Category: gialli / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 50 of 100
Giuseppe Verdi’s opera ‘Rigoletto’ has a pretty fucked up plot. Even by the standards of opera (check out a synopsis of ‘Turandot’ sometime; when you get to the severed heads, don’t say I didn’t tell you). The eponymous character – hero is far too inappropriate a term – is the waspishly-tongued jester to a corrupt nobleman, the Duke of Mantua. The Duke is an inveterate ladies’ man (think Quagmire with a tenor voice), and Rigoletto not only assists him in his bedpost-notchings but mocks the cuckolded husbands the Duke leaves in his wake. All the while, though, Rigoletto is hiding his beautiful young daughter, Gilda. Guess what? The Duke meets Gilda and determines to have her. Cruelly, he dupes Rigoletto into assisting in the abduction of his own daughter. Discovering the truth, Rigoletto hires an assassin to kill the Duke. In a typically operatic twist, Gilda falls for the Duke despite his philandering and sacrifices herself to the assassin’s knife to save him.
In 1985, Dario Argento attempted to direct a production of ‘Rigoletto’. As Maitland McDonagh notes in her seminal academic study ‘Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds’, “Argento’s notion was to take the character of the Duke, who taints and defiles everything he touches, one step further and make him into a literal vampire”. The purists weren’t happy about this. British enfant terrible Ken Russell had already caused controversy, two years previously, with a production of Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ set in 1945 Nagasaki which featured some of the cast wearing Mickey Mouse masks and ended with the detonation of the atom bomb. The idea of the director of ‘Deep Red’, ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Tenebre’ getting his hands on Verdi – Verdi, the most beloved in his home country of all Italian composers – was too much. Argento found himself cut loose from the production.
So he made ‘Opera’ instead.
I’m not sure why he chose a production of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ rather than ‘Rigoletto’ as a backdrop to his demented, often beautiful and borderline absurd giallo. The killer’s breathlessly exposited final-reel motivation virtually cries out for “La donna e mobile” (“woman is a fickle thing”), the most famous aria from ‘Rigoletto’.
Perhaps the supernatural overtones of Shakespeare’s dark and violent drama were more in keeping with his aesthetic at the time. Of his previous four films, only one (‘Tenebre’) had been a pure giallo and even that was overshadowed by its psycho-sexual obsessions and a climax that was bloody and excessive even by the yardstick of ‘Deep Red’. Perhaps it was the ravens: shoehorned into the narrative as one of Argento’s most what-the-fuck?! plot devices, the ravens nonetheless provide ‘Opera’ with much of its key imagery, from the refracted images in a bird’s eye during the opening credits, to the bravura set-piece – rivaled in its swooping, breathtaking camera-work only by the sustained voyeuristic Louma crane shot in ‘Tenebre’ – wherein the ravens are set loose in a packed opera house and the killer is revealed.
Or maybe it was pure cussedness on Argento’s part. ‘Macbeth’ – either as play or opera – is freighted with an ominous reputation. It is said to be bad luck even to speak the title in a theatre or opera house. Many actors call it “the Scottish play” in order to get around the superstition.
Argento definitely tempted fate. ‘Opera’ – his biggest budgeted film at that point – went into production shortly after the director’s father died. Vanessa Redgrave, cast as the grand dame from whom lowly understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) takes over following her incapacitation in an accident, departed Rome shortly after arriving when her demands for a higher salary were roundly rejected. Accidents plagued the set. Argento and ex-lover Daria Nicolodi (cast in a supporting role) were at each other’s throats. Argento’s relationship with Marsillach was even stormier: he famously kept the cameras rolling, in a scene where Betty is tied up in burning room, longer than necessary leaving the actress scared that she was going to suffer severe burns.
At 600 words into the review, and after that kind of build-up, a plot synopsis could easily come off tiresome, the background to the film overshadowing what ended up onscreen. But this is an Argento movie, made at the height of his powers as a visual and visceral stylist – there is a case, certainly, for ‘Opera’ as the last great Argento movie – and there are images and set-pieces in here that rank amongst the most memorable, macabre and inspired in his filmography. So, ladies and gentlemen, while the overture rises to its climax and the heavy red stage curtains slowly part, let us consider the plot:
Truculent soprano Maria Cercova (not played by anybody after Redgrave departed; it’s almost as if Argento decided to punish the very character) testily exits rehearsals for ‘Macbeth’ after an argument with director Marco (Ian Charleson) over the noisy backdrop of ravens in the climactic scene of the opera, and is promptly hit by a car. Marco, a filmmaker notorious for his work in the horror genre and not a popular choice for a Verdi production, appoints Betty to take her place. After a revelatory opening night performance, Betty is the toast of the town, her agent Mira (Nicolodi) besieged by phone calls from maestros and impresarios around the globe. She also attracts the attention of a psychopath, whose motives turn out to be a lot closer to home.
Said psycho first targets Betty during a dalliance with on-off boyfriend Stefan (William McNamara). Tied up, gagged, a row of needles taped under her eyes so that even a split-second blink draws blood, Betty is forced to watch as her tormentor … Well, I’ll let you discover the details for yourself. The killer cuts Betty loose when he’s done. But it’s not long before he strikes again. In the meantime, Betty suffers traumatic flashbacks to some long-buried recollection that may hold the key to her ordeal, while starstruck copper Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini) approaches the case in the time-honoured tradition of giallo-bound policemen (ie. totally ineffectually) and Marco devises his own long-shot scheme to unmask the maniac.
The image of Betty deprived of her liberty and forced to watch is genius. It’s the best metaphor for audience complicity, communal guilt and uneasy voyeurism since Michael Powell turned the movie camera on the audience and torpedo’d his own career in ‘Peeping Tom’. If ‘Tenebre’ blurs the line between fact and fiction, it does so at one remove by making its protagonist a writer. In ‘Opera’, the distinction between viewer and victim is similarly deconstructed – and this time it’s as difficult for the audience to look away as it is for Betty. She’s a singer, a performer, someone who’s onstage and looking out into the audience during her triumphant performance. Later, bound and helpless, she’s the audience as a murderous pantomime is played out in front of her, the plot of which she is helpless to change.
Watching/watcher/watched. Argento plays with the relationship between character and perception. His camera is endlessly subjective. POV shots prowl the corridors and boxes of the opera house, red curtains parting and stage doors slamming closed. The killer’s flashbacks seem to correlate with Betty’s. The most baroque sequence is played out from a raven’s perspective. Although ‘Opera’ lacks the garish palette of ‘Suspiria’ or ‘Inferno’, its overall effect is no less hallucinatory.
Flaws? But of course. This is an Argento film. Logic and coherence aren’t just avoided but beaten away with sticks (and possibly disemboweled with sharp implements). But what the hell? ‘Suspiria’ makes as much sense as a room filled with coils of barbed wire in the middle of dance academy. ‘Inferno’ is incoherence writ large in three-strip Technicolor and it looks so good you could wallpaper your living room with it. ‘Phenomena’ laughs at the deus ex machina as an example of documentary realism and shunts a monkey with a straight razor onstage in order to resolve the plot.
Yes, there are flaws, the largest involving the means by which the killer covers his tracks. There’s also a peculiar coda set in Austria which seems to revisit the opening scene of ‘Phenomena’. The very last shot is among the weirdest and most ambiguous in all of Argento’s work. It’s not quite poignant, not quite cloying and not quite comprehensible in roughly equal measures. I’m still unsure whether it denotes rebirth/regeneration, relief/release or mania/madness. What I am sure about is that – like so much of this deliberately overwrought and opulently well-made film – it sticks in the mind.