Aria

January 24, 2012

Theresa Russell, in mustache

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.

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Hail Mary

June 10, 2011

For the last few weeks, the Neptune theater in Seattle has been swamped with angry phone calls and letters insisting that the theater not show Hail Mary, the new film from Jean-Luc Godard. This follows the pattern of protests that greeted the film’s arrival in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston—not to mention Rome, where it was officially denounced by Pope John Paul II.

What’s the trouble? It seems Godard, the aging bad boy of the French cinema, has come up with a modern telling of the Nativity, in which Mary is a high-school basketball player and the daughter of a gas station owner, and Joseph is a cab driver. Most outrageous of all, the film contains ample nudity, most of it Mary’s.

Well, that certainly sounds blasphemous, anyway. And that’s enough for the letter-writers, who have warned the Neptune’s manager of the eternal consequences of showing the film, and sometimes damned him to hell outright. (A sampling of letters is hanging in the Neptune’s display window.)

One little problem here: The people writing the letters have not seen the film. (At last report, the pope hadn’t seen it, either.) If they had, they might have been surprised to find a film that does not degrade or demean religious history or tradition. Indeed, the reaction among some people who attended the advance screening here was shock—at just how reverent and serious Godard’s film really is.

Like most of Godard’s work, Hail Mary will be inaccessible to many. Godard was the most important filmmaker of the 1960s, but his revolutionary work—Breathless, Pierrot le Fou, Masculine Feminine—will always be hated by some. Hail Mary isn’t going to change their minds.

It’s a fragmented, often obscure film, consisting of disconnected scenes, patches of music, odd scraps of narration and literary and cinematic allusions. Mary (Myriem Roussel) is informed by Gabriel, a burly fellow who forgets his lines, that she is pregnant. She is a virgin who does not allow her boyfriend Joseph (Thierry Lacoste) to touch her, so they are both perplexed.

Godard examines the relationship between the physical and the spiritual; in part by juxtaposing Mary’s story with another fragmented plot about a doomed affair, in part with the many lingering shots of Mary’s naked figure and scattered glimpses of natural phenomena—water, flowers, the movement of the sun.

There are many beautiful images. A celestial plane mysteriously disappears into the vast setting sun. Joseph’s hand stretches toward Mary’s bare, pregnant belly. Mary and her newborn son emerge joyously from a swimming pool.

In this way, Godard turns a traditional story—elevated, ethereal, enervated—into a fleshly, palpable reality. It’s a strange version of the story, of course, and Godard must have known he would infuriate a lot of people with it. But he seems to have taken the job of revitalizing this story very seriously. It’s a noble, searching effort, not glib or irreverent.

Hail Mary opens with a separate—or is it?—short film, The Book of Mary, directed by Godard’s frequent collaborator, Anne-Marie Mieville. It is exquisite, and Mieville should be encouraged to make her own full-length features.

First published in the Herald, February 1986

I saw the movie for the first time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of ’85, at (I think) the Orson Welles Cinema, virtually (if not literally) by myself; earlier in the evening I had seen Pasolini’s Accatone at the Brattle Theatre. That was a fun night. The film caused the usual controversy, as described above, from holy people who respond to blasphemy/perceived blasphemy by wishing other people would die, or at least burn in hell for all eternity. Godard has a new movie, Film Socialisme, which hasn’t played in Seattle as of this writing, but is due soon, and has already prompted plenty of “I don’t get it, therefore l’Emperor must be wearing new clothes,” which is something philistines like to do.