New York 2014 Review: In MISUNDERSTOOD, A Little Girl Contends With A Family From Hell
Leo Tolstoy famously opened his classic novel Anna Karenina with this statement: "Happy families are all alike. But all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way." You'd be hard pressed to find a family much unhappier than the one depicted in Misunderstood, the latest feature by actress-director Asia Argento, her third as director and her first filmmaking effort in about a decade.
The opening scene wastes very little time in establishing just how hellish an existence being part of that family is. Over a family dinner, mom (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and dad (Gabriel Garko) hurl vicious insults at one another, while the children are caught in the middle of this violent whirlwind. The one who gets the brunt of the cruel, abusive, and casually neglectful behavior that is the lingua franca of these familial relations is Aria (Giulia Salerno), the nine year-old central figure of the narrative. Dad is a popular actor who is currently seeking out more meaningful, artistic work, while mom is a concert pianist, prone to annoying her neighbors by banging out Rachmaninoff tunes as loudly as possible. As that opening scene undeniably indicates, these folks are hardly the sensitive artistic types indicated by their professions: these are monstrously cruel parents with quirks and indulgences that they exercise maximum freedom in expressing, the effects of this on those around them, especially their children, be damned.
Unsurprisingly, it's only a few scenes after the opening that both parents declare their intention to divorce. This leaves Aria very much out in the cold, since for some reason, as the only one of her siblings to have both mom and dad as her biological parents -- her two half-sisters are from previous relationships -- she's given inferior treatment by her parents, who indulge their ''own'' children. Consequently, she's shuttled back and forth between her parents' separate residences, based on whenever she gets in the way or they just tire of having her around. Aria is more or less left to her own devices; she's just as isolated at school as she is at home, her only friend being her classmate Angelica (Alice Pea), with whom she has the typical coming-of-age experiences -- crushes, smoking for the first time, withstanding bullying. When at a certain point she's banished from both parents' homes, with only her beloved cat as her companion, she finds solace in a group of street-dwellers, fellow outcasts who readily accept her.
Although Argento in interviews assiduously disavows any sort of autobiographical connections between Aria's experiences in the film and hers, the strongly personal feel of the film still vividly comes through. And the young actress Giulia Salerno delivers a remarkable performance as a girl buffeted by the often monstrously cruel treatment by those around her, but who still manages to maintain a plucky resilience. Unfortunately, all the characters around her come across as shallow caricatures, and the overblown, outlandish atmosphere becomes rather repetitive and grating. Misunderstood ultimately, and ill-advisedly, takes on the self-pitying tone implied by its title, casting a pall on its initially intriguing anarchic streak, making the film a far less resonant and enlightening experience than it could have been.