During the Italian Actresses panel at last month's Chiller Theatre convention, horror vet Geretta Geretta mentioned a film she'd acted in that aimed to be a 1980s near-future giallo with minimal dialogue and feminist themes. Intrigued by how these seemingly disparate ideas might gel into a single film, I got my hands on a copy of Ivana Massetti's "Domino." Exploring ideas of female physical pleasure, human emotional love, and the isolating coldness of contemporary society, the film embodies the New Wave era nihilism that seems to be overlooked in the neon spandex flurry of today's 80s revival.
Music video director Domino (played by Brigitte Nielsen, an actress whose photo appears in the dictionary next to the word "Statuesque") lives in the kind of high-fashion, neon-lit, sterile glass cityscape that looks like it should be populated entirely by Patrick Nagel drawings. Domino drifts from one sexual encounter to another, entertaining several lovers but finding satisfaction with none of them. After she begins to receive phone calls from a mysterious stranger promising protection and fulfillment, she becomes obsessed with tracking him down. The more she seeks this unknown suitor, the more Domino begins to question her life and even her identity.
All this having been said, I'm here to tell you that the ultimate feminist statement in the neo-giallo form has yet to be made. I suppose that's great news for aspiring filmmakers, but it's bad news for "Domino." Unfortunately for this film, an interesting concept and a strong eye for visuals are undermined by Nielsen's middling performance and a general lack of cohesion to the production. While Nielsen is undeniably striking in still photos--and recent reality television appearances show her to be one HELL of a character in person--she's never resonated with me as an actress. Domino's lack of affect is a crucial part of the story, and it's a tricky task to reel viewers in to a movie about emotions whose heroine is icily distanced from her world. If Domino is struggling to feel passion, the viewer gives up in trying to empathize with her stern facade long before her character begins to show signs of life.
Several of the critiques on the IMDb page for "Domino" accuse the film of not making sense. While this assessment reflects the frustrating nature of this movie, this isn't an accurate criticism--the movie does make sense, but the plot is paper thin and the overall poor acting makes the film unsatisfying as a character study.
It's true that there's a not-insignificant amount of "bad" going on here, but the film isn't irredeemable for aficionados of 1980s retro-futurism. The film looks like a super-glossy music video with neon lighting, fashion shoots, and long sequences of moody, beautiful people brooding or fucking or talking on telephones. Textural details are handled well, from Domino's blinged-out pet turtle (no, really!) to her love of Billie Holiday. I don't know about you, but I can't imagine a movie that would be made WORSE by the inclusion of Billie Holiday songs. Domino's passion for Billie Holiday reminded me a bit of "Point of No Return" (the 1993 "La Femme Nikita" redux) and Bridget Fonda's character's borderline-obsession with the music of Nina Simone. There is (naturally) a parade of ostentatious clothing and wigs on display, and Nielsen looks great in an array of looks that evoke such icons as Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks, and even Adam Ant. Motifs of womb-like circles inform the set design, leaving me with the distinct impression that there was a thoughtfulness that went into the visual design that could have made this a really cool flick, had that same amount of attention been paid to getting good performances out of the cast.
Geretta Geretta's character, a tragic but sexually-empowered cabaret performer, provides an emotional counterpoint to Domino's distant personality. The moments the two women share resonate more than any of Domino's other encounters, and the erotic tension there is the best in the film. This may very well have been intentional, but it's a too-short highlight in an otherwise unremarkable series of character interactions.
Watching "Domino" isn't a dire experience, but it's the very definition of "A Curiosity." For those who want a unique perspective on the Italo-thriller, there are some good moments to be found, and this is certainly a one-of-a-kind document for scholars of feminist cinema. All others will be left puzzled and perhaps even angry at what might seem to be a softcore movie with artistic pretensions.