Morbid is the word for “Primo Amore,” an Italian tale of romantic obsession that’s less like “Vertigo” and more like a slickly-produced freakshow. In Matteo Garrone’s slow, pretentious film Vitaliano Trevisan plays Vittorio, the bald, reedy, stone-faced owner of a goldsmith shop specializing in jewelry who meets Sonia (Michela Cescon), a gregarious but needy clerk-model, through a dating service and proceeds to try to mold her into his image of the perfect woman–which, in his view, is apparently one who’s utterly emaciated. After they begin cohabitating, he forces her to shed pounds by fasting although she’s hardly plump to begin with (just as, you see, he purifies gold of its dross by heat). And when she understandably rebels against the cruel regimen, tragedy follows. Though one doesn’t want to reveal its precise nature, suffice it to say that at the end you might be more than a little reminded of “Sunset Boulevard.”
One certainly has to admire the unsparing nature of the two lead performances. Trevisan makes Vittorio a brutally clear-headed psychotic, a straight-backed, cunningly manipulative sort whose single-mindedness leads him to disaster. And Cescon literally bares all to fashion a portrait of a woman whose need for love overcomes any sense of independence or self-esteem. (The only other cast member of consequence is Roberto Comacchio, who provides a picture of genial obtuseness as Sonia’s brother, who conveniently goes off to Africa just as Vittorio’s plans emerge.) And a degree of admiration is certainly due Garrone, who, with his cameraman Marco Onorato, fashions a dark, shadowy color scheme that complements the grim mood of the script. The only scene that sticks out for its obvious visual trickery–and not to good effect–is one in which the couple go on a boat ride; the images are blurred to emphasize the fact that the two aren’t seeing things properly (or we them). It’s a cheap trick, unworthy of the rest of the movie.
But ultimately the unsavory tale of conjoined sadism and masochism, however smoothly made, doesn’t seem to have a great deal of point or purpose. Unlike Garrone’s previous effort “The Embalmer,” which also dealt with sexual obsession, this one lacks narrative complexity and surprises. To be sure “The Embalmer” wasn’t entirely successful in juggling its various plot threads, but it possessed a subtlety this more direct, less eventful picture lacks. “Primo Amore” is the sort of film you can respect for its stylishness, but in the end it comes across as obsessive as Vittorio, and no more attractive. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a tale about the avoidance of food should be so unappetizing, but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to watch.