In the fall of 2019, when Film at Lincoln Center’s extensive Dario Argento retrospective was first scheduled to premiere, it seemed possible to catch a screening of Suspiria in New York City without even intending to. When the 1977 film wasn’t showing at midnight at a repertory house, it was playing on mute, filtered through projectors’ bulbs at image-conscious bars, clubs, and parties frequented by denizens of a new scene whose headquarters were a stone’s throw from Metrograph Theaters.
Beware of Dario Argento finally starts soon, albeit uptown at Lincoln Center. The program, presented in partnership with Cinecitta, will feature the world premiere of 17 new 4K restorations overseen by Argento himself, plus 35mm screenings of Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007), alongside rare showings of deeper cuts like The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), 2012’s Dracula 3D (in 3D), and the Harvey-Keitel-led Edgar Allen Poe adaptation The Black Cat (1990).
Acknowledging the sneaking sense that his fans were trending younger, Argento told Italian newspaper la Repubblica earlier this year, “my retrospectives are full of kids. It’s the mystery of my films, the succession of generations.” Argento’s chromatic, archly composed aesthetic holds obvious appeal for the Instagram and Tiktok generations. But as organizer Tyler Wilson argues, his popularity can be traced back decades, through his influence on American slasher films up to and beyond directors like Nicolas Winding Refn, Julie Ducournau, and even Wes Anderson. The question of “Why now?” could have been answered easily at any point in the last 30 or 40 years. “It’s sort of overdue to look at Argento’s career as a whole,” Wilson says, distinguishing series focused on early giallo fare and/or Suspiria from FLC’s nearly comprehensive slate.
Argento will appear in person to present his debut film Bird with a Crystal Plumage (1970) and Tenebrae (1982). The latter, about a crime novelist whose writing inspires a serial killer, represents a shift toward self-reflexivity in the director’s career. “For lack of a better phrase, he sort of doubles down on a lot of the criticism that was leveled at him early in his career,” Wilson says.
Tenebrae also marks an incline in Argento’s tendency to insert himself into his work through the women in his family, to increasingly chilling effect both on–screen and off. On set, Argento was alleged to have tormented his then–wife, actress Daria Nicolodi, believing she was romantically involved with her co-star. Nicolodi has described her improvised, comically sustained scream at the film’s close as a “cathartic release from the whole nightmare.” Daughter Asia later claimed that moment inspired her to become an actress.
Later working with Asia, Argento frequently pushed the limits of meta-narrative beyond the point of good taste. In The Stendhal Syndrome, for example, the director’s career-spanning fixation on Freudian analysis seems to edge its way to the front of the camera, with Asia appearing in several graphic scenes of sexual assault. “The trajectory of his filmmaking can only go deeper and deeper in continuing to explore trauma, and it’s going to inevitably get more uncomfortable and disturbing,” Wilson says. “I think that’s what you start to see in those later films in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Like any good retrospective, Beware is valuable for its sweep, and the perspective that viewing an unedited body of work grants into an artist’s career and psyche.
Of course, external forces have also shaped Argento’s trajectory. Wilson cites the vicissitudes of the business as an inescapable influence. The director’s latest work, the 20-years-in-the-making Dark Glasses, is a prime example. After an original investor pulled out due to bankruptcy, the project was shelved indefinitely. “You can’t really look at his work without bearing in mind those contradictions,” Wilson explains. “There is the practical Italian film industry, which always had its emphasis on genre and quick deadline-driven production practices.” For that ethos, we have Argento’s gialli.
The retrospective arrives at a fortuitous time for Argento, fresh off a critically acclaimed acting debut in Gaspar Noe’s Vortex and the premiere of Black Glasses in March. For Wilson, there’s no time like the present for an Argento series. “Some people might find the work off-putting, but indifference is very rare,” he states, citing audiences’ strong reactions to the director’s work as one reason they play so well with an audience. He recalls seeing Suspiria for the first time in a theater in 2017. More than the visuals or the iconic score by Goblin, it was the crowd’s energy that made a lasting impression. “It was a good reminder of how, in spite of how dark his films can be thematically, they’re still quite knowing and fun,” he says. “When you’re seeing it with a group, there’s this collective understanding of how artificial Argento realizes what he’s doing and playing with [are]. Things don’t feel as disturbing and frightening with a crowd.” Who would have thought this would be the best way to welcome back squeamish NYC moviegoers?
Beware of Dario Argento runs June 17-29 at Film at Lincoln Center.
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