“I’m Anna Battista, I’m 24 years old, I live in Rome, and I’m the most lonely girl in the world,” Asia Argento’s lead character, a famous young Italian actress, proclaims in the writer and director’s 2000 film, Scarlet Diva. A semi-autobiographical depiction of Argento’s life, the film follows Anna, a wandering party girl who’s grown disillusioned with acting, as she falls down the increasingly trippy rabbit hole of the film industry and desperately tries to crawl her way out of it.
While Scarlet Diva may feel like a diaristic lo-fi indie project at first glance, a grainy manifesto of romantic self-reflection, it descends into something closer to a horror film, complete with disorienting, blood-drenched dream sequences and a vulnerable performance from Argento that stays with you long after the credits roll. The horror villain is, almost always, a man. At every turn, men disappoint Anna, whether it be the fans and journalists who claw at her for sex and attention, her rock star lover who lives on the other side of the world, or the famous male film producer who tries to rape her in his hotel room, who we now know was based on Argento’s own experiences with Harvey Weinstein.
Scarlet Diva was initially released to lackluster reviews, some of which declared Argento’s film as too self-indulgent; others went so far as to slut-shame the author. But watching it in 2018—the movie was recently re-released by Film Movement Classics and will screen at New York City’s Alamo Drafthouse and other locations starting May 11—it plays like a prophetic and wildly original snapshot of an actress who realizes that Hollywood and her “bad girl” image is consuming her from the inside out. Long before she shared her story with Ronan Farrow for a 2017 New Yorker report—in which she accused Weinstein of forcibly performing oral sex on her in 1997—Argento wrote, directed, and starred in her own so-called #MeToo story, with the messy, radical brushstrokes of someone who grew up well aware of the dark side of movie-making.
Since then, Argento has become a vocal, candid activist within the #MeToo movement, criticizing groups like Time’s Up for exclusivity and apologizing for her own mistakes, including signing a petition in support of disgraced producer Roman Polanski’s release when other actors wouldn’t. Ahead of the re-release of Scarlet Diva, Jezebel spoke to Argento by phone about the making of the film, how she’s surviving these days, and what she hopes will happen to Weinstein.
JEZEBEL: You’ve said before that Scarlet Diva was a sort of exorcism of your personal demons...
ASIA ARGENTO: Whoa.
Does that still ring true to you?
Well, they were personal in the sense that I lived them. But they were demons that lived outside of me, that attacked me. This movie was my way to protect myself, in one way, and also to get revenge, in another, for things that I lived and I knew were not right. I don’t know with what courage I managed to do this [movie], a few years after what had happened to me—against one of Hollywood’s most powerful men and other abusers, too. And it’s because I didn’t know this was [Weinstein’s] modus operandi.
Of course, it felt like one of the worst things that had happened to me. My life was so affected by this incident. A few months after, I started suffering from PTSD and not being able to leave my apartment. I had self-proclaimed agoraphobia. That’s when I started writing this movie, which started as a book first. It was actually my father who said, “I see a movie here.” I wrote the movie in one night. I couldn’t sleep. I felt the urge to do so—I didn’t think of the consequences. The same thing happened when I spoke the truth when Ronan Farrow asked me to speak. He knew about it, as many people did throughout the years. Because of my movie, people had asked, “Is this Harvey Weinstein?”
In that scene with Barry Paar, a Hollywood producer we now know to be inspired by Harvey Weinstein, you overpower his sexual advances and run away. Why was it important to write yourself running away in that scene?
There was a second time that I didn’t even tell Ronan about, but my sisters, who have [also] suffered years of subsequent stalking and manipulation from Weinstein, know about it. I don’t really remember because I blocked this memory. I remember running away from this room and finding one of his assistants. I fantasized about wanting to save myself [at the time]. I didn’t want to live that again [in the film]. So in the movie, I get to run away. But I remember running away from a hotel room where there was a second meeting about the movie. All I remember is, going in, there was an assistant, a woman, blonde, and then I remember her leaving during the meeting [with Weinstein], and then I remember me going away with my clothes and trying to clean my face and I see the assistant, and I put that [experience] in the movie.
You’ve said that the way in which Ronan Farrow told your story involving Weinstein was too simplistic. What about it was simplistic for you?
Well, he even wrote—when you go to his tweets—that not a paragraph, not a book [could tell my story]. But maybe I’ll write a book, because it’s my story. I remember before the story came out—really at [that] point I knew only about Rose and me. Weinstein said [to the press], “Oh, this story’s so good, I want to buy the movie rights.” And I said, I own the movie rights, because I shot that shit that has happened to me. To go back to Ronan, the thing is, it is disquieting—and that’s why I don’t do many interviews at all actually—to give your narrative to somebody else. I trust Ronan completely, and I trusted him to do this for all the women. I couldn’t ask of Ronan to describe years of stalking. I told him about it, but I couldn’t ask for him to write [about everything] that happened to me during these years. But he knows I feel this way and I don’t hold any grudge because I understand I couldn’t be the [whole] story. But I will write my story.
But I feel like I have to explain because of the backlash—horrible people in newspapers and TV shows shaming me everyday for months, saying I’m a prostitute because they misread the article. I did not have a five-year consensual sexual relationship with Harvey Weinstein. It’s very different, and it’s not told in Ronan’s article and that’s a slight problem. But in that moment in time, there was this huge wave coming and I had to go under and step aside for the other stories of the other women to come out. Otherwise, I would have had to ask him, “Wait a minute, explain more.” And finding out there were spies, Black Cube, and these other women he had hurt—it was so fucking scary. If I had known all this when I made the movie... I just thought he was one of the most powerful men who did this to me and I was like, fuck you motherfucker! I am a free woman, I’ve worked in cinema since I was 9 years old. Days after, I remember the shock, and to this day, I’m still shocked.
In terms of the backlash you received for coming out with your story, I know recently you tweeted about your experiences shooting with Catherine Breillat, that she was one of the most sadistic directors you’ve ever worked with. Why was it important for you to share that story? Have you spoken to her since coming out with that story?
No, I’ve never seen her again, and then she comes out insulting “Balance ton porc,” which is the French #MeToo, and me in particular, saying I am a mercenary. She worked with [photographer] David Hamilton and I wonder if she would shame his victims also, a guy who killed himself with a bag over his head instead of facing the little girls he had molested. [Editor’s Note: Hamilton died by suicide in 2016 after multiple women accused the photographer of sexual assault when they were minors; Breillat co-wrote his 1977 film Bilitis.] I don’t accept that a self-proclaimed feminist can shame me [like that]. [She] made my life a complete and utter nightmare during the shoot, one of the worst experiences of my life. So I felt like, hey, I just have to say [this].
Because, as actresses, you’re taught not to be difficult. Luckily, I don’t consider myself an actress [anymore]. But actresses, the ones who have spoken out, they’re faced with the problem of like, oh, she’s difficult, we can’t work with her. I see many of my sisters that have come out are going through this; they can’t get work, and if they can’t work, it’s a problem. Because we’re taught we have to be in a position of submission to work the system in the hierarchy of cinema: the producer, the director, the actors—and at the bottom are the actresses. You can not say anything, you have to learn the lines and people mistreat you, and you put up with a lot of shit. And actors, of course, will not tell you, oh this director was a nightmare to work with. One of Catherine Breillat’s movies is called Anatomy of Hell. Well, she taught me about that place very well.
How have you been coping with the backlash in general?
I sort of stay alive. Having to relearn to live a life where there’s this elephant in the room that I decided not to look at for all my life and now it’s there; it’s in every room. The women I’ve met, the activism that came after this necessary change for women in every industry, it has changed my life. It’s not something that is so light, you know? It’s not like I’m deciding to do gardening. It’s very depressing and enraging and it’s okay to be enraged. I think men don’t want us to be angry. But I’ve always liked the 1980s and ’90s movement of angry women. They had to get angry—really angry—and riot to get what they wanted. I think that women are really angry right now because of this position of submission in society, not only in movies but everywhere. If by any chance they try to stop our voices, I think women will rebel heavily because now the voice is liberating and we’re standing with each other. I don’t see this stopping any time soon.
The criminal investigation into Weinstein is still ongoing, cases have been sent to the LA District Attorney’s office here in America. Are you involved in the investigation? Are you hoping to see criminal charges?
To me, given the statute of limitations in France and Italy, I stand no chance against him. I’m sure they’re coming in on him in every aspect. With what he did with women, with money, with spies, he has a lot to fear. So I hope that this will take away his obsession [with hurting] the victims that he’s hurt further. The way we are forced to think of him when we see his picture every day on the newspaper—it’s very triggering. We want justice, and I think the Cosby verdict sends a very powerful precedent—undeniable—that these people will be held accountable. Rape is a very difficult crime to prove, but finally women are being believed. So yes, I do have hope. My hope is that he will be held accountable.
Are you working on any new film projects, writing and directing, right now?
Yes, but you know I’m the kind of artist who likes to talk about things after I do it because I’m also superstitious. It’s bad luck! [Laughs] Every time I’ve spoken about something before I do it, before I sign the contract and we’re shooting, everything goes down the drain. Believe me, I’m staying alive and doing well artistically and my projects aren’t in acting. I don’t care about that [anymore].
I’m glad that people are getting to see Scarlet Diva again in theaters.
You know I have to see it again. I haven’t seen it in so long.
It feels so relevant to women’s experiences right now.
And at the time, people spat at me for it! I remember they’d go, oh, so self indulgent. People would say, oh you want to say poor me, the victim, everybody wants to fuck you. I remember men telling me that and I was really vilified for the movie in Italy; they couldn’t take it. I guess it took 20 years for it to become relevant, but I’m glad it did. I’m very grateful.