Thursday, November 01, 2007

What have you done to Solange?

It is a bit late for a post on a horror film but it's been a lean few weeks here at dispatches lately. So better late than never since I wanted to mention this excellent horror film I saw some time back anyway. I am not really a big fan of Italian giallo films though I must say I have seen only a few so far, all by Dario Argento actually. Suspiria annoyed me a little and I was irritated by the gore and the sheer nastiness of Tenebre. His earlier films The Bird with a Crystal Plumage and Deep Red are comparatively subdued when it comes to gratuitous gore, may be that's why I liked them a bit more. Still, I am surprised by how seriously he is taken by many viewers, not just gorehounds and horror-geeks but also serious film critics, specially those of the psychoanalytical bend.

What have you done to Solange? ticks off all the genre trademarks. Lots of gratuitous nudity, a stylish black-gloved killer with a sharp knife dispatching one pretty girl after another in increasingly nasty ways, a music score that will get inside your skin and haunt you long after you have finished watching the film, very stylish cinematography with lots of pans and zooms and of course, last but not the least, bad dubbing into English. (Don't worry about getting the original copy, the original Italian dubbing is generally weird too, that's part of the package I think.)

Even by the normal giallo standards the basic plot of Solange is quite sordid and sensationalist. The story is set in an all-girls high school in London. Enrico Rossini, a young and handsome (and hirsute) Italian teacher of Gymnastics is having an extra-marital affair with one of his teenaged pupils named Elizabeth. One day when they are out canoodling on a drifting boat in a lake, Elizabeth sees a shining knife and a girl running away from it. She is not sure if it was real or just some hallucination but soon enough we get to know a girl has really been murdered near that very spot. Soon some more girls die by the hands of the black-gloved all in a similar horrible fashion that I don't want to mention here (fortunately we are spared the graphic details). When Elizabeth is also found murdered, after being drowned in her bathtub, Enrico himself takes on the task of finding out who the killer is. Interestingly the name of Solange is not even mentioned till the very end of the film and it is only in the final reels we get the answer posed in the title of the film and it is very horrible. Solange herself appears and though she has only a few scenes she has a haunting presence, she is almost like a ghost.

The main point of contention with these films is of course the violence shown against women. On top of that often it is highly sexualised in nature. The killer wields his weapon as a kind-of phallic substitute and in this film quite literally so (yes it is very horrible). Though in a few films of Argento viewer's expectations are confounded when the killer is revealed to be a woman (I won't reveal which ones.) What I think makes these films different is the ambivalence with which they tackle sexuality and representation of gender. On one hand the camera never misses a chance to zoom in on an exposed breast and on the other hand it also betrays a reactionary attitude of a male sexual panic about the perceived horrors of female sexual liberation. In one of the scenes in Solange Enrico mournfully muses about "these young girls, who are not even sixteen and are surrounded by secret boyfriends, orgies and lesbian games." This is the same guy who is himself having a secret affair with one such girl. Is it hypocrisy of the film or a genuine naivete and ambivalence? One's appreciation of this film will depend on how you see this.

What particularly interested me and what distinguishes it from Argento's giallo is that the killings are not used merely as an excuse to devise and design elaborate set-pieces but rather they are deeply linked to the main story and its themes and characters. Even though it is only in the end that we realize the real purpose and the horrible meaning behind the peculiar way of killing, throughout the film the scenes are edited in such a way to add some really interesting layers and meanings to what could have been a straightforward brutal scene. Sometimes it is cut to Elizabeth having hallucinations about a knife when she is actually in bed with Enrico resulting in some kind of a premature end to their lovemaking. At other times she wakes from her horrible dreams with what seems like orgasmic shrieks giving the killings a really perverse and interesting spin. When the killer spares her the brutal method he uses for other girls, we are not surprised to learn that she was actually a virgin (in a technical sense of course). All this is actually a red herring but then may be not. You have to see yourself to find the solution of the mystery.

The other important factor which contributes to the film's success is the score by Ennio Morricone, specially the mournful main theme which plays in the title sequence which shows the girls riding their bicycles as if mourning and lamenting the loss of a prelapsarian innocence and pre-sexual idyll, longing for an age when young girls used to be innocent. This is a sleazy film no-doubt but also a great film. Some may find its hypocrisy dishonest and others a sign of innocent and ambivalent naivete but I am sure no one will find it dull. This may be a bit too horrifying for young girls but otherwise highly recommended. (I think in a way it can also be used as a good propaganda film by pro-abstinence groups :))

I will suggest not to read too much about the film but some stills and more details for those who are more interested here and here. Trailer of the film here.


KUBLA KHAN said...

I have made a note of this genre, unknown to me till now. I find this stuff interesting and will watch try to watch a few in the future.

js said...

I will try to check this out sometime as well-- I loved Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for The Mission & his work in general. Another film I'd recommend is Insomnia, both the version which was filmed in Norway and the one filmed in Alaska.

Alok said...

kubla: this film in particular is quite good. i am pretty sure that other films of the genre are not to everybody's taste.

js: thanks for reminding about Insomnia. I have seen the american remake and always wanted to see the original version from Norway. Will check it out soon.

Morricone's score in this film is really distinctive and very memorable, specially the way it adds mournfulness and a different dimension to the basic sensationalist story.

Sunil said...

Hmm I have to catch up with your posts.

Well Giallo. Bit underrated which I think is because Europe and the world in general around that time was blown away by suspense after intriguing suspense alongside the great noir. Horror wasn’t exactly the flavour of the month.

If we put together all the giallo works, (books and reels) then we realise their contribution in advancing the genre. Until the japs started dominating in the 80s and laters. Ambiguity you mentioned is the USP. Btw couldn’t figure what you were saying about women n sexual violence et al. That’s the identity of the genre.

Sort of female version (ideologically) would be takashi miike’s audition.


Alok said...

About sexualised violence as portrayed in this film and others of the genre I was trying to point out how it can be seen as an expression of male sexual anxiety and fears, specially in the context of sexual liberation. The film voyeuristically sexualises the bodies of young girls and then asks us to feel horror, disgust and sorrowful about the images! That's why I mentioned that even though these films are graphic on surface, they are actually deeply reactionary when it comes to sexual politics.

I love Audition, it is one of my favourite horror films. Though I think it is still concerned specifically with a male subjectivity and in that it similar to these giallo films as well - it is interesting how literally it takes the idea of castration anxiety :)

Sunil said...

Hmm.I see what you mean now; perhaps with this one it is more apparent but all the ouevres put together it isnt all that male gratifying vis a vis the plot. Not any more than Bo Dereks n sisters walking out of the ocean in the 007s.
What Im saying is-- it is easy to portray just sex or violence in a scene. And these movies have made great effort to delicately balance the two and yet not be too, well, whats the word gross! Its an Italian thing going on for centuries-- passing on paintings n sculptures of nude women as enlightenment :)

Well, seems like the Jap horror scene has entered its winter.They ahvent put forth anything decent for many months now.

Speaking of violence you surely must have checked the Belgian cannes winner:
C'est arrivé près de chez vous. I think the International version is called Man bites Dog. I love da bloody movie. Check out if you havent.

You got to have a really gutter for a mind to appreciate it. Thankfully I have.

Alok said...

I haven't seen Man Bites Dog actually. I had heard a lot about it a couple of years back but then it went off the radar. Will check it sometime.