Even to non-opera buffs, the idea behind Aria must sound fascinating: The movie rounds up 10 distinctive directors, and lets each make a short film to accompany the operatic aria of his choice.
British producer Don Boyd gave the directors no constraints when it came to approach or subject matter. Which means that Aria is essentially an omnibus of high-brow music videos, and a chance for some top-flight filmmakers to flex their muscles. Predictably, what results is a very mixed bag.
There’s a framing story, about an opera singer (John Hurt) entering a theater and preparing for a role. This serves as a bridge between the individual pieces, the first of which is a witty narrative to the strains of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.
This is directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), who tells the true story of an assassination attempt on Albania’s King Zog in 1931. Zog, who survived the attack, may be the only assassination target who ever saved himself by shooting back. Adding a ripple of perversity is Roeg’s casting, which puts his wife, Theresa Russell, in drag in the role of Zog.
This is a promising start, but the next piece, with music from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, directed by Charles Sturridge, is uninspired and obtuse. Next is Jean-Luc Godard, who takes the veg-o-matic approach to Lully’s Armide, chopping up the music as he shows some bodybuilders ignoring the attractions of two women in the gym. It’s a typically Godardian workout, full of repetition, ambient noise, and a large knife.
It’s Verdi again—Rigoletto—for the film’s centerpiece, a 15-minute farce directed by Julian Temple. Temple mounts a comedy of adultery, as two marrieds (Buck Henry and Anita Morris) enjoy other partners at a motel with “theme” rooms (the Neanderthal Room, Heidi’s Hideaway).
This one’s amusing, but aside from a great moment when the aria is lip-synched by the motel’s Elvis impersonator, this entry isn’t significantly better than some of Temple’s long-form music videos (such as “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean,” with David Bowie).
Australian Bruce (Crimes of the Heart) Beresford brings his literalist approach to an aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt—he simply has a couple sing to each other—and then Robert Altman checks in with a curious ode to the 18th-century habit of letting people from insane asylums attend the opera on Sunday afternoon. The music is from Rameau’s Les Boreades.
Next, Franc Roddam (The Bride) does a haunting update on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which a young couple (James Mathers and Bridget Fonda—Peter’s daughter) go to Las Vegas, make passionate love, and commit suicide. Very nice.
You expect Ken Russell to bring the house down with this sort of thing, and Russell’s fantasia on Turandot by Puccini is one of the film’s weirdest turns. It’s a surreal glimpse of what appear to be the near-death thoughts of a woman who has just been in a car accident. She is played by England’s most famous stripper, Linzi Drew.
The film is rounded out by Derek Jarman’s impressionistic take on Charpentier’s Louise, and by the end of the framing story, which closes with Il Pagliacci, directed by Bill Bryden.
Well, I liked the three Rs—Roeg, Roddam, and Russell—and Godard’s thing. Even though it’s something of a disappointment overall, Aria is still an intriguing concept. Now, can we do the same thing with rock ‘n’ roll?
First published in the Herald, July 1988
Tilda Swinton was in the Jarman segment, one of her first screen roles. Some of this movie was pretty dull, as I recall, and not because of the opera, but because the filmmakers fell down.