The old-fashioned quality to Fading Gigolo is not to be mistaken for familiarity as it is a film of modest surprises. Part of the novelty to John Turturro’s latest directorial effort is its self-awareness to the traditionalism it evokes. From an opening section shot on 8mm that dissolves into the image of a New York City bookstore, Fading Gigolo levies much of its concerns to the first word of its title. With a premise that involves two haphazard men of age benefiting from the sex trade , the film never leaves its male-fantasy perspective, but it does offer some impressive glimpses into cultural artifices of New York City that are rarely captured on film.
Writer/director John Turturro gets right to the point. Murray (Woody Allen) and Fioravante (John Turturro) are closing up their bookstore, tidying up the area. It’s Fioravante doing most of the heavy lifting though as Murray regales him with a story of how his therapist is looking to have a threesome - whereupon Murray suggested Fioravante as capable of satiated the women’s desires. Meeting the proposition with equal parts cynicism and curiosity, Fioravante accepts the offer and meets with Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone). Their encounter encompasses the awkwardness of sexuality and the social prerequisites taken before entering the bedroom. With the prospect of a threesome looming and the success of Murray and Fioravante’s partnership, Fading Gigolo would have amounted to a simplistic and misogynistic portrayal of aging women in need of sexual release - not even the comic banter between Turturro and Allen would have been able to sustain the picture. But the inclusion of a widowed Hasidic Jewish woman named Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) complicates the film by giving it a tinge of melancholia that, at first, seems ill-fit for the picture’s hypergolic intentions.
But her character, upon meeting Fioravante, alters the complexion of Fading Gigolo entirely. The emphasis of the picture’s initial act was largely of comic concern, with only passing hints at the ramifications of sensuality and how that’s tied with aging. Avigal’s character contrasts the simplicity of what a touch can mean, provoking the sense that all of Fioravante’s past indiscretions will amount to his undoing.
The interactions between Fioravante and Avigal have a remarkably touching cultural context that’s largely absent from most contemporary films. The fragility of touch is expressed with due concern from Turturro, who’s directorial presence during their sequences are remarkably sensual. Shot in hues of brown and yellow and confined to a small apartment, a pivotal scene between the two is remarkably assured and feels like a spiritual successor to the work of John Cassavetes (in his emphasis on the performer). Turturro understands the sharp contrasts to the oppositional forces within his narrative: he has the lonely, oversexed, and spiritually-absent women at bay on one side while he observes the spiritually-observant Avigal on the other. Dealing in black and white doesn’t offer a great deal of complexity to Fading Gigolo though, and it’s to be noted that while I was smitten with the picture’s tenderness between Fioravante and Avigal, it’s merely a piece to a larger tapestry that lacks the sheen of that relationship. I admire Turturro’s commitment to setting detail and the softness he’s able to evoke through his examination of sexuality and spirituality, but Fading Gigolo’s simplistic comic sensibility and ill-developed thematic trajectory gives its most satisfying components fleeting resolve.