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Audiences at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival might have been less surprised by a glimpse of Asia Argento's anus—the sole body part she has yet to bare on-screen—than the revelation that somehow, somewhere, she had become not only the most fearless actor of her generation, but also one of the most intelligent and commanding. Premiering within days of each other came a pair of intense, quizzical, bracingly confident star turns. In Boarding Gate, a deceptively off-hand, deeply strange thriller by Olivier Assayas, Argento plays an ex-hooker caught up in kinky sex and shady global capitalism. In The Last Mistress, a brainy bodice-ripper from Catherine Breillat, she hits a career high—tears, in fact, the roof off that gilt-paneled motherfucker—as a savagely energetic, supremely volitional courtesan. Together with her instantly infamous cameo as a stripper on intimate terms with a slobber-mouthed Rottweiler in Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, Argento's Croisette trifecta earned her the sobriquet the "Queen of Cannes," some long-overdue critical respect, and pride of place in the jerk-off fantasies of submissive cinephiles worldwide.
More on the excellence of her sophomore film as writer-director, an unfairly reviled adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2004), in a moment. The story of Asia rising goes back to 1993, when, at the age of 16, she disrobed for her father, legendary giallo maestro Dario Argento, in the aptly named thriller Trauma. Going back to that squirmy moment confirms that Asia has always been the least embarrassed of performers, as comfortable flaunting her tits as she is flubbing through the silliest of roles. Not that she lacks all sense of discretion: Her signature tattoo, a large winged angel splayed across her lower abdomen as if triumphantly ascending from her vagina, was so placed, she has said, in order to hide it from her parents as a teenager.
The cat was out of the bag by 1996, when Asia took the starring role in The Stendhal Syndrome, another of her father's preposterous sex thrillers. She plays, in a spectacularly unconvincing bit of casting, Detective Anna Manni of the Roman "Anti-Rape Department." Notable as the first Italian movie granted permission to shoot inside the Uffizi Gallery, Stendhal opens as Anna, following up on an anonymous tip concerning a serial rapist/killer, hallucinates herself into masterpieces. Standing before Landscape With the Fall of Icarus (long attributed to Bruegel the Elder and not, in fact, hung anywhere in Italy), Anna swoons from a spell of the eponymous condition, imagining herself plunged to the ocean's depths in the company of a grotesque fish monster eager to suck face. Anna is revived by a handsome stranger—the killer—and passes the remainder of the film being stripped, raped, cut, punched, and raped again before descending into madness and murdering first her lover (bullet to the head), then her shrink (car trunk repeatedly bashed on skull).
Flash-forward a decade, and Asia is back by her father's side in another shamelessly lurid picture, the irrepressible slapdashterpiece Mother of Tears. Premiered in a midnight slot at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival to coincide with Argento's 67th birthday, MOT concerns the misadventures of an art restorer who uncorks an occult-kitsch apocalypse—goth zombies, satanic orgies, mass suicide, earthquakes, riots, road rage, infanticide, psychic lesbians, evil monkeys—after releasing a vengeful witch from an ancient urn. Where Asia stumbled through Stendhal looking awfully lost—understandable, given the insolently phony nature of the role—she moves through Mother with an off-kilter combination of disinterest and duty, as if buffering herself from a goofy fiasco while simultaneously trusting, instinctively, the delectable excesses of the material. As purely pleasurable a film as either Argento has made, Mother is predicated on the giddy camp volatility of outrageous absurdities perpetuated—and suffered—with as much conviction as possible.
Key to Asia's electrifying presence is her guileless, resolute commitment to the silly, sleazy, horny, hysterical, ill-advised, over-the-top, out-of-control. These are human qualities like any other, but name an actor who fleshes them out with comparable seriousness and élan. Enter the uninhibited, pseudo-autobiographical Scarlet Diva (2000), Argento's feature debut as writer-director and, by her own admission, something of a personal cine-exorcism. "I have," confesses actress Anna Battista (Argento) to her rock-star lover, "an oblique personality which is directly proportioned to what's around me." The things around her make up a sort of Euro-trash walpurgisnacht: obnoxious groupies, lascivious movie producers, drug dealers, jet-setting, desultory buttsex, s&m gone awry, gnarly K-holes, botched photo shoots, tender admissions that what she really wants to do is direct . . .
And she did, with tremendous virulence of vision, in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which had the misfortune to be released in the wake of the JT Leroy revelations and the consequent resentment of a suckered media. Charged with crimes against authenticity by a culture that, from Reena Spaulings to reality TV, could hardly give less of a shit, The Heart was double-damned for taking on a monstrously debased childhood for its subject, then committing to represent it with unflinching directness and disquieting lyricism. It's a terrific, troubling achievement, a compendium of horrors radiated by queasy but authentic empathy, perfectly realized in its tone of ecstatic abjection. Argento may be the only director equipped to fully inhabit—no fear, no hesitation, sans judgment or distancing irony—the rapt, despoiled consciousness of Jeremiah, its young protagonist (an astonishing Jimmy Bennett). And she is definitely the only actor who could (would?) embody, undaunted, the abysmal mother Sarah, and make us see, whether we want to or not, both the tragedy of her narcissism and the tenderness inherent even when she's at her most criminally negligent.
Critics balked so hard they verbally barfed ("execrable," "unwatchable," "overbearing," "vile beyond redemption"), but filmmakers recognized an exquisite resource. Gus Van Sant gave her a cameo in Last Days as a thong-wearing phantom haunting a crypto-Cobain mansion; George Romero armed her against the zombie menace in Land of the Dead, and Sofia Coppola cast her, brilliantly, as the Comtesse du Barry in Marie Antoinette (2006), which served as a test run for Asia's monumental performance in The Last Mistress.
"A courtesan on the wane," per society gossip, "and very vulgar, I hear," Lady Vellini is rumored to be the "illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a famed Spanish matador, [who] led a shady life in Seville before being rescued by a marriage to a wealthy English baronet." She is introduced as an odalisque, horizontal on a daybed as she greets her long-time lover, the aristocratic Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou). When she rises, the movie rises with her—alert, on guard, tumescent. The Last Mistress tells, in flashback, of the explosive affair between these two, starting from Vellini's intractable dismissal of de Marigny's advances, proceeding through a duel for her affections that leaves him wounded but alive, on to a lightning reversal of mind that brings her lips to his hairless chest, sucking his blood in amorous rapture.
Critic Amy Taubin has chastised male critics who, bewildered by Argento's volcanic dynamism, resort to language ("creature," "force of nature," "volcanic dynamism," etc.) that strips her of will. That's exactly right: Argento may be a conduit for massive energies, but she determines the course and point of release. Vellini isn't passively in thrall to a cataract of passion; she evaluates options, sizes up sentiments, thinks through implications, then acts on a choice. When she goes, she goes all the way. The extreme distances crossed by Argento, her dauntless reach beyond the boundaries of comfort and taste, may give vent to vast intuitive resources, but they're powered by hard-earned, fully conscious prerogative. "Some may see her as a creature," says de Marigny, "but she's a woman of great nobility."