Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Primo amore"

Toxic Love

Matteo Garrone’s Primo amore (2004) has been described as “a horror movie about desire,” which seems fitting. Often, the scenes depicted are horrifying and alarming. The director takes an uncomfortably close look at obsessive love, further complicated by the troubled characters’ various psychological issues. When the two protagonists, Vittorio and Sonia, meet for the first time this becomes rather obvious. Some of Vittorio’s first words to Sonia are “I thought you’d be thinner.” Her reaction is troubling; although she seems somewhat stunned by his comment and feigns a desire to leave, she continues to entertain his conversation at the cafe and goes on to take a walk with him. The most obvious disorder of course is Sonia’s developing anorexia nervosa, at Vittorio’s insistence. However, it is important to look at the other factors which contribute to this obsessive, stomach-turning love story. I found it difficult to diagnose each character as having one category of psychological disorder, as they seem to suffer from symptoms of several including but not exclusive to borderline and obsessive compulsive personality disorders, shared psychotic disorder, masochism, and sadism. The extent to which each character is affected by these disorders offers them a chance for more sympathy from the viewer, for perhaps they must give in to their desires and urges without thinking of consequence or how they affect the people around them. For example, Sonia has an emotional outburst at a boutique, and the film depicts the action in medium shots, until the salesgirl attempts to comfort Sonia. The camera then moves into a tight close up of the three characters, and it seems as if the salesgirl gets sucked into the toxic bubble (of obsession, co-dependence, masochism, and sadism) around Vittorio and Sonia. Descriptions of these disorders may be found at www.mentalhealth.com.

Viewer as Voyeur

Several of the techniques employed by the director give the viewer a strong sense of voyeurism. This is a concept usually reserved for those who are aroused by watching other people in sexual acts, according to Wikipedia. However, the word voyeur can describe someone who receives pleasure by witnessing other people’s suffering or misfortune. This definition can describe Vittorio, yet he not only witnesses, he participates in Sonia’s misfortune. Although the film is unpleasant to watch, as the two protagonists have such deeply rooted psychological issues, as a viewer I felt intrigued. There are several reoccurring shot techniques, which allowed me to feel this voyeuristic thrill. First, there are many shots (long, medium, and close-up) in which the action is framed through a hallway or doorway, for example the scene in which Vittorio visits his doctor. As he stands behind a doorway, the viewer may get a sense of being left out somehow and more curious about what is occurring. Second, there are scenes that are shot in high angles, which make the viewer feel above the subject. Next, there are the numerous, often awkward, over-the-shoulder shots. Finally, there are those seemingly hand-held shots, such as those used in the scene where Vittorio searches for Sonia in the woods. These aspects all strongly suggest a voyeur’s perspective for the viewer to assume.

Grates, fences, bars across windows and doors: trapped

As the film develops, the viewer acquires a strong sense of being trapped. Many visual aspects within the mis-en-scene including grates, fences, windowpanes, and walls contribute to this feeling. The apartment Vittorio occupied before he and Sonia move into the house was especially confining. After the couple’s first sexual encounter, Sonia meanders onto Vittorio’s porch where they have a strained conversation; the scene ends with Sonia grabbing onto the metal bars that surround the porch in a manner reminiscent of a prisoner grabbing onto a jail cell’s bars. Through cinematography, Sonia’s skeleton even seems as if it entraps her, her sense of self, and her soul even. As her weight recedes, these parts of her leak out until her bones are surrounding nothingness. In contrast to these confining structures, images of the green forest surrounding the house are used to depict life and freedom. The recurring juxtaposition of shots outside against the foliage, complimented by wildlife sounds, against those of the restrictive indoors led me to the conclusion that the only option for life would be outside. Although Sonia’s mind slipped away with her body, she seems to realize this in the end scene where Vittorio has her backed up against a wall (literally and figuratively). Once she takes the only seemingly viable action, the camera gradually moves out to show Sonia crouched just outside the door in the forest among the trees. Perhaps now she may finally return to join the living, and not the walking dead. Though the scene ends in darkness, there is some comfort to the darkness of the forest. As viewers, we are finally freed.

Many insightful reviews may be found at www.rottentomatoes.com


DiPompei said...

The feeling of confinement in this film is overwhelming at times. It is not just the physical aspects of the environment that evoke this feeling either, the close range camera traps the viewer close to the character at many points in the film. The scenes of Sonia locked away in her dark, stone tower of a home, are so disturbing for me. You never know what’s going to happen, and the restricted point of view adds to this uncertainty. At any moment Vittorio could come in, find Sonia binging on an onion and have a violent reaction. But Sonia is never caught in the act until the very end. The scene at the restaurant is what I waited for the entire film. The tension is controlled wonderfully through the close range camera with tight shots and entrapping mise-en-scene.
The psychological pressure from Vittorio is more thrilling than anything a physically abusive character could portray. Vittorio never touches Sonia in a violent way until he is forced to restrain her at the restaurant, but his words harm her mind and body more than he could physically harm her. Seeing what Vittorio is doing psychologically to Sonia, not knowing what he is going to do to her next, combined with the tight, intense framing, make this an unsettling, unique thriller.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your review, and in particular the section regarding voyeurism. It seems that "Primo Amore" has been, probably with "Accattone" and "La Notte", the most difficult movie to watch for our group. However, it is much more compelling than the other two, and this is because of the trapping effect and the sense of voyeurism that you highlighted.

I wanted to underline one thing (and I hope that it was not said in class!). I watched the movie after re-reading Pasolini's essay. The scene with the two characters' faces covered by a blur seemed to me to be a perfect example of the Cinema of Poetry explained by Pasolini: the use of a cinematic technique to convey a message. This message, as it has to be in poetry, can be interpreted in different ways. I thought about the invisibility of the two characters to each other, and also to their miscommunication.

AlonsoDelarte said...

Excellent blog entry. I like the psychological research you have put into this, which helps to make a lot of sense of what goes in this film.

HeatherW said...

I think the thing that intrigued me most about this film was Sonia's willingness to follow Vittorio's "rules" about weightloss. It's true that she is a victim, yes, but she also played a part in placing herself in a prison (so to speak). I think this plays along with the psychological aspects in the film. Vittorio's need to control and mold Sonia, and Sonia's need to be loved and wanted by Vittorio are the driving forces in this film. One could not exist if the other would not comply by these outlines. This is why I think the final scene, in which Sonia (essentially) stands up for herself against Vittorio, is so powerful. She finally removes herself from the prison that she's been living in: her declining body weight. I agree with your post about the shared psychological disorders, very nice review.

H Jennings said...

Carzy movie about crazy people. I don't feel bad about being that dismissive of the film. The director gave me nothing to work with in terms of appreciating his film. Most of the film is too dark, too bright and or out of focus. Therefore I can't say I thought it was visually stimulating, and the characters were rage inspiring. I hated the bully boyfriend and I hated the idiot firlfriend. Who continues on a date after someone introduces themself and then calls you fat? WHo speaks to that person ever again? If Sonia is confident enough in her body to pose as a nude model then why would she continue down this road with a carzy man? He doesn't have a job, he doesn't have any friends, and he insists on livings in a creepy house that inspired one of the most tragic love stories of fiction. There doesn't seem to be any genuine motivation for Sonia's behavior. Vittorio we understand he is mentally ill. But doesn't eh doctor have some responsibility to Vittorio's actions if what he is doing endangers someone else? What does Vittorio do for Sonia? He doesn't say anything nice or do anything nice unless its nice for him too. Like a bowling ball for your birthday or a dishwasher for christmas. She is only allowed to benefit if he does too. BOO on this movie.