Baba Yaga, also known in English as Kiss Me, Kill Me, is one of those bizarre horror movies that came out from Italy in the 1970s with total disregard for traditional film conventions. In its defiance, not to mention deconstructionist mockery, of basic elements film viewers take for granted, such as commonsensical plot, rounded characterisation and intelligent dialogue, Baba Yaga is radical, revolutionary cinema. How radical? Let’s put it this way: compared to it, The Tree of Life is a film student’s movie, that’s how bold this Italian movie is! Therefore facile descriptions of its plot, the ones multiplex-addled film goers need in order to make their uncritical choices – Aw, it’s a movie about giant robots blowing stuff up! Yay, let’s watch that! – are difficult to come by. In any event this is not a movie to watch for its plot or action. This is a movie to delight in its aesthetic beauty, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Color of Pomegranates. But I’ll essay a description: plucky photographer Valentina (Isabelle De Funès) must stop evil lesbian witch Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker) from getting into her panties, whenever she’s wearing any, I mean. Now dear reader, do not hasten to presume that most of the aesthetic beauty I meant concerns women in several states of nudity, although it has copious amounts of that too. It’s a sad truth that great movies need to use these ploys to attract viewers who care only about sex and violence.
Like most great art of the 20th century, Baba Yaga is first and foremost an achievement of mixed media, of the interplay between different arts, like Max Ernst’s collages or Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade. This movie is born from the convergence of cinema and comics, specifically Guido Crepax’s slightly erotic comics from the 1960s about a photographer whose bobbed haircut is styled after silent era star Louise Brooks (Crepax in fact corresponded with Miss Brooks in her old age). And this alone gives us quite a bit of intellectual material to chew on. The relationship between cinema and comics is an eerie foreshadowing of the role comics would have in American comics in the 21st century. The invocation of a silent film star is an artistic touch that places it amongst modern masterpieces that hark back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as The Artist. And the choice of photography as the character’s profession will not be ignored by knowledgeable fans of that other great icon of cinema, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. Now what role does photography play in this movie, you may ask, and I know you’re asking that right now. Is it there to make a commentary about fiction vs. reality, perhaps about how we construct reality? Well, no, actually. Baba Yaga puts a spell on Valentina’s camera and it kills people. Oh my God! You mean the haunted camera becomes a weapon? Is the movie making a statement about violence, then, the way Quentin Tarantino did at the end of Inglourious Basterds, when he turns a film role into a bomb to kill Hitler? Is that it, is Baba Yaga a powerful meta-commentary about how cinema desensitizes us to violence? Er, no, Valentina is just taking photos of scantily-clad models and the camera kills them, for no apparent reason. You mean it’s ambiguous? That’s even better! We already have lots of those movies that tie up all the loose ends, don’t we? I’m pretty sure Transformers 4 is already being made, but a good ambiguous movie that makes you think for yourself is hard to come by. I suppose you could put it that way.
However, the curious viewer should beware that Baba Yaga is a movie that speaks to the social fears and aspirations of its time. In fact one could almost say it doubles as a political movie, fiercely so. As a way of illustration we could refer to the seemingly pointless opening sequence where a film crew is making a movie about evil US soldiers killing poor Native Americans; or mention that a copy of Karl Marx’s The Capital is prominently in display in most shots in Valentina’s apartment. To say nothing of the provocative, taboo-shattering photo session involving a half-naked blonde woman and a half-naked black man. It’d be an understatement to say that this movie was hip at the time, hipper than a blacksploitation movie starring Richard Roundtree. However, the inquisitive viewer should be not discouraged from watching the movie because of these scenes. So long as he watches the movie realizing it was just using disorientating techniques borrowed from the Theatre of the Absurd (remember the interplay of different arts?) meant to wrest him from his social indolence by confronting him with important messages when he’s cosily watching a horror movie, everything should be alright. And in a way this is very postmodernist, isn’t it? Why should a horror movie about a lesbian witch who indulges in bondage sequences with a Louise Brooks lookalike, shy away from embracing Marxist-Leninist, anti-establishment messages? Let’s be honest: who wouldn’t want to watch a Dracula movie set in the Vietnam War? This is what modern art is all about, mixing lowbrow with highbrow, blurring genres, breaking down the artificial barriers elitists erected to keep Art from the common man. In this too Baba Yaga shows its incredible modernity.
However, a movie is above all a work of art, and the filmmakers do not ignore the visual look of this masterpiece. Let’s begin with the costume department, which is to applaud for its creation of several costumes mainly characterised by their skimpiness. It’s like a leitmotif running throughout the movie: clothes that cannot contain the actresses’ slanderous legs and voluptuous bosoms. And what can one say of the transparent telephone in Valentina’s apartment? A mechanical object whose transparency can only be interpreted as a powerful commentary on the way the actresses, by their own nakedness have been reduced to objects by the viewer’s gaze. Even in the littlest of details this movie makes you reflect about society’s hypocritical values. And then there’s the crowning achievement of the prop department: Annette, a creepy children’s doll dressed in bondage gear. Annette is obviously a homage to artist Hans Bellmer, whose own dolls representing prepubescent girls enraged Nazi authorities in the 1930s. Furthermore, the fact the doll becomes alive also presages Chucky, once again showing how this cinematic gem was clearly ahead of its time.
The acting is sublime. One should expect nothing less from Carroll Baker, one-time Oscar nominee. However the real surprise is Isabelle De Funès. Her inexpressiveness and refusal to give an emotional tone to most of her lines reveals her commitment to challenge all acting conventions. Glenda Jackson won the Oscar for her performance in 1973 for A Touch of Class, a performance and a movie few remember today. Watching Miss Jackson’s performance nowadays, one notices it has dated badly. Watching Isabelle De Funès, however, one feels one is watching Megan Fox or Robert Pattinson. Although she starred in less than 10 productions, time has validated her unique acting metods: today we can see many of the stylistic innovations of her acting influencing several up-and-coming young actors. I dare say she is the most groundbreaking thespian since Constantin Stanislavski introduced method acting.
So if you’re not daunted by a thinking person’s film, full of literary and artistic allusions, not to mention powerfully resonant social messages; or if you’re simply intellectually curious to know how a horror movie made by a committee of hippies would look like, watch Baba Yaga.
Director: Corrado Farina
Screenwriters: Guido Crepax (comics), François de Lannurien, Corrado Farina
Cast: Carroll Baker, Isabelle De Funès, George Eastman, Ely Galleani, Daniela Balzaretti
Country: Italy, France
Runtime: 91 min