'Misunderstood' ('Incompresa'): Cannes Review

'Misunderstood,' Asia Argento, (Un Certain Regard)
Courtesy of Festival De Cannes

Italian bad girl Asia Argento has been a fixture in Cannes as both actress (Boarding Gate, 2007; festival opener Marie Antoinette, 2006; and 2012’s Dracula 3D from father Dario) and as a director -- where she appeared in Directors’ Fortnight in 2004 with The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Her latest directing effort stars Charlotte Gainsbourg (best actress winner in Cannes for Lars von Trier’s Antichrist in 2009) in a partially autobiographical tale apparently shot in just three weeks. The title is a nod to Luigi Comencini’s feature of the same name, which screened in Cannes Competition in 1967. (Sales: Paradis Films)

A genre-crossing film about a lonely child is sad, funny, a little dark and very cruel.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gabriel Garko play warring parents in Asia Argento's transitional third film.

Using almost the same title as Luigi Comencini's 1967 classic tale about childhood and growing up, Asia Argento returns to the director's chair after a 10-year absence with a surprise charmer, exaggerated but nowhere as over-the-top as her narcissistic bow Scarlet Diva or her unrelenting portrait of an abused boy in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. She sets Misunderstood (Incompresa) in a dysfunctional family of creative artists, focusing on a little girl named "Aria" who feels unloved. It's hard to miss the autobiographical baggage, but here the pain and excess of the early films is unexpectedly transmuted to rollicking black humor, making it a more universal and enjoyable story told with lively verve and a lot of imagination. The Certain Regard entry has Charlotte Gainsbourg's post-Nymphomaniac popularity to bank on, and with a good marketing campaign, the film should find its way to the right audiences.

Overall, Argento seems to have learned from the experience of her overwrought first features, or maybe from life itself, that there is more to childhood than Gothic horror, and the mischievous moments of being a kid captured in Misunderstood show a filmmaker who is maturing in the direction of audience appeal.

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Gainsbourg and Italian TV idol Gabriel Garko, best known as a Mafia don in the miniseries Honor and Respect, are amusingly cast as the warring parents of three daughters, though 9-year-old Aria (Giulia Salerno) is their only common offspring. With Garko's slightly cheesy, blond good looks, it's easy to fit Papa as a famous actor (though one who still yearns to star in "an art film"), while Gainsbourg makes a very arch and sexy Bohemian pianist from a family of Swiss bourgeois.  In the opening family dinner, they display their monstrous egoism and blatant disregard for the kids as they scream hair-raising insults at each other, which the audience can only laugh at nervously. It all ends in a bloody fight with Daddy slamming the door behind him, in a modern genre-bending scene that feels more like Ulrich Seidl or Todd Solondz than anything out of Italian cinema.

Mom is philosophical about the father's exit, along with his plump, snooty daughter obsessed with everything pink, Lucrezia (promising young comedienne Carolina Poccioni), since it makes it easier to make out on the sofa with her lovers. She promises a Caribbean cruise to Aria and her other daughter Donatina (Anna Lou Castoldi), but it's a bald-faced lie because she soon departs with the obnoxious Dodo (Gianmarco Tognazzi) for a romantic vacation a deux. Aria is packed off to Dad's new place for the duration. And so begins her loveless odyssey between two homes, wanted in neither.

Gainsbourg and Garko are right on target, but the best bit of casting is the astonishing Salerno (a child actress since she was 5) as the tender blonde Aria, who looks at the world through round blue eyes. She's inseparable from her pudgy best friend, Angelica, and even cuts her hair unattractively short in imitation. Seeing that no affection is forthcoming from her family, she pours her love into a big black street cat that she captures and names Dac, not realizing that her ultrasuperstitious father is not anxious to have it roaming around the house and sleeping on his new script. Between spilling salt, breaking mirrors and bringing home birds of ill-omen, she does have an impressive talent for upsetting him. She even inadvertently betrays her parents to the police and gets them arrested. At one point both parents kick her out of the house, and she spends the night huddling with Dac and some street people.

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Dad may be a wife-beater but Mom is slap-happy too and thinks nothing of bloodying Aria's face in a moment of temper. Then, without missing a beat, she takes her to the bathroom and lovingly tends the wound. Small wonder the girl is confused. She fares no better at school. It's 1984 and corporal punishment is still in vogue, along with cruel teachers and heartlessly mean kids. They taunt her mercilessly, perhaps out of envy of her glamorous celebrity parents, but mostly because she's such a naive oddball. Her crush on a blond boy who glides by on his skateboard like a haughty Silver Surfer is doomed from the start and used against her at a climactic, apocalyptic party she throws while Daddy and Lucrezia are away.  

Making a crucial contribution to mood is the choice of a far-ranging soundtrack of rock, punk and Mozart, some of the songs written by Argento herself. Music seems to be one of the few things that brings happiness into Aria's life, as she momentarily finds joy in a night out with Dad and his pals from the pop electronic band The Penelopes and later a haven in Mom's new punk rocker beau (Justin Pearson).

Production companies: Wildside, Paradis Films, Orange Studio in association with Rai Cinema
Giulia Salerno, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gabriel Garko, Gianmarco Tognazzi, Carolina Poccioni, Anna Lou Castoldi, Alice Pea, Andrea Pittorini, Riccardo Russo, Sofia Patron, Max Gazze, Justin Pearson
Director: Asia Argento

Screenwriter: Asia Argento, Barbara Alberti
Producers: Lorenzo Mieli, Mario Gianani, Eric Heumann, Maurice Kantor
Executive pro
ducer: Guido De Laurentiis, Scott Derrickson
Director of photography: Nicola Pecorini
Production designer: Eugenia F.di Napoli

Costume designer: Nicoletta Ercole
Editor: Filippo Barbieri
Music:  Brian Molko, Asia Argento, Marlon Magas, Gilles Weinzaepflen, Justin Pearson, Luke Henshaw, Gabriel Serbian
Sales: Other Angle Pictures – Orange Studio

No rating, 108 minutes