Thursday, August 05, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
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.


Franco Macabro said...

Many people think Suspiria is Argentos best, and I agree with them, sometimes, but deep down inside, my favorite one is really this one. I don't know what it is about it, I think its the bleak colors, the blacks, the grays.

And the shots, I love those flying above the crowd shots from the point of view of the birds...I love the fact that the background of the whole thing is the opera, and a dark one at that. And that everyone seems to think that the whole production is cursed, plus the death sequences are amongst his bests.

My favorite scene in the whole film is that scene with the bullet coming out of the gun in slow motion....that shit predated Tarantino doing it on Kill Bill. Come to think of it, Tarantino is a giallo fan himself, I wouldn't be surprised if he got the idea from this film!

Great review man! One of my personal favorites! And I agree, the ending is kind of weird, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out its symbolisms.

But Argento has always had weird shots of animals in his films....he did a similar thing in Deep Red where a character also stares at a lizard for some reason. What were your thoughts on this "connection with nature" ending on this film?

Samuel Wilson said...

Once upon a time Dario Argento came to Albany NY to introduce a director's cut of this film at a comic book convention. I heard him complain about a distributor's treatment of the film, then settled in to watch the first Argento movie I can recall seeing.

I walked out after about half an hour. Strange to say, what really annoyed me about the movie way back when (this was approximately 20 years ago) was the rock music. To my younger self it seemed to be saying, "Aren't these grisly murders cool?" I was no fan of slasher movies back then and was far from the ideal audience for this film. Since then, I've tried Suspiria (summation: "huh?")but more recently found myself liking The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Over time I've learned what a giallo is and have watched some with pleasure. The opportunity has never arisen, but I have wondered for a while how I'd respond if I gave Opera another try. Your review keeps me thinking....

Hans A. said...

Absolutely stellar review, Neil. Fantastic work.

I love Opera and just about everything about it. Completely indulgent and opulent. I also love the director character. Argento, through him, gets to play a few jokes on himself.

Neil Fulwood said...

Francisco – by a short head, I’d probably pick ‘Deep Red’ as my favourite Argento. I love how cleverly it’s constructed and the way the final reveal not only tells us the identity of the killer but just how complicit the supposed hero was in everything that happened – brilliant stuff! ‘Suspiria’ is awesome: probably Argento’s most hyper-stylized film. It’s arguably the film you think of immediately when someone mentions Argento’s name. ‘Opera’ is definitely up there with the best of his work.

On reflection, I take the ending to mean that Betty, her view of humanity poisoned by everything she’s witnessed since she took the lead role in the opera (the bitchiness of the diva she took over from, the backstage politics of the opera house, the murders, the role it’s intimated that her mother played in forming the killer’s psychopathology), has rejected the world of mankind and quite literally embraces the purity and simplicity of nature. I take the very last shot, where she seems to sink into the long grasses, as a metaphor for returning to the earth.

Sam – I’d be interested in your take on ‘Opera’ if you decide to reapproach it. I see where you’re coming from about the rock music. It’s not quite as hamfistedly used as in ‘Phenomena’, and I take Argento’s use of it in ‘Opera’ as providing an abrasive contrast to the music of Verdi.

Hans – according to Maitland McDonagh’s book, Ian Charleson patterned his character on Argento himself and it seems like he did so with Argento’s blessing. The in-jokes courtesy of director character certainly provide a much-needed trace of humour.

Thanks for commenting, guys.

Franco Macabro said...

Thats how I saw it too, as if she wanted to get away from all the craziness in her life, and went looking for a release from all the grisliness in the beauty of nature.

Argento has always had that connection with nature thing in his films, if you remember correctly, he also played with these themes in PHENOMENA, a film in which Jennifer Connely has a psychic connection with insects, and its that connection with them that helps them solve a crime.

Neil Fulwood said...

According to Maitland McDonagh's book on Argento, he wrote the lead role in 'Opera' for Jennifer Connelly after he was impressed by her performance in 'Phenomena'. Unfortunately, McDonagh doesn't say why Connelly didn't take the role. I'd love to have seen her in the film.

Troy Olson said...

First off, great review here. Like the tie-in to "Rigoletto," as I hadn't heard that story before (and perhaps I should read McDonagh's book on Argento -- would you recommend it?).

As for OPERA, it both makes me very happy and very sad whenever I watch it. It truly is Dario's last great movie, full of great death scenes and a gimmick that actually makes you twitch (the needles in the eyes). But everytime I see it I weep at the thought of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE CARD PLAYER and wish Argento would go back to making good movies again (don't worry, I've finally given up on that notion -- it just isn't going to happen).

I'm with Francisco on that slow-motion bullet scene, which really was quite ahead of its time and has been copied tons since then. It's a fantastic effect. Same goes for the bird's eye view at the end of the film -- that flair for the grand tracking/crane shot has been lost on Argento since his move to DV (and perhaps that's a budgetary issue).

I will also second Samuel's comment -- the music in this is shit. It's the same problem I had with PHENOMENA, where the tone of the metal music completely killed any sense of mood or dread and, instead, just made me laugh. Does the McDonagh book discuss his fascination with the music?

As for favorite Argento films? I'd probably put DEEP RED as my favorite, then SUSPIRIA (which is his best made film), with TENEBRE and OPERA right behind.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comment, Troy. I'd cautiously recommend McDonagh's book. I've not read the new edition, which apparently includes new material skimming through his filmography since 'Two Evil Eyes' (the work the original edition closes on), so I can't comment on how effectively or otherwise the author analyzes Argento's more recent work. The edition I read is very academic in tone (it was expanded from McDonagh's doctoral thesis) and values film theory over behind-the-scenes contextualisation or interview/archival material. Funnily enough, she doesn't touch on Argento's choice of music in this and 'Phenomena' apart from noting that he exhibits a preference for "abrasive" heavy metal.

I completely agree that the absence of bravura camerawork in Argento's recent work is sorely lamented. I've managed to avoid watching 'The Card Player', 'The Three Mothers' and 'Giallo' - I know I'll face up to them at some point, but I really don't feel like re-experiencing the heartbreak of watching 'Trauma' or 'Phantom of the Opera' just yet!

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Neil, The Card Player is a huge let down man, it's not as bad as Mother of Tears, which in my book is one of his worst. It feels like theres no desire whatsoever from Argento to do anything thats remotely good. You know how those earlier films had that special oomph to them, those awesome shots, the they just dont hold anything special to them anymore.

Neil Fulwood said...

'Trauma' was the first Argento film that really felt like there was no passion or energy to it. 'The Stendahl Syndrome' has its moments, but it feels almost incestuous knowing that Argento cast his own freaking daughter in a role that necessitates the character to endure repeated sexual violence. 'Sleepless', while entertaining enough, was just a retread of earlier gialli. I think it was 'Phantom of the Opera' that really did it for me: I felt so depressed watching that movie that I've not approached a new Argento since then. He'll really have to do something special in order to reverse the slump that his films have fallen into, but I don't know if that's likely to happen. He doesn't seem to have the old fire, flair or visual genius any more.