Ten years after turning in a vampire film that was lifeless in all the wrong ways and only seven months after making an improbable comeback as an actor for Gaspar Noé, Dario Argento has returned behind the camera, returned to the genre that made him famous, and returned to the Berlin International Film Festival with “Dark Glasses,” a spiky little giallo that wants nothing more than to be labeled a return-to-form. If it falls ever-so-short, you’ve got to give it points for trying.
Shot after the 81-year-old filmmaker finished his work on “Vortex,” Argento’s latest directorial outing feels, in some small way, like a response to his rather somber acting debut. If Argento the actor was last seen quite literally fading away on-screen, Argento the director stages his follow-up to be a perfectly lurid reply, as if to say: “I’m not gone yet!”
The filmmaker loses no time setting the scene; once actor Ilenia Pastorelli (“They Call Me Jeeg”) full-body swaggers into the film’s opening shot, her sharp features accented, her lips painted a shade of incandescent red, and her blouse nearly bursting, “Dark Glasses” makes perfectly what kind of schlock its selling. Why shouldn’t it? We don’t have all the time in the world here, and Pastorelli’s Diana is a high-priced call girl with clients to see. And so, when she arrives at a swanky Rome hotel one night to find a colleague garroted and bleeding out on the ground, Diana simply walks right by. After all, a john is waiting inside.
Argento’s camera does linger for an extra beat, making sure the budget for special makeup, prosthetics, and animatronics (given two titles in the opening credits) gets put to full use. When we do catch up with Diana shortly thereafter, so too does this call-girl targeting killer, resulting in a terse but effective three car crash that leaves the killer unscathed, the lead now blind from her injuries and the young Chinese bystander, Chin (Xinyu Zhang), an orphan.
Running almost too long at just ninety minutes, the “Dark Glasses” packs most of its thrills into its first and third acts, which are both set at night. The film lulls for its middle act, which takes place entirely in daylight — not that it would matter to Diana, who must now acclimate to her life behind tinted shades.
Helping her with that is Rita (Asia Argento, of course), a benevolent social worker who gets Diana a seeing-eye dog and conveniently overlooks the fact that Chin has run away from his orphanage to stay with the blind woman as well. To the degree that a genre exercise more foundationally interested in cut throats and exposed cleavage wants to aim at the heart, “Dark Glasses” does give the old college try, allowing the relationship between Diana and Chin to develop in a way that almost hits a few more-than-perfunctory notes before giallo requirements once again assert their primacy.
Of course, a film like this is not meant to pull on heartstrings; it’s meant to sever them. So soon enough that psycho killer rears his ugly head and we’re back, off to a series of kills and chases on foot, by car, and through a snake-filled marsh. Like a steady hand holding a straight razor, Argento cuts through the story with clean swipes. “Dark Glasses” has little room for twists and turns; it holds nothing up its sleeve and asks little more of the viewer than to sit still and enjoy the ride.
But in replacing the more baroque orchestrations of Argento’s earlier work with something more frontal and direct, this particular ride never reaches the same heights, never gets the blood flowing in quite the same way. That this older Argento has perhaps neither the time nor inclination for the Grand Guignol set pieces of his halcyon days should come as with little surprise; though his fire stills burns and taste for blood runs strong, the film that he delivered is less a return-to-form than something altogether different.
If anything, “Dark Glasses” feels more like a heritage giallo, a calculated rebuke to that famous line from “Chinatown.” Dario Argento has made his mark on film history, has been celebrated at the world’s leading festival, and still has plenty of piss and vinegar to give. He’s lasted long enough, dammit, but unlike politicians and ugly buildings, he does not need to get respectable.
“Dark Glasses” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival.