Sunday, October 17, 2010

The two faces of a filmmaker

There is a Brian DePalma who made Dressed to Kill, Blow-Out, Phantom of the Paradise and Scarface. Then there is also a Brian DePalma who made Mission to Mars, Mission:Impossible or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Considering and comparing just these few among his numerous films makes you wonder how one and the same director can present such huge differences in the quality of his work.
The Black Dahlia
, his 2006-adaptation of James Ellroy’s eponymous novel cannot –for various reasons to be explained here- be classified neither into the first range of first class-films neither into the second one of rather mediocre works. The film revolves around the investigation on the horrific murder of a young woman in L.A. in january 1947. This is at least the pivotal story of the film, although it develops a wide range of subconflicts and secondary strands. The general mood is a very dark and gritty one, and it is exactly here that the film unfolds its strongest points. Close in style and narrative structure to the film noir, The Black Dahlia delivers a deep and three-dimensional portrait of the city during the filthy forties. It is an after-war world full of crime, corruption, obsessions, façades, lies and intrigues that is daedally depicted through a canny camera work and a very consequent colouring (amber and ochre tones being the predominant ones). On the formal level in general the film’s mise-en-scène is masterful. Another remarkable aspect is the strong acting, especially by the lead Josh Hartnett (in his best part here, along with the one in the witty Lucky Number Slevin).

Alas, the film presents numerous problems as for the narrative aspects. One major weak point are certainly the characters themselves that remain (with the only possible exception of Hartnett’s protagonist) rather intangible and puzzling. This might be to some extent intentional, but it nevertheless implies that the spectator is left utterly apathetic not just about the characters, but also about the story in general. The story itself is another problem, as it is often too complex and too proliferating. As already mentioned, the film features a bunch of secondary and confusing subplots, leaving the viewer behind with a vertiginous feeling and thus impeding any serious involvement. All in all, the range of characters is too wide and the development of the story itself is not very consequent. In the end, when all the parts of the story are (somehow) led together, the dénouement seems unsatisfactory (by the way, a constant problem in DePalma’s oeuvre in general).
In spite of some very intense moments, The Black Dahlia has nothing memorable or outstanding and is perfectly overloaded. It tries to combine a rather simple murder story with portraits of numerous characters (and their obsessions and neuroses, of the city of L.A., of the 1940s in the U.S., of the Hollywoodland film business, etc. and eventually fails on most of these.


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