Italian Studies: New York City Mon Amour, by David Bax
In many ways, Italian Studies comes across as a major departure from director Adam Leon’s previous features (2012’s Gimme the Loot and 2016’s Tramps). For one thing, its protagonist, Alina (Vanessa Kirby), has an actual, legal job, the kind you pay taxes on and are free to openly discuss in polite company. Though we first meet her at a London recording studio, observing a session by the band Let’s Eat Grandma, the bulk of Italian Studies takes place in the somewhat recent past, when Alina was a working writer living in New York City.
Being the sort of insufferable snob who has little to no familiarity with the Mission: Impossible or The Fast and the Furious franchises and only having caught up with The Crown as a result of our recent bouts of endless staying-at-home, Kirby, despite having worked regularly for more than a decade, feels like a new discovery to me. Based on my limited pool of reference, though, Italian Studies would seem to represent her best work yet. In the New York section that takes up most of the movie, Alina is struggling with a sudden onset of amnesia. Kirby thus gives a cerebral performance, embodying a woman who’s trying not to let on what’s happening to her by picking up clues in conversation with the people she meets and constantly adjusting her presentation of herself to fit.
It’s those other people that make Italian Studies feel like less of a departure and more classically Leon. Alina’s main companion, whom she meets at a hot dog counter and then tags along with the rest of the night, is Simon (Simon Brickner), a typically Leonian New York City street shark, constantly moving, constantly talking. He’s disarmingly sensitive but also unexpectedly resourceful, the kind of survivor/scammer that feels so singularly NYC.
Alina’s biggest clue as to who she was before she forgot herself comes when a young woman recognizes her on the street as the author of a book of short stories. It’s a revelation to Alina but also to the audience, a clue as to how to read Italian Studies. A short story in the middle of a collection is both inextricably tied to the larger work but also unaware of it. Alina’s fugue state or whatever you want to call it suggests a way to extract a segment of one’s life and examine it on its own, as a complete object.
Cinema, being simultaneously an abstraction and a documentation of reality, has always been particularly well suited to the subject matter of memory. Alain Resnais dedicated most of his career to it and produced some of the greatest films of all time along the way. Leon captures the disorganization of remembering, editing conversations, for instance, with audio but not visual continuity (a character we’re seeing appears to be speaking in voiceover but then suddenly starts saying the words we’re hearing in the middle of a shot). But the more intriguing and less easily explained elements are those that appear to exist outside of the film’s two settings (the London framing device and the 24 hours of Alina’s amnesia in New York). There are shots of Alina’s new friends without her but mysteriously with a different young woman who seems to be wearing Alina’s same outfit. And there are interviews with Simon and the others, conducted by Alina offscreen. Did these things actually happen and Alina just can’t remember where to fit them? Or are they her brain’s attempts to fill in empty patches with information? Italian Studies offers no concrete answers but offers to help us shorten the distance between our exterior and interior worlds.