Dir: Mario Martone. It-Fr. 2004. 99mins.
Italian auteur Mario Martone's latest arthouse offering is a sterile and rather dated relationship drama in psycho-thriller sauce which will be defended only by the director's staunchest fans, and make the rest of us nostalgic for the edgy originality of his 1995 breakout film, L'Amore Molesto, which played in competition at Cannes (it is rumoured in the Italain press that this might follow suit).
Based on a posthumous novel by Goffredo Parise, The Smell Of Blood's venerable ancestry shows through in its alienated characters (as in vintage Antonioni, we're not always sure what's alienating them) who are forced into the service of a rather schematic story about sexual obsession.
Martone has pedigree, and there are things to like here, especially on the visual level; but in the end, although one admires older woman Fanny Ardant's courage in the sex scenes, neither her performance nor that of Michele Placido, who plays her estranged but still jealous husband, stave off the restless watch-glancing that will set in for most viewers around two-thirds of the way through. Only actress Giovanna Giuliani, whose cinematic debut came in Martone's previous, Theatre of War (1998), leaves a mark with her ebullient, gawkily passionate account of the husband's younger lover.
Italian cinema buffs will troop along dutifully to see this when it opens on 60-100 screens in Italy on April 2, and the Ardant connection should prove an attraction for their Gallic counterparts. But without strong critical reaction at Cannes - where a competition slot is rumoured, but far from certain - its prospects elsewhere appear limited to festival and ultra-arthouse circuits.
Carlo (Placido) is a fifty-something writer who lives in the country north of Rome with his lover Lu' (Giuliani), an impulsive, intense, sexily gamine horse-trainer. When Carlo visits Rome he still shacks up with his wife Silvia (Ardant) in their champagne socialist apartment in a well-to-do suburb of the city, but the two have a relationship that is so open that the doors have fallen off. Or so Carlo believes, until Silvia reveals that she is having a relationship with a mixed-up young neo-Fascist who likes to knock her about a bit and watch TV while she does it with other men.
Tormented by jealousy, Carlo keeps on at Silvia, in the course of repeated meetings, to reveal more and more salacious details about this affair with a man we never meet.
Martone is a master of tone and atmosphere, and at first, the sense of a gathering storm is well conveyed. The glaring light of early summer reddens pale flesh and shows up the lines on Silvia's over-powdered face; night scenes edge from soft, intimate tones into lurid chiaroscuro, and the sparse musical moments (a mix of 1960s pop and Romantic-era classical) create extra friction.
But Carlo's single-minded nagging of the long-suffering Silvia gets boring despite his titillating visions of fellatio (shown with an 'it as it was' candour that will trouble the censors in many territories). The war story Carlo is writing is fed to us in big voice-over spoonfuls, but neither this nor his fiery on-off relationship with Lu provide relief or illumination.
Martone's main change to Parise's text - which was written in haste, locked in a drawer, and never revised - is to suggest that Silvia's invisible lover may be an invention, or some dark game that her husband had forced on her; at times, we even get the feeling that she is describing episodes from her relationship with him, in order, perhaps, to reawaken their long-buried passion.
Frustratingly, though, these suggestions are not followed through and by the time the film ends we realise that for all his auteur attitude, the director has not sold us enough to decide one way or another.
Prod cos: Bianca Film, Mikado, Arcapix
Italian dist: Mikado
Int'l sales: Studio Canal
Prod: Donatella Botti
Scr: Mario Martone, from the novel by Goffredo Parise
Cine: Cesare Accetta
Prod des: Sergio Tramonti
Ed: Jacopo Quadri
Main cast: Michele Placido, Fanny Ardant, Giovanna Giuliani, Sergio Tramonti