Little Girl Lost
By Genevieve Yue
Dir. Asia Argento, Italy, Sundance Selects
As a director, Asia Argento has yet to advance beyond a notion of “promise.” And judging by her third feature, Misunderstood, it’s starting to look like she never will. The film has been called in some quarters her most accomplished work to date, but like her earlier films it still seems like so much high school poetry. At its best, it revels in the thrill of putting form to one’s experiences, and there’s a palpable excitement in watching nine-year-old Aria (Giulia Salerno) dance with her mother, fall hard for a skater boy, or hang out backstage at a concert. Too often, though, the film indulges in a tedious solipsism and relies on the most hackneyed of coming-of-age tropes to inspire our pity for Aria.
The title Misunderstood is either a misnomer, or itself a misunderstanding of Aria’s plight. It would seem to imply a “problem child” narrative, the rebellious outbursts of a kid who longs for recognition and acceptance, like James Dean’s ne’er-do-well misfits. But this is less East of Eden than Home Alone. The adults in Aria’s life seem to understand her just fine; mostly they just don’t care. For most of the film, Aria is either ignored or entirely forgotten. Caught between two separated parents, each of whom already has a
preferred child from a previous marriage, Aria becomes the symbol of their enmity. She moves from one intolerable household to another, kicked out for minor infractions like bringing home a stray cat, or sometimes just left on her own. In one scene, she joins a band of vagrants huddling in front of a burning garbage barrel, because that’s how bluntly Argento telegraphs Aria’s desire for warmth.
Aria’s misbehaviors are, at worst, low-grade Truffaut antics: smoking in the bathroom, stealing love letters from a neighbor’s mailbox, throwing water balloons at pedestrians, and prank-calling a pervy doorman with promises of revealing pubic hair “like a squirrel.” She’s not even the worst daughter in her family. Lucrezia (Carolina Poccioni), the eldest and her father’s favorite, steals and tattles, and is chubby to boot (between Lucrezia and Fatso, the awkward classmate who torments Aria with his proclamations of love, Misunderstood is unambiguously fat-phobic). The problems she causes for her family are unintentional at best. During a fight with Lucrezia, she breaks a mirror in the home of her superstitious actor father (Gabriel Garko), and she accidentally rats out her concert pianist mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) for drug trafficking. In fact, Aria does much that could be considered good. She endures her parents’ selfish and petty behavior without complaint, she’s loyal to a girl who ultimately friend-dumps her, and she also wins a writing contest with a story about her cat. The latter would be a surprise if anyone were paying attention: though she reminds her parents of the event where she will read her story aloud, their seats remain empty. The only adult to take notice of her is her shrill teacher, who, before pushing Aria onstage, urges her to make her look good.
Ironically, the people most misunderstood in this film are the adults, which is pretty much everyone that’s not Aria. Those accused of misunderstanding are so sketchily drawn that Argento could have practically staged cardboard cutouts in their place. Gainsbourg swills wine and pounds her way through Rachmaninoff. The father theatrically complains of migraines, then loudly slams the door. One of her mother’s boyfriends, Jack, is a punk who stabs a knife into the wall. With characterizations this shallow, it’s hard to attribute much in the way of motivation. Why does everyone treat Aria so spitefully, when her behavior seems well within the range of a bright, curious child? Why does the mother turn the occasion of her daughter’s birthday party into a coke binge? Why do the schoolchildren invited to Aria’s party tear apart the entire house? The film’s sense of injury undoubtedly comes from the injustice of Aria’s torments, but this conceit is stretched to the point of absurdity. As if malice and neglect were not enough, there are also intimations of sexual violence. While paying with dolls, Aria directs Ken to assault Barbie. Her best friend, Angelica, complains: “Why does he always end up raping her?” To which Aria responds, “Because that’s how it is!”
The demonic cruelty of Aria’s world may seem Dickensian, but unlike Oliver Twist, Aria isn’t delivered into any kindness, and she doesn’t find a rightful place for herself. We may believe she perseveres, thanks to the dignity in Salerno’s performance, but the film offers little in the way of development. Things actually seem to get worse: Aria attempts suicide at least once, if not twice, and it is unclear whether the results of this—both parents rush to the scene and express proper concern—really happen or are Aria’s fantastical inventions. These are moments of compelling tenderness, and the connection of physical pain to parental attention is poignant and troubling, especially for a child so desperate for her parents’ love. But the film doesn’t follow through on these weightier moments, and mom and dad swiftly return to being vain pricks.
Argento doesn’t seem to see the intrinsic sympathy one might share with Aria simply by the resilient and remarkably composed Salerno’s presence. Instead, she runs her heroine through a gauntlet of heartless adults and monstrous children to constantly remind us of her suffering. The point is made so relentlessly that it starts to have the opposite effect. We start to mistrust the events as they’re presented, and things become increasingly distorted. The director’s manipulating hand feels close by.
Clearly there’s something of Aria in Asia: both grew up in Italy in the eighties, and in the shadow of distant, famous fathers. According to one unreliable Internet source, Argento’s birth certificate bears the name “Aria,” because “Asia” wasn’t recognized as a legitimate name by the Italian authorities. Misunderstood make the most sense from an autobiographical perspective. To take this film as Argento’s account of herself is to experience it as an elaborate defense. Though we may not expect a case to be argued for in this or any other bildungsroman, Argento ardently pleads Aria’s innocence, so much so that it turns vulgar. At the film’s conclusion, Aria addresses the camera directly. “I tell you all this not to make you feel sorry for me, but just so you will understand me better. And maybe, be a little bit nicer.”
Here is a girl who, earlier in the film, learned from her mother not to play the victim. Yet all that’s happened since has been a long and detailed list of Aria’s grievances. This bald display of self-pity all but obliterates any of the goodwill Salerno has earned along the way. Instead of asking viewers to be nice—an oddly tepid request, but one nevertheless implicitly about the director herself—Argento might have offered the same kindness toward the other characters she depicts. Perhaps then Misunderstood would have graduated from adolescent promise to maturity and become a film full of understanding, and maybe even generosity, for her own small self and the complex lives of those who shaped her.