Book review: Dario Argento by L. Andrew Cooper

An entry in the James Naremore-edited Contemporary Film Directors series, L. Andrew Cooper’s book on giallo king Dario Argento was released in October 2012, but until recently I was unaware of it. I picked it up earlier this month, taking advantage of the (at the time) incredibly low price of the Kindle version on — a mere £1.85. It’s now back up to a rather steeper £11.15, but even at that price there’s still a lot to recommend in it, even for those who’ve already read the established Argento tomes like Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds and Chris Gallant’s Art of Darkness.

An Assistant Professor in Film and Digital Media at the University of Louisville, Cooper understandably adopts the approach of an academic rather than a fan, meaning that his book has more in common with the two titles mentioned above than, say, Alan Jones’s various writings. That in itself is no bad thing, particularly given that Cooper uses this approach to shed new light on Argento’s filmography, offering up a variety of new theories that in some respects directly contradict prevailing interpretations of these films. Rather than being divided into chapters, the book takes the form of a single essay, Doing Violence on Film, which jumps back and forth through Argento’s filmography in a manner which initially seems somewhat scattershot, but in fact allows Cooper to develop a coherent argument in a way that would have been less easy had he gone for the traditional chronological approach.

Beginning with a chapter on OPERA (1987) and THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996), Cooper argues that these films work primarily as a response to critics who have attacked Argento and his work, casting them as sadistic voyeurs themselves who force the films and their fans to conform to their own warped viewpoint. He then jumps back to the beginning of Argento’s directorial career, examining the “Animal Trilogy” of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), THE CAT O’NINE TAILS (1971) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971), arguing against the prevailing notion that these films (and the giallo in general) are steeped in Freudian psychoanalysis and instead suggesting that, far from embracing this largely discredited theory, the films in fact expressly REJECT it. I found this section to be the most interesting part of the book, offering as it does a genuinely fresh reading of the films that challenges received wisdom on them.

From the Animal Trilogy, Cooper continues down the giallo path with analyses of DEEP RED (1975) and TENEBRAE (1982), before doubling back to examine the “Three Mothers” trilogy of SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980) and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007) and the giallo/horror hybrid PHENOMENA (1985) as anti-narrative films which privilege aesthetics above all else — the prevailing view among many of Argento’s work as a whole. Except, Cooper suggests, such an assumption would be incorrect, going on to argue that Argento’s post-OPERA output has been characterised by an increasing emphasis on logic and narrative at the expense of the visual thrills that once defined his films. I must admit I found this part of the essay less convincing: while it’s true that, since the mid-90s onwards, Argento’s films have become less visually spellbinding, I’m not convinced that this has been accompanied by any great increase in narrative coherence. Indeed, I’d argue that the only post-OPERA film that is LESS opaque than his 70s output is SLEEPLESS (2001), which no doubt benefited from the input of acclaimed giallo novelist Carlo Lucarelli.

I was also disappointed by the failure to provide any analysis of Argento’s non-giallo output post-INFERNO (which the exception of MOTHER OF TEARS), passed over without any explanation other than a statement that the remit of the remainder of the essay is the “tensions” that exist between his earlier and more recent gialli. This is regrettable since, while I don’t regard THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998) or his two MASTERS OF HORROR episodes highly at all, I would have welcomed a reading that subjected them to the same incisive analysis found elsewhere in the essay. More broadly, I also wonder at what sort of audience the book is targeted. Those already familiar with Argento could probably do without the extended narrative description, which is redundant if you already know the films, while those who don’t know the films will probably want to avoid the book altogether on account of spoilers (all of the killers are identified, destroying the whodunit element that is so crucial to the enjoyment of most of these films).

The essay is bookended by translations of a couple of brief interviews with Argento originally conducted in French; I’m not sure why these were included other than to pad out the book’s length.

Overall I found this an enjoyable read which at times challenged my own long-held opinions about these films, even if I wasn’t convinced by every idea floated. There are some notable oversights, namely Argento’s later horror output and the atypical political comedy LE CINQUE GIORNATE (1973), but it’s an admirable attempt to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy relating to Argento’s cinema.