Few debuts have ever been as virtuosic as Dario Argento’s, but little surrounds each of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s (1970) youthful and precise Hitchockian set pieces, it moves so briskly between them with no real interest in connection, if you thought about it for even a second it would be completely obvious that none of it makes any sense, but Argento gives you no reason to stop and think, after all, films exist in the present tense, not in retrospect. Godard said in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) that we forget why anything happens in Hitchcock films, why Joan Fotanine leans over the cliff, why Janet Leigh stops at the Bates Motel, why the American Governemnt hired Ingrid Bergman, all we remember is the objects, the images: a handbag, a glass of milk, a hairbrush, a pair of glasses, a key chain. Argento asks if those plots matter at all, if there's any reason to connect these images in the first place; when Hitchcock moves from one protagonist to another in Psycho (1960) his intentions are sharply felt, he's knowingly intruding on the audience’s expectations of plot and genre, but when Argento does the same thing in Inferno (1980) he does it so causally it’s as if nothing has happened at all, as if the film is truly only images, only windows, pipes, cats, gloves, books and corpses.
Not that his films are barren of substance, even if that’s not his explicit interest—the same could be said of Hitchcock going only on his own words, though his films make a more obvious counter-argument—playing the black gloved hands of the killer in Crystal Plumage (and a few other films) might suggest a cavalier attitude, but the film does hinge on our gender expectations, in an early scene we see a man, a woman, a knife and a struggle, and are lead down a winding path with the typical un-notable protagonist by assuming the man is the aggressor. It’s hardly a progressive film, but at least one with some awareness of gender, Dark Glasses (2022)—a gentle comeback after some of Argento’s worst reviewed films—is even more lucid: it starts in the car of Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli), she has gaudy red lips and her nipples poke through her thin blouse, but no one is looking at her, they’re all looking up—away at an eclipse that will mirror her own loss of sight—the absence of gaze feels strange, almost surreal, as if this type of character exists only to be perceived, but she still is, and in an even more intimate and intrusive way: when we look at her, she cannot look back. One of her most one of her most grotesque sex work clients—who she still has to keep seeing blind—says this imbalance turns him on; Argento puts the gloves on us as he did on himself, when Diana kisses a client she pushes her lips right into the camera, and when she has to defend herself from rape, she pepper sprays the same place.
The killer is even shown to be a giallo fan, he’s watching one in his grotty little lair, maybe he’s even inspired by it as was suggested in Tenebrae (1982), though neither film really follows the idea through in a satisfying way; the same shot pans over to some cocaine, diffusing the blame, implying it must have had some influence too. When his face is revealed, it’s done so causally, so arbitrarily—without any connection to a character finding out who he is, nor to any dramatic climax—that I assumed Argento was going for something like The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), where the killer isn’t some manifestation of pure evil, he isn’t a bogeyman like Michael Myers, but just some guy, made sinister by his total banality; he blends in with any other man because any other man may have the same capacity. Actually it’s something much more simple, comically simple, he’s a client Diana had told to take a shower because he smelt bad. It does shows how little a push is needed for men to turn on women, but it feels a little limp, it’s hard not to chuckle when he screams “I stank huh? Now you’re gunna take a shower!”, even if it speaks to the real desire for women to be purified, a hatred especially strong for sex workers for their supposed spiritual uncleanness. It’s not a brilliant observation, but maybe it doesn’t need to be, sometimes misogyny is quite simple.
It’s always easy for late style casualness to be dismissed as lazy or as a sign of declining powers—it leaves enough room for those bad faith readings—but in Dark Glasses it powerfully recontextualises the space, the emptiness of Argento’s films, instead of rushing past it with a flurry of images, a flurry of violence and suspense, it lingers in it—when the camera follows a character it doesn’t move cleanly and precisely, but loosely and shakily; it wanders—it creates a ghostly quality totally unlike the occultic Suspiria (1977) or Inferno, it's rigidly literal, made surreal by a total barrenness, a profound lack of spirits. There aren’t really set pieces anymore, all the killings are very matter of fact, we’re no longer asked to savour their build up, anticipating the tension breaking with the piercing of skin—usually a woman’s—instead we are left to sit in the consequences; no expense has been spared on the gore, we watch blood pour endlessly from the victims’ necks, but it’s totally joyless, it’s gruelling and brutal, all the time we spend with Diana suffering or panicked is much more about her fear than our own. At one point Argento even chooses to cuts away from a strangulation—and not in the sadistic way that Hitchcock did in Frenzy (1972), leaving our mind to paint every sordid detail—simply because he doesn’t want to look at something so horrible happening to a character we are supposed to like, a character played by his own daughter.
There’s even an interest in tenderness, the film slows down to watch this character, Rita (Asia Argento), teach Diana all the detail of living in this fundamentally different way, it’s quite intimate though not exactly uncomplicated; Rita isn’t convinced by Diana’s fear that the killer will come back, and by the time she has to be she’s telling her to call the police which we know from both genre convention and real life is the wrong thing to do. And then there’s Chin (Andrea Zhang), a ten year old Chinese boy whose parents were killed in that same crash that blinded Diana and who becomes her kind of surrogate son. Although it’s again complicated—she is technically kidnapping him—and is occasionally sweet—their hands delicately touching as he passes her the keys she dropped—it still feels rather odd and somewhat misjudged, not helped by Zhang’s wonky performance. It’s hard not to wonder if Diana is supposed to be finding redemption through this maternity, her maid mutters that blindness was God’s punishment and there is a kind of cruel moralistic irony in her not wanted to take her black glasses off (in front of a client) and now no longer being able to, she even seems to agree, saying that “God doesn’t have time for a person like me”.
But maybe it’s simply the world around her, it’s not just the killer who wants to wash her down with a hose—a police officer wonders if she’s even really blind, if it isn’t some womanly trick, since they’re never as vulnerable or as innocent as they claim to be—after looking away from Diana in the opening, the public decide to look at a different sex worker only after she’s dead on the ground with her throat slit, when she’s become a literal object, incapable of desire or being desired, which might be the greater threat. Yet in the climax, when the killer is mauled by Diana’s guide dog, we linger on the gore more than in any other scene, tense music continues to play long after he’s a threat to anyone, unlike what might seem like a similar scene in Phenomena (1985) where a monkey slices the killer with a razor of his own, we aren’t allowed to take pleasure in the revenge in the same way we weren’t for the maliciously motivated violence, in Argento’s ageing and materialist perspective, there isn’t much difference, it’s all violence and no meaning comes from any of it; order isn’t restored, even if the threat is contained. After Chin is sent off to live with another family, Diana is left alone, not redeemed nor saved, she's still blind, still at the whims of men she can't look back at, still stuck in our gaze.