From the palatial cinemas of giallo to a Shudder Original, Dark Glasses, Dario Argento’s most recent film, is the very definition of late work – a meditation on his career, his legacy, his depiction of women and, most pressingly, on what is bound up in his signature use of red, his profondo rosso. Like so many of his films, it’s inconsistent at times, but the high points are pure cinema, suffused with sentient spaces and sightlines, and played out against richly detailed backdrops that feel attuned to the big screen, even or especially on a streaming service. The film starts with a testament to the primal interplay of sight and darkness, in which our protagonist Diana, played by Ilenia Pastorelli, drives home through an unnamed Italian city, the camera mirroring her shifting gaze as one vista after another appears and recedes from view. In each of these half-glimpsed tableaux, people are staring directly at the sky, either through glasses or with objects in front of their face, in what turns out to be a once-in-a-lifetime eclipse. As Diana arrives at her destination, the world turns completely dark, in a cosmic return to the theatrical experience, to the momentous hush of lights dimming, and yet even now the spectators retain their glasses, in a kind of augmented cinematic spectacle.
Finally, the eclipse restores the three key ingredients of giallo: a lurid lighting scheme, a geometrically flamboyant approach to space, and the futuristic synth music that reaches its first crescendo as the credit sequence rolls. From here, Argento embarks on a first act that gathers these separate ingredients into a tribute to giallo’s occult colourism, which peaked just as the various derivatives of Technicolor were coming to an end in the late 1970s. Giallo, in Argento’s hands, restored the visceral power of colour, especially that of the colour red, which dominates this opening act, where it is set against an equally vivid darkness. Narratively, Diana’s town is beset by a serial killer, but his crimes are largely framed as an abstraction of this red-and-black palette, starting with the first kill scene in the film. Waiting outside a hotel, he drags a sex worker into a bush, and cuts her throat, producing a lurid swathe of blood, before he is briefly intercepted by Diana, wearing a brilliant red dress herself. When the hotel staff rush to the crime scene, they are uniformed in crimson velvet, while the scene concludes by returning to the victim’s throat, which grows even more scarlet as deeper and deeper blood rises to the surface, the baroque synth theme building and building again.
The rest of the first act fuses this serial killer with the city, presenting the giallo metropolis as so many flashes of synthy red in the midst of cavernous night. Whenever Diana, herself a sex worker, ventures outside, the streets are utterly vacant, but somehow also suffused with the gaze of everyone living there, as if to conjure up an older time when movie theatres were a privileged portal into the life and rhythms of the cities in which they were situated. At times, it feels like everyone in the city has retreated to cinemas, and are watching the events, as we are, in a refracted way, turning Diana into a kind of apotheosis of the male gaze that structures so much of Argento’s body of work. She inhabits cinema itself as much as the city, so the theatrical darkness that descends during the eclipse is her natural habitat, even if it makes things more dangerous as well. In one scene, she moves from the labyrinthine bowels of her building to a city bus, and yet this doesn’t make space feel any safer, or any more public, or any more populated. Instead, the end of the bus line turns out to be a stand selling the same dark glasses we saw in the opening scenes, suggesting that the most private and public spaces in this metropolis all converge on cinematic reality as Argento has imagined it over his career.
Given that Diana is so attuned to this hyper-cinematic city, it makes sense that the killer soon sets his sights on her as a critical component of his own black-and-red scheme. In the scene that ushers in the second act, he follows her on the street, approaches her in her parked car and then, when she flees, chases her down one street after another until he forces her to crash into another pair of cars. In an era when cinematic pleasure has become suspect, and can often seem problematic in and of itself, this chase is pure cinematic jouissance – the perverse propulsive pleasure principle of Argento’s entire oeuvre condensed into a single trajectory that turns the killer’s van into the ultimate object that looks back, a repository of irreducible cinematic ecstasy. Concomitantly, the chase scenes that start here are a manifestation of pure cinematic drive, a compulsion for spectacle so strong that it occludes everything else in the film, emptying out whole cities and landscapes and turning them into a canvas for the killer’s projections. Later on, all it takes is the thrust of this van to dispose of two men, their vehicle, and their arsenal, but for now leads to the most violent burst of red so far – a haemorrhage in Diana’s visual cortex, brought on by the shock of the crash – and then the starkest darkness, as she realises she is blind, her face covered in blood all the while.
In other words, the killer is like an emanation of the eclipse, a primal cinematic gaze compelled to conform Diana to his black-and-red scheme. One of the distinctive traits of giallo was its engagement with this male gaze – or rather, with the concept of the male gaze, which was starting to enter mainstream film discourse when Argento and his contemporaries came of age. Instead of trying to deny the male gaze, or petulantly rebuff the very concept, as occurred, say, in late Fellini, Argento hyperbolised it, rendered it visible through a series of increasingly extravagant and flamboyant set pieces. The second act of Dark Glasses is the culmination of this process in the way that it reduces Diana, now a blind sex worker, to a mere canvas for the male gaze, servicing clients that she never sees. In being turned into a screen for her customers, she performs the dual requirements of the male gaze – to provide sexual gratification and to be punished for doing so, the punishment here consisting partly of the debilitation of being blinded, but also of being reminded of her failure to perform a traditional female role. For Diana soon befriends Chin, a young boy played by Xinyu Zhang, and the only other survivor of the car crash. Along with her guide dog, Nerea, Diana and Chin attempts to construct a provisional family, life and home but it remains precarious, leading the police to attempt to return Chin to foster care, even though he makes up his mind to stay with Diana.
As a result, this second act opts for eerie normality rather than giallo gore, turning the killer into a director who monitors Diana’s life as it shifts from sex work to provisional normality. Ramming into her car becomes a strategy for keeping her poised at this threshold between perversion and sanctity, the defining requirement of the male gaze, and largely removes the need for killing. Indeed, the killer himself is almost entirely absent from the second act, except as this regulating gaze, and even becomes somewhat protective of Diana now that she is adhering to his perverse demands. His next crime (that we see) is targeting the police officers who try to apprehend her, since this can only end in one of two ways: with Diana being permitted to retain custody of Chin, and becoming a real mother, or Diana being separated from Chin, and so returning to sex work as her sole profession. Neither motherhood nor sex work is, in itself, enough to satiate the killer’s gaze; rather, he needs Diana to be continually punished for not giving up sex work for motherhood in order to maintain his enjoyment. While he is technically saving Diana, then, he really needs her to be prosecuted, again and again, for the pleasure he himself experiences – and this is the film’s vision of the male gaze.
Nevertheless, the third act sees Diana responding to the killer with three surrogate sources of sight. The first of these is her blindness assistant, Rita, who re-educates her in finding the “reference points within a space” without the help of sight. Appropriately, these lessons involve Diana negotiating red light without being able to see it, as when she crosses at a pedestrian walk, thereby threatening the killer’s capacity to orchestrate his black-and-red mise-en-scenes around her. Later in the film, when Diana flees the city, Rita offers her shelter in her own country property and then, later still, sacrifices herself to reveal to Diana that the killer is close at hand, giving her and Chin the critical window of time they need to survive. In a poetic twist, Asia Argento, the director’s daughter, plays this counterpoint to the killer’s familial scheme, in a kind of metacommentary on the ways that Argento has historically co-opted his own family for a gaze that depends on punishing women for not producing families.
The second source of sight is Chin, who uses the apparatus of the family against the killer, as Diana herself seems to pre-empt and intuit when she gives him a gaming console during their first meeting after the crash. Chin’s sight becomes essential during the finale, which sees him and Diana flee Rita’s farmhouse, and descend back into the dank grotesquerie of classic Argento – those moments in his work that seem to draw on his deepest childhood fears, and that accordingly feel most attuned to children’s cinema. As Chin and Rita stumble from Italian pastures to a writhing water snake nest, I was reminded of the final scenes of Phenomena, perhaps the classic Argento film that most gravitates towards this dark version of children’s cinema, especially with Jennifer Connelly at the helm in a defracted alternative to Labyrinth.
Even with these first two surrogate sources of sight, however, the third act mainly plays out in darkness, with no red light to be seen, as if we are penetrating to the very heart of Argento’s unconscious, the primal scene of his cinema. This act is less about suspense than dissociative freefall, and plays as a single tactile trajectory, as Diana, temporarily separated from Chin, feels her way through the woods, in a halting and faltering answer to the perverse propulsion of the killer’s van. Giallo was a cinema of tactility, of textural tracking-shots caressing the gaze up buildings and bodies, but this haptic approach is now disconnected from any bravura camera movements, as Argento resorts to a messy handheld style, and leaches all residual colour and tonality from his tableaux, aligning us with Diana’s hands rather than her eyes as she claws from surface to surface. Finally, she loses surfaces altogether, emerging into an empty field, beneath a cosmic sweep of stars, back in the intensified darkness of the eclipse.
This extraordinary scene is like witnessing one of Argento’s female characters trying to watch her own film, or escape from her own film, and ends at a primal nexus between sight and touch, light and darkness, in what may well be Argento’s summative encounter with the film apparatus. After traversing the field, Diana enters an abandoned building, where she crawls amongst industrial machinery, feeling her way from one switch to another, in order to project one source of light after another on the darkness outside. It’s unclear whether she’s trying to attract Chin or lure in the killer, and beyond a certain point it doesn’t matter, since Diana is now somewhere outside the diegetic space of the film, if not quite in the non-diegetic space of the audience – reaching inchoately through the darkness of the theatre in an attempt to intervene directly in the projection booth, an even murkier prospect in that, of all Argento’s films, Dark Glasses is likely to have the lowest ever theatrical experiences, addressed as it is to the surrogate theatricality, the dark glasses, of home streaming and movie spectatorship.
No surprise, then, that the killer takes control of the apparatus at this very moment, storming the building, and absorbing all its industrial energy as he chains Diana and Chin in the back of his car, and then situates them amidst of a panoply of torture implements in his workshop. In response, Diana calls on her third source of surrogate sight – her black guide dog Nerea (pointedly a “she”), who the killer has also kidnapped as part of his need to command every black or red object in the city. In the most literal battle for sight so far, Diana and the killer invoke Nerea, but Diana wins, and the brilliant red of the first two acts returns, as the dog tears at his quarry’s throat, and proves even more insatiable than his quarry ever was, taking us through fifty shades of red, each deeper and richer than the last, until it seems the entire viscera of the body, the remotest repositories of blood, are spilling out of of this one fissure.
While parenthood (Chin) and friendship (Rita) are presented as counterpoints to the male gaze, then, Dark Glasses is somewhat pessimistic about their capacity to fully escape or circumvent it. Only the alterity of animals can offer a true reprieve, and so the film ends with Diana saying goodbye to Chin at a train station, as he prepares for a new life with a distant relative. In a final dissociation of black and red, along with the giallo aesthetic it embodied, Diana hands over Chin, sporting a crimson backpack, to this relative, clad in brilliant scarlet, while she remains with her own black dog. The only glimpse of red she takes away with her is Nerea’s brace, her point of contact between sight and touch. She owns that nexus between black and red now, and embraces the black, relies on it to drown out the red, putting on her dark glasses, and informing the police who shamed her for being a sex worker that she doesn’t need a ride home from them, before telling Nerea, in the final words of the film, that “you’re the only friend I have left.” Even if this isn’t Argento’s final film, it feels like his final film in spirit, so vividly does it dramatise the world of his films, both their strengths and their limits, by continuing to inhabit, rather than pretending to deny, the male gaze that sustained them.