I first saw a bit of this movie on Showtime late one sleepless night. It had one star, and, given that Time Warner gave Phantom Menace three stars, that’s saying something. I did some research, and found a whole host of user reviews proclaiming it to be a shitfest. I got it on Netflix, watched the whole slow, painful thing (seriously, it’s barely 90 minutes, but it feels like three hours), and… was conflicted. I wanted desperately to bring it to the Yakmala! gang, but I was worried about the reception. Would people enjoy it as much as I did? Was it just a boring art film? I made the decision to screen it at the most recent Yakmala!
My fears seemed unfounded. Though not the star attraction Twilight became, the gang seemed to appreciate The Black Widow as much as I did. Let’s discuss why.
The Black Widow is the brainchild of video artist Giada Colagrande (whose last name is an old Sicilian phrase meaning “large Pepsi”).
According to IMDb, she created video pieces such as “Carnaval” and “Fetus 4 Brings Death.” I’m wondering if she worked on the previous three “Fetus” films: “Fetus,” “Fetus 2 Brings Pizza,” and “Fetus 3 Brings Pizza Harder.” Her only previous official cinematic credit is Aprimi il cuore, an Italian-language film about two sisters who fuck each other, I think? Go look at the trailer there. Tell me otherwise. Given that it was also shot on video and seems to be a dark piece, I’m sure Giada is a ball of fun at parties.
Hey, did you try the onion dip?
We are all spiraling naked toward destruction, blindfolded to the truth!
So, yeah…. good dip.
She looks like an Italian Jane Adams.
Anyhoo, the movie tells the story of Eleonora (Colagrande), a recent widow who travels to rural New York to inherit the Rubber House, an iconoclastic home in some bumfuck town there. While there, she befriends the caretaker, Leslie (Willem Dafoe), a relationship which turns into love (?, sex?, something?). During this, she learns of her husband’s infidelities, and Leslie’s own hesitations, including an on-again, off-again affair with the local deli counter girl (really). And… that’s about it. That’s the whole movie. Ninety minutes of that. Sound slow? You have no idea.
Now, in a Wiseau-like wrinkle, Colagrande wrote (along with Dafoe), directed, and starred as Eleonora. I’ve found if you’re going to do a hat trick like that, you better be damn good at all three. Suffice it to say, Giada Giantsoda isn’t.
First, the writing. The script doesn’t even know what it wants to be. Is it a romantic melodrama? An erotic melodrama? A supernatural thriller? A cautionary tale about real estate probate? A comedy? At some point during the film, each of these genres takes a bow, and yet it never fully commits. We’re tantalized with the idea of Eleonora’s husband possibly having multiple affairs, but that’s barely explained in a couple of scenes where she finds Polaroids of half-naked college girls (the best kind of college girls, BTW). Then she grumbles about it to Leslie. Done. There’s a supernatural element that would be awesome if it were, you know, developed at all. Weird house, in the middle of the woods, owls looking in (oh, the owls, but more on that later); it’s a Stephen King story cocked and ready to go. Shit, at least Dean Koontz. But, despite a dream sequence late in the film, we again get blue balls.
And what we are given is ridiculous. Long conversations about nothing, arguments that awkwardly express characters’ emotions, and endless trivia regarding a house we’re not actually in, and could care less about. Honestly, one long scene involves Leslie telling Eleonora, in painstaking detail, about how the chimney in the house is designed incorrectly and blows smoke back into the living room. Let’s not also forget the scene where we’re informed how the phone receives calls, but doesn’t make them, because the bill wasn’t paid. Or the scene where Leslie tells Ellie about how to work the alarm. Why do I know these things? Because the script has Leslie explain them to Ellie, in real time. Like “24,” except instead of terrorism, it’s a blocked toilet.
Second, the acting. Let’s just say Giantsoda takes to acting like a duck to acting. I hate to keep rehashing the Wiseau comparisons, but Giada is as adept at emotional scenes as Tommy. She plays her emotions close to the vest, or she just sucks at performing, one of the two. Scenes that are supposed to be charged with anger simply sound like a fourteen-year-old arguing with her father about breaking another cell phone. Halfway through the film, she proclaims, “I’m a part of this house now! When are you going to take care of me?” This, I think, is supposed to be the emotional apex of the film, but just sounds like every failed audition you’ve ever seen.
In fact, everyone in this film is terrible, excluding Dafoe. He is Black Widow‘s Torgo, seemingly wandering in from another of his oddball indie flicks into a student production. It’s almost cruel how, even with such limited material, he blows the doors off everyone else, including Seymour Cassel (in the film for five minutes as a horny old man of some sort) and Isaach De Bankolé (as the waiter in the film’s most amazing scene, to be discussed later). Exceeding even Giantsoda’s wooden style is Emily McDonnell as Gail, the deli bimbo Leslie is involved with. A look at her IMDb profile shows that she’s actually a TV sound mixer, who’s in this movie for some reason. Still, she’s only in the film for five minutes as well, leaving Giada to take the “Awesome Acting” award.
Third, and most important, the directing. As inept as the script is, and as mannequinesque as her acting is, Giantsoda’s true talent (read as: lack of) is her baffling direction. Her reliance on long master shots is painful to watch. Entire scenes are played out in one distant take. I’m a fan of breaking editing convention like the next geek, but seriously, throw a shot/reverse shot exchange in there once in a while, huh? She’s also fond of setting the camera in the wrong goddamn place. More than one conversation happens offscreen, or behind a window, so that we can barely hear what’s going on. Keep us out of the loop if you want, it’s an artistic choice, but pull the trigger and keep us away completely. Don’t show me Eleonora fiddling with a desk lamp while we faintly hear Leslie arguing with someone outside.
One piece of trivia: this film was originally titled Before it Had a Name, and it seemed to be an R-rated film. Why it was retitled as The Black Widow and re-edited to a PG-13 is beyond me, since a “high art” film like this gains nothing by roping in the teenage market. Hilarious, though, are the efforts made to clean up the film. Giantsoda’s visual dodge is a shot of an owl in the woods. While it’s used in context during the movie, it’s painfully apparent during the final scene that she’s using it to cover some brief nudity, since it appears midway through another trademark single master shot as she’s changing pants. There’s also some Room-level ADR in this scene that sounds like it was recorded with a tin can in the middle of a tin can factory. Also entertaining is the fact that Ellie says “fucking,” and Leslie objects to her saying that, but since they’re ADR’d, they argue over using “freakin’.” Even Mormons don’t mind “freakin'” anymore.
All three of these elements combine in the most transcendent scene in the film: the restaurant. Leslie takes Ellie there, and tells her they have great lamb. The waiter – a tall, imposing African man in a town full of pale white people – informs them of the special, something called “Deconstructed Jambalaya.” The confusion about the dish, and the ensuing passive-aggressive bickering between Leslie and the waiter about the nature of deconstructed jambalaya is hilarious. Our opinion is that this exchange must actually have happened to Dafoe and Giantsoda. Also, when Leslie finally orders lamb, he gets it in about two minutes. Now, I’m no food expert, but I think a large rack of lamb takes more than two minutes before the parasites get killed. Unless they’re making lamb in advance; in which case, we have the world’s only fast-food lamb restaurant.
Look, we watch all sorts of shitty movies at Yakmala! But they’re usually genre flicks that end up being fun because no one was trying to make a statement. I know people worked hard on Legend of Chun-Li, but no one, even its most ardent supporters, thought they were making Oscar-caliber material. This movie, like The Room before it, was obviously trying to be something greater than it ultimately was. The comparisons to Wiseau’s masterpiece are apt; this movie is kissing cousins with The Room. Both are overly dramatic attempts at discussing relationships that fail on every level. Wiseau wins the Fun Game by a mile because his work was so inept in such the right way that it’s incredible. Black Widow is too slow and torpid to ever be as fun, but it’s certainly not without its charms. Namely: the ridiculous orchestral soundtrack stings that come at all the wrong times, the debate about “deconstructed jambalaya,” Giantsoda’s wooden acting, and Dafoe’s polar-opposite performance. Seriously, how the fuck did he get wrapped up in this mess?
There you go. OOPS, Willem, that’s your girlfriend! Or wife, I guess!
Lesson: Husband and wife teams can work in show business, but if they don’t, hoo boy. Watch out.