Thursday, December 11, 2008

Review of The Pyjama Girl Case

Flavio Mogherini’s 1977 “The Pyjama Girl Case” (aka, “The Girl in Yellow Pajamas”) might be one of the most ambitious and innovative gialli ever made, though it’s so unpleasant and disheveled that it is destined to remain a neglected outlier. It’s exactly the type of failure that’s fun to debate; the type of cult movie that has plenty of originality and hardly any talent to pull it off. I find my simultaneously wanting to pan it and defend it from my own attacks. It begs to be remade, or at least plundered for its twists.

The plot revolves around a real life homicide that captured national attention in 1930’s Australia, although it has been reset to the modern day. An unidentified corpse (a girl wearing yellow pajamas) was found on the beach resulting in a much-publicized and highly controversial search for the identity of the woman and her killer. The case was closed after a decade, and the truth is still not entirely resolved. I'm might be imagining it, but I think it had an influence on Twin Peaks. “The Pyjama Girl Case” borrows many of the actual grisly details, including the body being suspended in formaldehyde and placed in public display, which seem almost too lurid to be true.

The movie stars Ray Milland and Dalila Di Lazzaro in parallel stories. Milland plays retired detective Thompson, a man determined to crack the case no matter how much legwork, stagnancy and disappointment must be endured (warning: it will be a lot). The DVD packages makes sure we remember that Milland won an Academy Award (“The Lost Weekend,” 1945), though it doesn’t mention that he’d spent the previous two decades making films that could be called, at their best, amusing schlock.

Di Lazzaro (“Phenomena”) plays Glenda, a friend of the pajama girl who’s currently involved with three different men, each of them potential suspects who also knew the victim. Her restless relationships with an older sugar daddy, a humorless handsome laborer (who she marries) and his worldly macho best friend don’t seem to bring her any contentment or fulfillment. Early in the film, she recalls an awkward sleepover with the pajama girl, who dons the iconic yellow pajamas and makes an overt lesbian pass. Because of the pajama girl’s pre-existing travel plans, none of her friends seem to think anything of her conspicuous absence, which remains almost totally unmentioned in their subplot.

Now I’m going to spoil the story’s main two twists, as I’m figuring most readers will not actually see the film. However, if there’s even a chance you will, you might want to skip this section as the twists are probably the only truly compelling reason to see it. OK, here we go:

Detective Thompson dies about halfway into the film. He is run down by the killer just before being able to confirm his identity. The audience is left totally in the dark and story switches to the other subplot for the remainder of the film. Considering that Ray Milland was the top-billed main lead, the only name star and the driving force behind solving the mystery, this is quite a shocking turn of events. I rewatched “Psycho” a few days after seeing this, and I have to say “Pyjama Girl” is nearly as surprising a star death, despite the sequence being relatively poorly handled and emotionally neutral.

But wait, there’s more. Late in the film Glenda receives her friend’s yellow pajamas in the mail, confirming our growing suspicions that the two stories are not actually parallel at all. The cross-cutting between her story and the detective are jumping from opposite sides of the murder. Indeed, Glenda’s friend is still alive and our female lead is actually the victim to be. Her story ends with her getting brutally killed the night before the detective’s story starts. The murder’s identity, which we had assumed would be the main twist, is really far less interesting. I’ll leave it unspoiled.

Mogherini’s ability to upturn our expectations and assumptions is particularly notable because it’s contingent on the structure of the film. While gialli are noted for their twists, they’re usually dependent on the identity, psychology and methodology of the killer: the who, how and why of the crime. When these questions are finally answered in the film, they are almost a let down. Compared to the elaborate and fancy climaxes of Argento or Martino, this one seems downright banal.

Having opted to avoid a flamboyant style in favor of a real world gritty realism, Mogherini stews us in a squalid atmosphere of melancholy, sleaze and hopelessness. Thompson’s trail of clues gets colder and more abstruse as the case wears on and on. Glenda’s sex life becomes gradually more uncomfortable to spy on. It seems to me that Mogherini systematically removes the typical thrills and pleasures of the genre until we are faced with one of the ugliest image of our world that I’ve seen in a giallo. By the time the lead finds herself prostituting at a grimy diner, I was left with the type of dirty feeling I usually associate with fodder like cannibal or torture films.

Yet Mogherini sights remained aimed above exploitation. Even as he turns our stomachs, he’s clearly hoping to be taken seriously. Why else would he misguidedly bank so heavily on character development? Milland performance is all saggy stoniness and undue caginess, but we’re supposed to respect him as a dogged, detail-oriented recluse who’s past his prime, but unwilling to give up. Di Lazzaro gets even more screen time and dialogue, and she tries her inadequate best to give a troubled, sophisticated performance that makes us care for, not just desire, her character.

Unfortunately, Mogherini and his cast are just not up to the task. Despite a lot of shouting, gesticulating and “deep” musical montages, no one in the film can command a scene or deliver the type of gravitas that their ambitious themes and subject matter demand. The minor characters are all grating and unlikable. The story seeps in around the actors, drowning them with excruciating slowness. The script can’t save them; it’s pre-occupied elsewhere. Meanwhile, the visual inventiveness that enlivens similar giallo duds is MIA.

But while I don’t think it comes together as an entertaining movie, I applaud Mogherini risks and revisionism. I admire the concept of his twists. I respect him rewriting the traditional giallo formulas with uneasy injections of police procedural, fallen-woman melodrama and true-life crime. Furthermore, the decisions to shoot on location in Sydney, Australia, to feature balladic music narration Ritz Ortolani and disco queen Amanda Lear and to keep the action infrequent and subdued are all gutsy, even if they fail to pay off.

This is a film that I can’t recommend and which I didn’t particularly like, but which I can’t hate, or even dismiss. Perhaps the best praise I can give “The Pyjama Girl Case” is that it’s more interesting than most generically good films.

Walrus Rating: 4.5

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