Directed by Nicolas Roeg, Bruce Beresford, Charles Sturridge, Julien Temple, Ken Russell, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Robert Altman, Franc Roddam, Bill Bryden
Starring Theresa Russell, John Hurt, Elizabeth Hurley, Bridget Fonda, Buck Henry, Anita Morris, Beverly D’Angelo, Tilda Swinton, Marion Peterson, Valerie Allain, Gary Kasper, Peter Birch, James Mathers, Andreas Wisniewski, Angela Walker, Sophie Ward
Aria is an exquisite collection of short films set to formal songs culled from the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi and others. This is not just MTV for the art house crowd; it’s a siesta beset by fever-drenched dreams—the cinematic equivalent of either religious ecstasy or a bad trip. I doubt there are many films like Aria in our future; the odds of such a project coming together this beautifully are remote at best. The segments here are of varying quality, but there isn’t a stinker in the bunch—they range from good to breathtakingly brilliant. That’s pretty rare for an anthology picture; most are mixed bags. (Batman: Gotham Knight and Fantasia 2000 are among the exceptions.) Aria sustains an air of dark eroticism from the first to last reel, and that’s nothing short of miraculous when you consider that there are ten very different moviemakers lending their talents to this thing. Granted, some are more clued into what producer Don Boyd was trying to do here than others: Jean-Luc Godard, Franc Roddam, Ken Russell, Charles Sturridge and Julien Temple all find that ever elusive catch that joins film and opera in a way that brings both to the fore, while Robert Altman and Bill Bryden can’t decide if they should be reverent or flip. But they all seem jazzed by the concept. Aria is sexy, droll, poignant, bracing, difficult, enlightening and utterly deranged—it’s unlike any experience you’ve had at the cinema before. I first saw the film some twenty years ago, and every viewing since then (and they were legion in my late teens) still leaves me feeling bewitched, bothered and bewildered. Some call Aria pretentious; I call it poetry twenty-four frames a second.
Aria begins rather unadventurously with the first chunk of a wraparound segment by Bryden, a director with a résumé so anemic that he makes Terrence Malick look like a workhorse. John Hurt plays a washed-up (but impeccably clad) performer reminiscing about days of yore as he readies himself for what he senses will be his final curtain. We will revisit this morose fellow throughout the course of the picture as he smears greasepaint over his craggy face, dons Canio’s immortal clown outfit, and sits in front of his dressing room mirror while drawing on a fag and looking back in anger. When he finally steps out before the footlights, we discover that the house is empty, save for a mysterious woman in the balcony. She stares blankly at the little man, who turns on a phonograph player and Milli Vanillis Enrico Caruso’s famous performance of “Vesti la giuubba” from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. He gesticulates fervently to the music that crackles and pops on the dusty plate of vinyl (a million copies were sold in 1904), his heart filling with the blazing passion that only a good tune can provide. Then he drops dead. Yep, this is opera. There are times when you might suspect that the Grim Reaper had a bony hand in processing the film, but Aria has plenty of humor, too. And nudity. Lotsa nudity.
Nicolas Roeg uses excerpts from Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera to score a yarn rooted in the botched assassination attempt (believe it or not, this was just one of fifty-five) on King Zog of Albania when he was visiting Vienna in 1931. (The original opera was loosely based upon the killing of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792.) Played (inexplicably) by the once smoldering Theresa Russell (Roeg’s wife and frequent leading lady), King Zog sits surrounded by bulldog-faced bodyguards in his private box at an opera house that’s putting on a spectacular production of the very show upon which this episode draws its inspiration, though in real life he was attending a performance of Pagliacci. (Historical accounts confirm, Mr. Ebert, that this is not entirely a flight of fancy.*) Perpetually swathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke, he exchanges penetrating glances with a comely baroness on the opposite side of the auditorium—his secret love (Stephanie Lane). Russell’s eyes are accentuated with a strip of light (think Angelica Huston in The Addams Family), and Roeg spends an inordinate amount of time fixating on them. (Are we being challenged to look beyond the actress’s sex? I don’t know, but I find these ambiguities appealing.) When King Zog exits the opera house, three thugs in dark overcoats approach him with their weapons drawn. But the king’s not worried; something told him to carry a sidearm on this cold winter’s night. He empties the pistol’s chamber into his would-be assassins, and blood from their bullet wounds plops into the freshly fallen snow. (I like it when my gunplay is backed up by opera music, and no film did this better than The Godfather Part III. Interestingly, the opera featured in the sequence where Michael Corleone was targeted for assassination at the Fondazione Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Italy was Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, which is routinely performed on a double-bill with Pagliacci.) The photography by Harvey Harrison and Christopher Hughes is superb; it gets a lot of mileage out of the snow-covered Viennese architecture. (But it’s really Verdi’s music that keeps us enraptured.) This is a highly stylized, unblushingly romantic piece, undermined only by the sight of Russell sporting a ‘stache and wearing her hair beneath an oily, jet-black rug that gives her a pointy crown reminiscent of Zip and Pip. The actress appears in the first and last shots—sans boy clothes—as she looks upon Vienna from her bedroom window and runs her fingers through her long, beautiful locks. From this we may deduce that she was daydreaming about being in the middle of this obscure bit of history, but the real enigma is why she’d fantasize about being the king instead of his object of affection. I suppose one reason works as well as another.
And so we move from the lush and quixotic to the austere and nihilistic. Charles Sturridge’s vignette, shot in stark black and white, is as sad and lingering as anything the Italian neo-realists ever came up with. “La virgine degli angeli” from Verdi’s La forza del destino serves as the soundtrack for an anecdote about three runaways who steal a car. Some rather baroque shots of their joyride are interspersed with heavy religious symbols: flickering vigil candles and a statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the Baby Jesus. A policeman spots the junior car thieves and takes after them with his car’s emergency lights reflecting off of the rain-slicked streets. When he finally catches up to the kids’ vehicle, it’s a fiery tomb. The ill-omened music fades out, the noise on the police radio comes up, and I’m left with a lump in my throat that just won’t go down.
Jean-Luc Godard’s very avant-garde interpretation of Lully’s Armide takes place in, of all places, a Paris gym. A couple of scantily clad babes (Valérie Allain and Marion Peterson splitting the role of Armide) take care of wiping down the equipment and scrubbing the floor while muscle-bound he-men curl and bench press ten-ton weights. The girls break now and again to admire the men’s muscular forms, but the men (narcissistic dumbbells all) are too preoccupied with themselves to take notice of the mouth-watering T&A slinking around them. (Although I sure did. Meeeow!) Perhaps the oversexed devotchkas are dead and they just don’t know it; even after they strip down to their birthday suits, they’re unable to motivate a single bodybuilder into stealing so much as a sidelong glance. (Or maybe this gym is really located in San Francisco.) One of the girls becomes particularly enamored with one of the sweaty men (a stand-in for Armide’s Knight Renaud, I guess), and when her feminine wiles fail to break through his indifference, she contemplates sticking a dagger in his back. Of course, this is all perfectly absurd (I’d expect nothing less from Godard), but there’s something weirdly compelling about it. It takes a certain kind of genius to distill Lully’s four-hour tragédie en musique into a twelve-minute skin flick for eggheads.
Though Godard’s nod to Armide is funny, some genuine (and accessible) comic relief at last arrives courtesy of David Bowie’s preferred director, Julien Temple. Choreographed to highlights from Verdi’s Rigoletto, this inspired piece of physical comedy stars Buck Henry as a movie producer who leaves his ailing wife home alone so he can partake in a weekend of debauchery with Beverly D’Angelo at the infamous Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Little does he know that his wife (played by Anita Morris) was feigning her sickness; she’s rendezvousing with a mustached stud at the very same hotel. (It’s truly a den of debauchery: rooms are supplied with kinky costumes and video cameras for those who wish to play dress up and document their carnal escapades.) Throughout the evening, the producer (who’s tripping on a double dose of Ecstasy) and his wife keep coming thiiis close to bumping into each other. All of the action is recorded with sustained tracking shots, and the way Temple’s cinematographer, Oliver Stapleton, bobs and weaves his camera around the inn helps to take a good running gag and transform it into a great one. Some of the jokes are of the throwaway variety, like a reference to Woody Allen and Federico Fellini (which will be appreciated by the six or seven people familiar with the story behind Aria) or an Elvis impersonator (wearing jumbo sunglasses and a sequined jumpsuit, of course) lip-synching “La donna è mobile.” The episode’s closing bit, which involves the mix-up of the husband and wife’s souvenir videos, always brings down the house.
The next two segments are visually striking, but lack the daring that distinguishes the rest of the film. In Bruce Beresford’s sumptuous but undemanding entry, a young Elizabeth Hurley (stripped down to only what God gave her) relinquishes her virginity to a blandly handsome suitor. The actors here lip-sync “Glück das mir verblieb” from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, and the effect is awkward—even those with no affinity for opera will realize that Carol Neblett’s angelic voice shouldn’t be anywhere near Hurley’s mouth. Robert Altman’s conversely grubby contribution takes us back to an 18th century opera house where it was all the rage for society’s well-to-do to bring along patients from the local laughing academy for an afternoon of high culture. But we never see the performance of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Boreades; the camera stays trained on the audience, drinking in their unbridled zaniness. (Most of these poor bastards probably lost their marbles to syphilis.) Altman allegedly improvised the whole shebang, but he’s never been as good at making things up on the fly as, say, Godard. Not much happens here (Altman doesn’t build the premise to anything), though we do get several opportunities to gawk at a crazy lady’s bare breasts.
In Franc Roddam’s adaptation of “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s groundbreaking Tristan und Isolde, a modern day Romeo and Juliet (played by James Mathers and Bridget Fonda, respectively) embark on a pilgrimage to Las Vegas. Upon arrival, they cruise down Glitter Gulch and take in its many wonderments: huge and looming neon signs, casinos advertising ninety-nine cent steak dinners, an old lady’s sagging arm jiggling about as she pulls down on the lever of a slot machine, impulsive lovers taking the plunge at a 24/7 wedding chapel, and hookers promising some randy squids on leave to love them long time. (I must say, opera complements the blinding excesses of Las Vegas more effectively than any other type of music.) The kids check into a cheap motel room and make love on the lumpy, mite-infested bed, the contours of their naked bodies defined by the twinkling red lights outside. (This was Miss Fonda’s film debut, and to date it remains her most explicit nude scene.) Afterwards, they move into the bathroom, climb into the tub, and cut open their wrists. Sobbing, they hold each other tight as their lives go literally down the drain. I found this piece to be both depressing as all get-out and surprisingly beautiful—almost transcendent. If it fails to move you, you’re obviously not a romantic and will almost certainly never understand why those of us who are sometimes cry at operas.
It’s hard to imagine anything nearing the emotional wallop of Franc Roddam’s segment, but Ken Russell pulls it off with a mind-bending interpretation of “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. Friends, this is pure Russell, which means it’s a feast for the senses. (Will this man ever be given his due? His influence upon popular culture is inestimable; MTV is still lifting shamelessly from Tommy.) In this hallucinatory masterpiece, a woman (Linzi Drew) hangs in mid-air as unfathomable figures arrange twinkling gems into intricate patterns on various parts of her body. Is she being prepared for sacrifice? Or is this an imitation rite? It’s difficult to read; her expression conveys both ecstasy and dread. We soon realize, though, that this is the frenetic dream of a woman who was involved in a near-fatal car wreck. Her mind transmutes the pain of her ghastly wounds into otherworldly images: the mouth of a paramedic who is trying to revive her becomes a jewel-encrusted branding iron, and the head of the operating theatre assumes the form of an Egyptian prince, while the nurses on hand become his concubine. (The aria, performed by the incomparable Jussi Bjoerling, peaks when the woman flatlines.) As I see it, having access to a dying person’s innermost thoughts is a right only God should possess, and that’s what makes this work (aptly entitled “…and none shall sleep”) so troubling.
In Derek Jarman’s homage to Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, an old woman fans herself and reflects upon those lazy, hazy, crazy days when she looked like Tilda Swinton and had nothing to do but frolic on the beach with a smiling slab of beefcake. The hag is shot in vibrant color (with rose petals or something falling all around her), while her reminiscences are presented in grainy, desaturated 16MM. It’s a bit schmaltzy, but fear not: Hurt’s pitiful death scene will have you feeling hopeless again in no time.
Opera lovers, cinephiles and history buffs will find much to rave about in Aria. If you happen to fall within all three of those categories, you’ll have a very nearly divine experience. If you don’t fall within any one of those categories, stick to something that’s not going to be above your head, like Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Edward Larsen Terkelsen.