Friday, February 8, 2008

Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (Italy, 1973)

Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye is a movie that I would have watched sooner or later no matter what people said about it. And, from what I've heard, people don't have much to say about it that's very encouraging. However, I'm the type of person who always thinks, "How bad can it be?" And in this case I thought, "How bad can a sort-of-giallo co-starring Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg be?" I mean, if you're a fan, like I am, of 1960s French pop music, European genre cinema and unrepentantly seedy Frenchmen, you are basically doomed to see this movie whether you like it or not.

And the fact is that Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye isn't bad; It just isn't really good, either. Antonio Margheriti (here working under his Anthony Dawson pseudonym) is a director who, at his best, seems content with being just okay. He obviously knows how to set up a shot and light a set - and, in its best moments, Seven Deaths has the look of a lesser Mario Bava film, which isn't bad. But aside from looking handsome, the film is little more than a lazy composite of stock gothic horror elements--the aristocratic family with a blighted bloodline, the driven mad son kept locked from public view, the innocent young girl wandering wide-eyed through endless dark corridors in a foreboding mansion, etc--all of which are marched out at a fairly languorous pace.

That all might clue you in that Seven Deaths isn't really much of a giallo, either. That's fine, of course, unless you were expecting it to be one. Which you very well might, given that its title--which includes a numeral, an animal, a reference to death, and doesn't make one lick of sense--is about as giallo as Dario Argento slashing people's throats with a razor while wearing a Lucio Fulci mask in a stark white gallery filled with nothing but giant stainless steel sculptures of human hands (which reminds me, if you haven't experienced Braineater's genius Giallo Generator, you must do it right now).

In addition to that, in faithful Giallo fashion, the film's characters are uniformly unlikeable, and there is indeed a series of murders committed by a mysterious, gloved killer. Despite that, however, the aforementioned gothic trappings, the period setting (the 1920s, I'm guessing, based entirely on one hat that Jane Birkin wears) and relative lack of gore serve to undermine Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye having the feeling of a true giallo. That seems like quite a missed opportunity, seeing as how a figure like Gainsbourg would have so complimented--and been complimented by--the decadent, morally withered and cosmopolitan setting of the typical giallo.

Which brings me to another reason why, if you're someone like me, you shouldn't bother to watch Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye, even though you're totally going to anyway. Serge Gainsbourg really isn't in it very much. His police inspector character doesn't show up until well after the film's halfway mark, and when he does he's saddled with a ridiculous dubbed Scottish accent. (The film is set in Scotland, which makes it all the more jarring when the DVD's reinserted scenes, taken from an Italian language print, pop up). His relationship to the character his missus plays in the film is purely incidental, and so we don't get to see much going on between them.

Of course, that I had expected it to be different was no one's fault but my own, since, unlike the headlining Birkin, Gainsbourg is far from top billed. Though it's not like I expected the two of them to break into a version of "Je T'aime Moi Non Plus" complete with orgasmic moaning, either. I just thought that, since both halves of the famous couple were near the height of their celebrity at the time, the filmmakers might have tried to capitalize more on the fact that they were starring together. But instead it seems like Gainsbourg's role was intended as more of a cameo.

And it is an entertaining cameo. Even with the awful dubbing, Gainsbourg still manages to exude an air of casual debauchery that hangs around him like cheap cologne (along with the cloud of actual cheap cologne that I also imagine him to be wearing). Ambling onto a crime scene, rumpled and heavy-lidded, he comes off like a more dissolute version of Columbo.

As for Birkin, I have to say that I'm a lot more familiar with her work as a pop singer than as an actor. As such, I can only say that she doesn't hold a whole lot of interest here, and I'm guessing that's due more to the thinness of the stock gothic heroine character she's given to play than to her acting ability. She does do all the wide-eyed, lantern-bearing wandering through darkened corridors quite serviceably, though.

So suffice it to say that Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye does not rank up there with Histoire de Melody Nelson and Charlotte among Birkin and Gainsbourg's most successful collaborations. In the film's favor I can say that one of it's murder victims was a gorilla, which I thought was pretty innovative (the gorilla costume ranking between the one in King Kong vs. Godzilla and those of the kung fu fighting gorillas in Shaolin Invincibles in terms of quality). Also, the film is at least true to its title in providing a cat, though he's more of the well-fed, Garfield variety than the scary type of cat you might expect in this sort of film.

That's not a lot to recommend Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye, and if I were you I'd-- Well, if I were you I'd just watch it anyway, no matter how stridently people tried to dissuade me from it, because that's what I did. So just don't say I didn't warn you.

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