The presence and absence of artwork in Dario Argento’s giallo classic Profondo Rosso (1975) act as puzzle pieces to solve the murder mystery. The Art of Fear puts it all together…
Profondo Rosso, aka Deep Red, depicts a series of gruesome murders committed by an unknown person (who turns out to be the mother, take that Friday the 13th!) as well as bits of the supernatural, childhood/psychological trauma, and an insane score by Goblin. Like some of the other films included in The Art of Fear, the art featured in Profondo Rosso act as clues or markers to finding the source of horror rather than being the source itself. These clues function in two parts: one as a painting and the other as a child’s drawing. As the narrative evolves, the initial perception of these artworks becomes more complicated for the characters and the audience. However when the revelations contained within each work finally emerge, they reveal not only who committed the murders but also the personal history as to why all this carnage began.
Maybe the painting was ready to disappear because it represented something important – Carlo
Pianist Marcus Daly sees his neighbor, psychic Helga Ulmann, spectacularly killed while standing in the courtyard with his extremely sad drunk friend Carlo. When he enters her apartment in an attempt to help her, there’s a hurried flash and blur of paintings in the long hallway as he runs past. They are such grotesquely haunted looking works of art that it seems natural to have them bear witness to a murder and, as we later find out, helpful in hiding a murderer as well. When the police arrive, Marcus asks if they’ve moved anything around, insisting that something is missing. He concludes it was one these hallway paintings, removed because it revealed something about the murder. He says it’s, “Just an impression.” In a way, he’s right. It’s just that this perceived absence is actually a very present and revealing object – a mirror. Argento reveals this truth in the last scene by re-creating a slower version of the first time we saw the hallway of paintings, giving enough perspective to discover it was only a mirror. But just in this moment of security, the mirror discloses the truth again – the murderess is lurking in the reflection!
Visual artists have often used the mirror as a metaphor for identity, truth, and illusion. Looking back in art history, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) and Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) used the mirror as a way to simultaneously show and distort perspective. In Las Meninas the viewer is in the same perspective as the mirror Velázquez uses to paint himself into the portrait, meaning that we see the entire scene played back as a painterly reflection. Van Eyck is also present in the The Arnolfini Portrait. Subtly reflected in the small wall mirror behind the couple, the viewer witnesses the artist during the act of creation.
Jump forward a couple hundred years to contemporary artist Anish Kapoor. The construction of many of his public sculptures and gallery works is made of a reflective mirror-like material. His popular Bean in Chicago’s Hyde Park and his recent Sky Mirror in Kensington Gardens offer an endless illusion of the surrounding landscape (both architectural and natural). More poignantly in relation to Profondo Rosso is Dan Graham’s Double Exposure (1995-2003), a mirrored structure housed in the Serralves Foundation gardens in Porto, Portugal. Whether standing inside or out, its mirrored state offered multiple versions of the viewer’s one current reality causing a friction between illusion and the truth.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words – Frederick R. Barnard
So if the painting-cum-mirror reveals who the murderer is in Profondo Rosso then it’s the child’s drawing that explains the origins of the killer. The drawing of a child with a bloody knife, a dead man, and a Christmas tree is seen in two parts of Marcus’ investigation: the first as a mural in the abandoned building and then with journalist Gianna Brezzi as a work-on-paper in the archives of the Leonardo da Vinci children’s school. Marcus’ friend, Carlos (a drunk, guilty homosexual with mother issues) made these drawings and because Argento establishes a link between the drawings and Carlos, it’s assumed he’s the perpetrator. Unfortunately for him, Carlos was merely a bystander to his mother’s insanity and killing of his father during a holiday dinner. We (us and Marcus) don’t discover this until the mirror comes into play.
Witnessing his mother murder his father has left Carlos with some serious residual issues; these problems he clearly and repeatedly attempted to discuss via a visual language. In Using Drawing as Intervention with Traumatized Children, Cathy A. Malchiodi says, “Drawing is a natural language for children and especially for the child who has been traumatized or experienced a significant loss. Self-expression through the simple act of drawing is one of few means of conveying the complexities of crisis, repressed memories, or unspoken feelings.” Clearly drawing this horrific incident did not recuperate any of Carlos’ trauma but it did act as a significant marker in Argento’s expression of how childhood trauma can be determined (and misinterpreted) as well as how art and discovery (self or factual) are often intertwined.
The painting/mirror and drawing are embedded into the film’s narrative as ‘objects of truth’ that function in the same way: they temporarily subvert the identity of the killer only to later reveal the truths they contain. Profondo Rosso uses this conceal/reveal structure with the artworks as a way to drive forward Marcus’ investigation of Helga’s death and to punctuate our own progress through the mystery.
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