Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Body Puzzle (1992)

Tracy Grant (Joanna Pacula) mourns the recent death of her husband while maintaining her career as a book editor.  Meanwhile, a deranged man (Francois Montagut) cuts up a series of victims, removes certain body parts, and sends them to her.  Intrepid detective Mike (Tomas Arana) is on the case!

Lamberto Bava’s Body Puzzle (aka Misteria) is a late-cycle giallo which plays more like a Cinemax erotic thriller (minus the eroticism) than a traditional giallo.  Bava learned much from his father Mario, and, if nothing else, the film is technically well-done.  There are a variety of murders, but only one of them is all that stylish or inventive.  Montagut spends the movie running around, knifing people practically in full view of any number of witnesses, and staring blankly at the world around him.  

As the story begins, the killer sits at a broken piano, fingering the dead keys to a recording we assume he made well in the past.  Like Don Music the Muppet, he smashes his hands and head into the keys which no longer sing for him like they used to.  This is the first indicator of the film’s dealing with the idea of the Self and the loss of same.  As the story unravels, we find out that Tracy also had a brother named Rad (who also recently passed away), and dead husband Abe and Rad may have known a certain unseemly character named Tim.  The removal of the victims’ body parts is a way for the killer to reconstruct Abe, for himself and for Tracy.  This becomes clear when it’s discovered that Abe’s coffin and remains were mysteriously disinterred and absconded with.  The killer’s physical identity is plain from the outset.  He doesn’t wear a black trenchcoat and black gloves.  If anything, he disguises his face with a stocking, but not from the audience.  He is also without personality, except in his murderous purpose.  The central question of the film is never “Who?” but “Why?”  Clearly, the killer is hellbent on becoming someone else to replace what he’s lost, but as a cinematic presence, he’s simply some stabby guy.

The film also concerns itself with the idea of the Observer and the Observed.  Bava makes stealthy and clever use of framing and reflections throughout the film in this regard.  As the killer trails a potential victim through a mall, we see her stare into a number of shop windows, her image reflected back at both she and us.  At the same time, the camera frames any number of mirrors and windows to show us the killer.  She never catches sight of him, but we do, and the way in which he is shown in these reflections (skewed, upside down, etcetera) emphasizes his Otherness.  Similarly, Bava uses POV shots to provide a voyeuristic sense to the film.  The killer watches Tracy at home through her bedroom window and her glass front door.  Of course, the reverse angles of these shots portray his perspective.  And yet, the POV is not always the killer’s.  Many of the tracking and Steadicam shots are from his viewpoint, moving along behind bannisters or clinging to the walls.  These we expect.  The other type of POV shots are his victims’.  One example peers up at the killer from underwater at a pool.  Another watches from inside a toilet as he lops a person’s hand off and it drops into the water (okay, that’s not an actual person’s POV, but it achieves the same effect).  These are shot from low angles, augmenting the killer as a figure in control and meant to be feared.  The undulating water distorts his image, making a mundane-looking guy into an apparition.  The director also wisely chooses to shoot many of the reactions to these POV shots at odd angles, almost never straight on.  The Observed “feels” the eyes of the Observer upon them, and the compositions reflect their unease.

There is also a hint of ideas about class in Body Puzzle, and while these are not central to the film, they do stand out the more one thinks about them.  Tracy comes from a moneyed family.  Mike is just a working class cop, and, naturally, he finds himself attracted to her (her physical desirability is matched by the wealth she possesses and doesn’t seem to pay much mind to).  Tracy can be seen as either a free spirit who does what she wants in spite of her parents’ wishes or because of them.  In other words, she “slums it” just to give them the finger, whether they know it or not.  As she tells Mike, Abe was a sort of gadabout.  He could do most things he set his hand to with some degree of facility, but he was not solid in the career department.  Further, Tracy’s father disapproved of Abe, believing that he was only there for the money.  Abe was a cocaine user, but, as his widow is quick to point out, not a junkie, though he always knew where to score (and note, she never states that she partakes herself).  Abe’s past is delved into, revealing seedier, lower class origins.  He used to live in a tiny portion of the flamboyantly gay Guy’s (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) carriage house.  After he married, he would bring his flings, male and female, there.  The film posits Abe as both a product of the lower class and an enthusiastic participant in it.  The stalking of the victims, the grimy, sweaty portrayal of the killer, and the way he looks in at Tracy’s life signify that he is also of the lower class.  He envies the Haves of the world, and this frustrates him to murder.  In that sense, his activities are as much a method of revenge on the upper class as it is a desire to enter or re-enter it.  The gathering of body parts is an offering as much as it’s an effigy, and it doesn’t quite matter to him that he is simultaneously destroying that which he seems to desire most.  

For as slick as Body Puzzle is, it is equally frustrating and tedious.  The plot points revolve around the killer stabbing someone and Tracy receiving a body part.  Mike takes some action which never moves him any closer to catching the murderer.  The dialogue between the characters is lifeless and cliché, more like small talk than anything progressing a narrative.  There is one major twist toward the end which is actually quite guileful in its revealing of how the audience has been duped.  Nonetheless, it also sends the audience’s mind reeling back through the rest of the film to consider just how sloppy and dimwitted the characters have all behaved up until this point.  Granted, many gialli don’t have the most coherent of solutions, but this one seems more brickheaded than the majority.  By the obvious, facile climax, Mike barely acknowledges Tracy’s presence (maybe he got all he wanted from her?), gets set to move on to the next case, and waltzes off into the night to get some much-needed sleep.  Unfortunately, the audience is already well ahead of him.

MVT:  Bava’s technical proficiency and what thoughtfulness he put into the film.

Make or Break:  The classroom scene.  It’s a delightful standout in a film that mostly sits down.

Score:  5/10         

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