Conceived by producer Don Boyd, Aria is an ambitious project that gathers some of the greatest filmmakers in art cinema (and, er… Julien Temple) to create a kind of MTV opera anthology. The results are predictably hit and miss, but occasionally quite striking. Plus you can’t go wrong with a soundtrack that includes Puccini, Verdi, Korngold et al.
We begin with Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” as envisioned by the great Nicolas Roeg. Based loosely on a real historical incident, this finds King Zorg of Albania (Theresa Russell, in male drag) on a rendezvous with his lover at the opera, when the pair are attacked by gun-toting assassins. Roeg’s usual fragmented filmmaking style proves arresting as always, if over-reliant on close-ups of Russell’s lynx-like eyes as a means of storytelling. Yet divorced from the glorious scenery and architecture, this segment feels jokey and slight, capped by a very abrupt resolution.
Next up, Charles Sturridge (director of Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997) and Lassie (2007), but best known at the time for helming Brideshead Revisited) tackles Verdi’s “La Virgine degli Angeli”. Lensed in stark black and white, the segment follows three young kids as they wander a council estate, gaze forlornly at statues of the Virgin Mary in church and steal a car for a joyride that ends in their fiery demise. Though vague, it still proves an emotive and affecting piece of work.
Which sadly is more than can be said of what Jean-Luc Godard manages with “Amide” drawn from an aria by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Here, two beautiful naked girls frolic inside a gymnasium amidst a bunch of bodybuilders, too narcissistically obsessed with their own bulging biceps to notice. Almost a parody of a poncy art-house film, this is typical of late period Godard as he hides his lack of sincerity behind naked flesh and phoney profundity.
Giuseppe Verdi is back on the turntable with “Rigoletto”, wherein Julien Temple follows adulterous husband-and-spouse Buck Henry and Anita Morris around a spectacularly tacky tourist trap, in a single, audacious Steadicam shot. Filmed at the Madonna Inn, a real life “dirty weekend” resort for Hollywood sleazebags, at one point Henry’s philandering producer has a phone conversation with Woody Allen, trying to convince him to direct a segment of this very film, and claiming that Federico Fellini is already on board. In real life, both filmmakers were originally attached to helm segments, but proved unavailable. Temple’s piece has ingenuity, some hideous Eighties fashions, weird sexual fetishes and an Opera singing Elvis going for it, but comes across as a really surreal Neil Simon play, somewhat at odds with the rest of the film.
Bruce Beresford’s segment features a young Elizabeth Hurley in her film debut, naked and lip-synching to Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt”. A very simple, yet beguiling piece involving two lovers locked in an embrace. The haunting serenity of the Bruges scenery adds a lot to its impact. Robert Altman’s “Les Boréades”, featuring the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, portrays an especially grotesque opera audience from the 18th century. Altman had directed opera before, both on stage and film, and was inspired to recreate a classic painting of an audience of madmen. Despite fantastic costumes and makeup, his sequence drags interminably and amounts to very little beyond a parade of fake breasts and a huge plastic derriere.
The next three episodes are really the highlights. Franc Roddam, director of Quadrophenia (1979),and trivia buffs note: co-creator of Masterchef, tackles Wagner’s “Liebestod”, wherein Tristan and Isolde are re-imagined as a teenage couple (including a young Bridget Fonda) cruising through a glitzy, yet soulless Las Vegas en route to a fatal bout of amour fou. It’s a sensual, passionate and powerful episode, beautifully filmed and acted.
Ken Russell was somewhat surprisingly approached late in the day by Don Boyd and left with Puccini’s over-familiar “Nessun Dorma.” Yet his episode is really something quite special. A beautiful blonde car crash victim imagines herself as an Egyptian goddess, the bruises and wounds on her body transfigured as ornate symbols and decorative jewels. The sequence gives Russell’s imagination full reign and showcases his exceptional lighting, design and compositional skills in an uplifting parable about the triumph of life over death. Derek Jarman’s “Depuis du Jour”, drawn from the music of Gustav Charpentier, is also quite lovely. An elderly woman reminisces on a theatre stage amidst a home movie collage featuring Jarman’s regular muse, Tilda Swinton.
Between episodes, theatre director Bill Brydonfilms scenes of a dapper John Hurt as he wanders the canals and opera houses of Venice. Looking rather like Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice (1971), haunted by the spirit of his lost love (Sophie Ward) and plagued by a nasty cough. In the final episode, he expires after lip-synching to Enrico Caruso performing “Pagliacci”.
There is something despairingly Eighties about reducing an art form as multilayered as opera to the cinematic equivalent of wallpaper. Don Boyd’s heart was in the right place, but watching Aria is rather like rifling through a rack of Athena posters of trippy landscapes and decorative nudes. The special edition DVD includes fascinating interviews with Roddam, Russell, Temple, Sturridge and the gregarious Boyd, plus a trailer and audio commentary recorded by the producer.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.