19th-century Spanish kept woman in France who goes all Fatal Attraction meets Dangerous Liaisons when her younger aristrocratic lover leaves her for newlywed marital fidelity. Stopping just short of Spaneesh-blood-iz-ze-hottest caricature, Argento is on fire. In an entirely different way, so she was as an ex-prostitute fleeing the disastrous end of a longterm S&M relationship (with Michael Madsen!) in Boarding Gate.

Ferrera’s Go Go Tales was unavailable for preview, but one can guess it’s also going to give you more-is-more Asia for your money, particularly as she plays a stripper (at a sleazy NYC club in danger of being bulldozed for a Bed Bath & Beyond) whose "unique" stage act involves the participation of her pet Rottweiler. When you can say an actor’s most "normal" role of late is in a Dario Argento bloodfest, clearly that thespian is attracted to envelope-pushing roles. Or they are attracted to her. Or it’s a mutual thing.

How many languages does she speak? What can’t she do? Her range as actor, director and whatever keeps expanding sans predictable pattern. Clearly, there’s much to look forward to from her. Just what that will be is anyone’s guess—which is perhaps the most exciting thing you can say about any already-historied but still-young talent.