Asia Argento's new film Misunderstood is a gut-wrenching and fun (yes, fun) story of an unhappy childhood, loosely based, it seems, on the director's own. The protagonist is a winsome 9-year-old child, Aria, played marvelously by Giulia Salerno, with blue open incredulous eyes and a ready giggle. In the first scene, a family dinner, we get the idea of her environment: her father, a famous actor, whips salt violently over his left shoulder, to "ward off bad spirits", and then proceeds to verbally abuse each of the family members. The wife punches one of the daughters. Daughter Aria refuses to eat her meatballs and later throws them out the window. After this happy family dinner, the mother (played by a captivating Charlotte Gainsbourg), a concert pianist, goes off to bang on the piano while the father screams: "I have a migraine!" In the next scene, the parents are divorced.
The person who suffers the most in this chaotic family is Aria. The youngest of three sisters, she is ignored as the runt of the litter by both parents, when not arbitrarily beaten by one of them. The vain father, in his mod sunglasses and flounced blonde hair, is obsessed with his film career and tormented by his mad superstitions. "A broken mirror!" he screams in terror, getting ready to pounce. The immature mother, narcissistically involved with her lovers, dances about in flamboyant pant-suits, smokes pot, makes-out on the couch and, more often than not, runs off to an island vacation, leaving the girls alone with the housekeeper. A heartbreaking scene: when Aria sweetly offers a mother a homemade present, a bracelet of flower petals, which the mother distractedly leaves behind, off to another voyage.
As for Aria's siblings: Her older half-sister Lucretia, who dresses (hilariously) only in pink, treats her like an unwanted rival and gloats whenever the kid sister is cast out the door. The other sibling is barely present. Aria's greatest source of affection comes from a stray black cat she finds in the street. Throughout the film, Aria carries this cat, in his cage, back and forth between her parents' homes, each time one or the other kicks her out. "A black cat!" her father screams in horror.
What is exceptional about this film is that it not only portrays, from a sensitive female perspective, the pain and bewilderment a child goes through in a turbulent unstable home, but it reminds us that nonetheless, whatever happens, childhood is still childhood: i.e. full of adventure and fun. The film oscillates between scenes of these comically selfish parents with scenes of the children's mad mischievous explorations. Aria has a soul-mate best friend, with whom she invents a physical code of hand gestures. The two embark on pranks, such as stealing letters from an apartment complex; they play dolls, where one Barbie rapes another. Typical growing-up experiences sprinkle the film with charm: the first cigarette (after which the girls vomit in a toilet); the first love with a boy (which leads to rejection), the first encounter with a rock star (starry-eyed Aria is scooped in the rocker's arms).
If there is anything at fault in this film it lies precisely in its charm: sometimes the humor, a form of detachment, outweighs the pain, and it is only the tear in the eye of the child that reminds us that this experience is truly hell. The music, including obscure 80s rock and four tunes invented by the director herself, keeps the film lively and fun, but at times, silence would be more effective. The most powerful scene in the film: When needy 9-year-old Aria asks her mother to breast-feed her. The grown child suckling at her mother's breast is a terrifying image, without music or words.
I met with Asia Argento in the lounge of the Cannes Silencio bar to discuss. She came in with a lively hello, smoking a cigarette, dressed in jeans and a "Bad Luck" black T-shirt. On her hands, rings with crosses on it; on her wrists, bracelets with the same icon. Each of her fingers was tattooed with obscure symbols in black ink.
She clearly is her own person.
The first obvious question is whether Asia is also the abused child in the film. After all, Asia's legal birth name is Aria, like her protagonist, and she too is the daughter of a famous film professional, in her case, director Dario Argento. She even has a black cat, like her protagonist (although hers is named Rambo). And the scene of the girls stealing the post from a local building is, Asia confided, a real anecdote from her past. She actually shot this scene in the real building, encountering -- so many years later -- the same concierge who chased the girls out.
So is this movie autobiographical?
"I don't think the question is relevant," said Asia, obviously used to answering this by now. "Like Fellini said, all art is autobiographical. The pearl is the autobiography of the oyster."
"I think the story of my film is universal. I think we have all experienced injustices as children. I am wary of people who say they have had a perfect childhood, who pretend they have experienced no injustices. Without facing [the past], they are capable of perpetrating these injustices on their children. I am concerned with children. Their innocence must be preserved at all costs. The wounds you experience as a child remain with you all your life. Like what happens to Aria, when her mother rejects the bracelet she gives her."
As for family, her point was even more trenchant:
"The family is not a democracy. It is a totalitarian regime! Children are subjected to their parents' egos. In my film, the parents are self absorbed; they are not evil. They are self seeking egomaniacs. They get along with the children from previous marriages, because they are mirrors to them. Aria threatens their ego, as she does not act as a mirror."
And why did Asia decide to write such a painful story as a comedy?
"A way to remind us of the pain of childhood without putting a knife in the wound and twisting." She pantomimed a blade twisting into her chest. "When I was writing this movie, with a friend of mine, the process of writing the story was so funny, we were laughing hard--at this father and mother. It is obviously a very strange humor."
The most pressing question: how does a child survive such a past? The little girl Aria is so unloved she has to invent a guardian angel to come to the school, to witness her getting an award, since her parents' chairs are empty.
"It is a miracle to survive such a childhood without becoming a fucked up artist or a drug addict!" Asia said with gusto.
She leaned forward:
"Art is a gift. You receive it. It is the same as having blue eyes. You have to really have to take care of the gift. You have to take care of the medium, this channel, that comes thrugh you and that you give to the world. This is my belief. I think you are born with this gift. It is a child you have to nurture."
It is a gift that led Asia to create -- in effect -- a new "family": her film crew.
"At this point, my life it is not about what I can do, but what I must do. Now I feel good. I feel this deep calm inside. Being a filmmaker is group work. It is democracy. In making this film, I did not feel alone. It was a synergy of minds. It meant working with the DP, the costume director, the art director, the make-up artist. Everybody was going towards the same aim, the same target. I created this deep sense of calm [in myself] that nothing can take away. It is not an ego thing. It's because we all did it together. In that, there is huge calmness. It also moved me to see the film working, when everything came together, the lights, the costumes."
"It was liberating," she concluded.