Why can’t US audiences see Asia Argento’s great ‘Misunderstood’?

Earlier today, fellow film nerd Marc Heuck tweeted the following:


I reached out to “Doctor Strange” director Scott Derrickson, who is a producer on the film and who talked to me about it before the Cannes Film Festival, where it absolutely flattened me. I asked him if it's true that the film is still without a distributor, and he told me they haven't been able to figure out anything. Not theatrical. Not VOD. Not even a basic DVD release.

This is wrong. This is a mistake. Are you seriously going to tell me that there's not a single distributor out there who sees the merit in the film? Am I supposed to believe that there's no marketing hook you can craft around the daughter of one of the biggest names in genre film directing a film about a childhood spent being raised by artists? Asia Argento is well-known enough as an actor that studios have cast her in major roles. Is her name worth nothing as a director?

“Incompresa,” or “Misunderstood” as it's titled in English, is a beautiful movie about ugly things, and it's a beautifully-made film. I have no idea how much of it does or doesn't echo Argento's actual upbringing, and it's not important. What matters is how well she expresses that remarkable emotional landscape that exists inside of a child, and she shows exactly how the people who raise a child impact that constant internal weather.

After all, it is shockingly easy to break a child.

There are days where I seriously battle the crippling fear that I am not a good enough man to be a role model for my sons. I want them to be great people. I want them to be great men. I don't care what they do for a living or who they love or how successful they are, as long as they are essentially good. I wish them all possible happiness, and I am pretty much terrified seven days a week that I'm going to do something so wrong that I break one or both of them in some essential way.

But most days, I tell myself that I will rise to the occasion because I have to, and I make every effort. I think of them as part of every decision I make. It baffles me when other parents do not seem to do the same thing, and the older I get, the more I realize just how lucky I was to grow up with parents who seemed to be sane, mature, lovely people, because some people lose that lottery, and it is a mystery to me how they ever survive.

It would be easy to draw some sort of glib connection between “Misunderstood” and the very public childhood that writer/director Asia Argento had as the daughter of giallo master Dario Argento. The truth is, I have no idea what their relationship is or was, or how he was as a father or a husband or anything. I know his work. I know her appearances in his work. And beyond that, I wouldn't even try to speculate. It's irrelevant. Just because someone does or doesn't live an experience, it does't mean they can make a film that accurately captures that and conveys it to someone else. That's a whole different thing, and what's clear to me now is that Argento has a very strong command of voice, and she does a tremendous job with this movie of making me feel like I've spent time in the skin of this sad, forgotten, beautiful kid.

I tweeted after I saw the film at Cannes that it was “vulgar, sad, and infuriating.” I meant that as a compliment. The film is undeniably vulgar in a way that feels to me like it's meant to capture how it feels to be on the cusp of adolescence and surrounded by people who, although adults, are perpetually infantile, self-absorbed and decadent and awful. I thought the film was evocative and powerful and funny and goofy and deeply felt and a big middle finger and a heartbroken cry, all of that at once. I like that it's messy and raw. I like that it feels like she had to wrestle it up onto the screen. This isn't a film where you can easily divide it from the filmmaker. This feels like something that had to be carved out of her, and I kind of loved the hell out of it. In many ways, “Misunderstood” plays like a companion piece to Xavier Dolan's “Mommy,” another of this year's films at Cannes, and while I think Dolan's film is more technically polished, it feels to me like Argento's film is the one that I'll return to first. I would say it is more akin to something like “The Virgin Diaries,” a look into the secret life of teenage girls, or the dazzling “We Are The Best,” a look at a group of young girls as they discover the liberation of punk rock.

In “Misunderstood,” nine-year-old Aria (Giulia Salerno) Is caught between two famous parents. Her mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a well-known concert pianist, and her father (Gabriel Garko) is a movie star who specializes in crappy action movies with softcore porn love scenes. They are horrible people, full stop. Her mother uses men like Kleenex, a self-proclaimed “red witch” who talks to her children like they are therapists or reporters, not children, and her father is an overly-superstitious pampered baby. She has two sisters, both older, and each of her parents seems to favor one or the other. Aria is no one's favorite, the forgotten middle, and she is often bounced from one apartment to another by people who don't care where she is as long as she's not with them.

The thing that guts me about the movie is that Aria is a wonderful kid. She's got problems, but who wouldn't if they were being raised by two narcissistic dickheads who have no idea what it takes to love someone. This little girl is so open to anyone who is kind to her in any way that it's just heartbreaking. She has her one best friend, the two of them like peas in a pod, and there's a lot of great subtle stuff about the way Aria's intensity of affection is on a whole different level than what the other girl feels. She's turned up too loud in some existential way, and there's a degree of need that she projects that is almost difficult to look at. But it's beautiful as well, and you get the feeling that all she has to do is survive these moments, this childhood, and there is something exceptional waiting for her. That's the trick, though, isn't it? Every one of us who make it out of childhood intact should be thankful, because we know what it looks like when someone doesn't make it. We've seen those broken souls, uncomfortable in their adult skin, the walking wounded.

One of the conversations that I find myself pulled into every so often involves the way I put my top ten lists together for a given year. My personal opinion is that any film I see during that year, either theatrical or at a festival, is eligible. I get yelled at about that. I have had people tell me that I actively hurting films when I do that, that it doesn't help a film at all if it's not available to the public yet. In the case of “Misunderstood,” I didn't put it on my list for 2014 because it had yet to pick up any distributor in the US, and I had a sinking suspicion that the film wasn't going to get seen at all here. Here we are, almost a year after the film premiered at Cannes, and there's no word on when the film could come out here. Even if it finds a distributor right now, there's no guarantee when they'd be able to get it onscreen in 2015. So by the time it does come out here, there's a chance it could be two years after I saw it. At that point, will it make sense to call it a “best film of that year” for me?

It's maddening. If you're reading this and you work at a distributor in the US, let me urge you to take a look at this film, or to take a second look at it. The filmmakers didn't' reach out to ask me to write this. I'm doing it because I want other people to be able to see what I saw, so we can not only discuss it (and it is a film well worth real discussions afterwards), but also so Asia Argento is acknowledged as a filmmaker of real substance and can get busy making whatever comes next.

It seems genuinely unthinkable to me that a movie as good as this one, as deeply felt and as richly communicative as this one, may not get a release in the US. It's wrong. And I'm in no position to fix it. All I can do is point at the problem and hope the right person hears and then takes the chance and puts the film out. It may not look like immediate money, but this is a film that lingers, and one that deserves as broad an audience as possible.