A neo-Fassbinderian taxonomist of freak-show love, Italian director Matteo Garrone—whose previous film, The Embalmer, was surely the best ever threesome movie involving a gay dwarf taxidermist—returns with an eating-disorder Pygmalion. As a rule, blind dates that open with the guy telling the girl he pictured her thinner tend to be a bust, but against the odds, Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan), a goldsmith whose creepy air of abstraction suggests under- or overmedication, successfully seduces nervous art-school model Sonia (Michela Cescon), who at about 55 kilos needs to shed at least a quarter of her body mass to fully satisfy him.

Sonia submits to Vittorio’s harsh weight-loss regimen—counting calories in the kitchen, monitoring her anorexic regress on a sheet of graph paper, and meekly allowing him to buy her impossibly tight dresses. But as the experiment proceeds, Vittorio gets more fanatical and suspicious, recalibrating the scales to prevent any cheating; Sonia, sinking deeper into atrophied disorientation, has an increasingly difficult time heeding his distressed cries of “non mangiare!” Cescon convincingly renders Sonia’s desperate, physical hunger—she sinks her teeth into a raw onion that appears to her as a plump chicken drumstick, and in the forbidden bite that precipitates the inevitable tragic climax, gives in to a glistening forkful of fettuccine.

An undercurrent of gallows humor ripples through the film, but Garrone’s main objective—which he only partly accomplishes—is to tap into the emotional truth of a tabloid scenario. Probing the trust-based power games of a sadomasochistic dynamic, the movie is a reasonably thoughtful study of obsessive love—the sweeping orchestral score is presumably meant to induce Vertigo. But Garrone glibly locates the key to Vittorio’s psychology in his profession—his voice-over repeatedly equates his girlfriend with a gold ingot, an object to be smelted and reduced: “Remove everything . . . only what’s precious remains.” The cruel, foreshadowed punchline—arrived at perhaps too easily—is that compulsive whittling leaves you not with an essential, ineffable something but with absolutely nothing.