“The Smell of Blood” is a lusty tale of marital infidelity uncomfortably trapped in the late 1970s, when Goffredo Parise’s controversial novel was written. Concept of open marriage as practiced by a bourgeois couple feels outdated, and their related torments (jealousy, madness, murder) foretold. Still, the story is meaty, and leads Fanny Ardant and Michele Placido are aptly paired as a “mature” couple still able to play explicit nude scenes. Film targets a broader audience than helmer Mario Martone’s more strictly intellectual works. Though they will miss a few political references, sophisticated Euro viewers should find this Italo-French co-production a temptation.
After 20 years of marriage, writer Carlo (Placido) and archaeologist Silvia (Ardant) have reached an apparently comfortable arrangement, sharing a luxurious apartment in Rome but going their separate sexual ways. In reality, she’s had a few flings, while he has a regular mistress, the horse trainer Lu (Giovanna Giuliani) he cavorts with at his country house (obviously off-limits for Silvia). Though she puts on a brave face, Silvia is clearly on the defensive in this situation, and gently complains about feeling abandoned. Carlo just shrugs.
So it is at first amusing to witness his jealousy when Silvia announces she has an admirer in his 20s (like Carlo’s girlfriend), a violent little “fascist.” Per their agreement, Silvia tells Carlo everything she feels like telling him, not sparing the four-letter words.
Story reaches a mid-film plateau in which Carlo’s jealousy goes through the roof, and he plies Silvia with cruel questions. Even Lu, his wise country lover, finds him ridiculous. Silvia, meanwhile, slips deeper and deeper into her obsession with the boy who, though he never appears onscreen, seems real and dangerous. And so he will prove to be in a tragic ending, viewed second-hand through Carlo’s eyes.
Martone, who has a parallel career as a legit helmer and is making his first feature film since 1998’s “Theater of War,” tackles the novel (written in 1979 but only published in 1997, long after Parise’s death) as a verbose challenge, without trying to adapt it much; this may be the pic’s main problem. Although we are told the protags’ emotional disorder reflects a chaotic, disorderly society, we don’t see much of the latter, apart from fleeting images of a war memorial, snatches of Parise’s reporting from Africa, and other barely identifiable material. This missed connection between inner and outer events creates a major loss of depth.
Pic’s one contemporary figure is the young Lu, played with healthy, down-to-earth perversity by the androgynous-looking Giuliani. The glamorous Ardant, very much in control of her character, is touching as she descends into hell in small, courageous steps, and Placido, an odd casting choice to play an intellectual, is surprisingly effective in a role that pairs physicality with blind, ranting sexism.
Echoing the film ’70s feel are camera set-ups that alternately recall Antonioni and Visconti. Jacopo Quadri’s sets unleash the full power of tasteful Italian design dominated by the color white, in tune with lenser Cesare Accetta’s clear, light-of-day cinematography, demonstrating that under-lighting is not necessary to create atmosphere.