Love, Domination and the Toxic Pursuit of Perfection

Manohla Dargis in The New York Times:

Amor Think of it as the intelligent woman’s guide to how not to have sex. You go on a blind date. The guy has a shaved head and beady eyes, and within seconds tells you that you are not as thin as he imagined. Most women – check that, most sensible, sane women – would tell baldy to take a very short hike off a very long pier. You know better. Even Bridget Jones, with her trembling jowls and insecurities, knows better and would cuddle up with a pound of toffee rather than subject herself to such outrage. The woman in the film “Primo Amore” is not made of such sternly self-reliant stuff.

Set in northern Italy and in the darkest recesses of a woman’s heart, “Primo Amore” is a horror movie about desire and the toxic pursuit of perfection. Sonia (Michela Cescon) hooks up with Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan) at a bus stop during an arranged meeting. At first she is overly eager, he is altogether aloof; given how Venusians and Martians usually align, that should mean they were made for each other. While stung by his comment – whippet-thin, her jowls don’t shake and her thighs don’t swish – she still goes out with him for a friendly drink. From her anxious gaze it seems clear she very much wants, even needs to forgive the man, either for her sake or his. Within a strangely short time the two are dating, house-hunting and living together, a postcard-perfect couple.

Sonia, as it turns out, is a woman who loves men too much and herself too little; Vittorio, in turn, is a man who would love Sonia more if there were much less of her to love. One day while out swimming with Vittorio, Sonia catches sight of a rangy blonde in a bikini. As the blonde settles next to the couple and stretches her long, model-thin limbs, Sonia shifts uncomfortably, her eyes nervously shuttling toward the other woman. The director, Matteo Garrone, captures the scene with cool detachment, letting us register Sonia’s discomfort from an easy distance. This not only keeps us outside Sonia’s head, for better and eventually for worse, but also lets us see that Vittorio appears oblivious to what is happening right next to him.

First comes love, then come the scales. Soon after the leggy blonde makes her unwelcome appearance, Sonia goes on a diet with Vittorio’s enthusiastic support. But what first seems like a foolish whim, a matter of vanity and the usual female neurosis, grows progressively perverse. As Sonia sheds weight, Vittorio starts to swell in size, not literally but in terms of power, taking increased control over her every bite and gesture. As in many domestic monster movies (“The Stepfather,” among others), the boogeyman appears to have crawled from beneath the bed and slipped under the covers.

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