Dir: Matteo Garrone. Italy. 2004. 98mins.
The only Italian film in competition at Berlin, Matteo Garrone's First Love takes an unflinching look at the subject of anorexia. It is as painful an experience for the audience as it appears to be for the protagonist: by the end, we feel that we too have lost 20kg. But although the cinematic authority which Garrone grew into with his previous film, the 2002 Cannes Quinzaine contender The Taxidermist (L'Imbalsamatore), has not deserted him, First Love is a lesser film, a stretched short story rather than a condensed novel. A standout performance from theatrical actress Michela Cescon (who really lost the 20kg as filming progressed) and Marco Onorato's consistently interesting cinematography hold our interest beyond the waning point: but in the end, this is the kind of film that makes one look forward to the director's next.
The Taxidermist had a long festival milking session followed by a resilient sleeper run on the Italian arthouse circuit. Despite its more austere appeal and grim subject matter, First Love may build to a similar result at home thanks to the distribution muscle of backer Medusa, working in synergy with a strong poster campaign by indie producer/distributor Fandango. Overseas, though, it looks like a harder sell, lacking either the structural richness or the star appeal of a superficially similar psychodrama like Haneke's La Pianiste. It premiered in competition at Berlin.
As in The Taxidermist, First Love centres on a man who is slowly moving onto the wrong side of the border between healthy perversion and out-and-out psychosis, and who brings a weaker other to accept his twisted logic through sheer force of character, plus the occasional dollop of mental or physical violence. Unlike the excessively short protagonist of The Taxidermist, Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisano), has no obvious physical defects.
But it soon becomes clear that he is the worst kind of perfectionist: one who wants other people (specifically, his women) to be perfect, rather than himself. Some worthwhile mileage is made out of the fact that Vittorio is the owner of a goldsmith's furnace and studio in his home town of Vicenza, moulding the precious metal in much the same way as he hopes to mould his girlfriend's body.
The meeting between Vittorio and Sonia (Michela Cescon) is one of the best scenes in the film: an ordinarily attractive provincial girl turns up for a blind date with a taciturn man whose shyness is a front for a massive superiority complex. He tells her he imagined that she would be thinner - and this one comment and Sonia's reaction to it - angry, deflated, but unable to leave - is the coiled spring that powers the rest of the action.
The decision to use scriptwriter Trevisano in the main role is not a bad one: he is less of an actor than the consistently watchable Cescon, but the faint edge of embarrassment and reserve in his manner, and his tendency to mis-time his lines, gives his performance an unsettling edge. The same edge is achieved by Onorato's camerawork: veering between voyeurism and detachment, he plays tricks with focus - as in an oddly effective boating scene where the lens is stuck on infinity, making the background sharp and turning the two protagonists in the foreground into blurred ghosts.
By this stage, though, we need something more than visual games and Banda Osiris' sparse, classic-modern chamber music soundtrack to keep us going. In the end, the descent into the abyss is just a little too linear, and its resolution just a little too neat.
Production cos: Fandango, Medusa Film
International sales: The Works
Producer: Domenico Procacci
Screenplay: Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, Vitaliano Trevisan
Cinematography: Marco Onorato
Production design: Paolo Bonfini
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Music: Banda Osiris
Main cast: Vitaliano Trevisan, Michela Cescon