Friday, May 13, 2011

Opera (1987)

Dario Argento is not a subtle filmmaker. His most famous films--Deep Red, Suspiria, and Tenebre, to name a few--feature a bombastic color palette and ludicrously elaborate death scenes, and by the late 80s he had attained a reputation as a director of gluttonous horror excess.

1987's Opera is both an admission of and response to these excesses. Argento chooses to wrap his indulgences in the equally lush framework of Verdi's operatic adaptation of Macbeth. He tones down the narrative twists and turns and instead opts for visual extremes; the camera swoops around the elaborate opera set pieces and gruesome murder scenes like the ravens of the stage performance. He dares the audience to look away, and mocks their squeamishness by portraying the most extreme of voyeuristic crescendo: taping needles to his protagonist's eyes and forcing her to witnesses extreme visions of violence performed by a masked killer.

Quoth the raven, 'murder more.'

After the opera's prima donna star storms out of a rehearsal and is hit by a car, understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach, with a striking resemblance to Katie Holmes) must fill in and portray Lady Macbeth in the singer's first major role. Despite her nervousness and a falling stagelight disrupting the performance, Betty hits it out of the park, and celebrates with an awkward lovemaking session with stage manager Stefano (William McNamara).

Variety declares: "Betty boffo in bombastic b.o. busting MacBee."

The sex becomes even more awkward when a masked killer breaks into Stefano's ornate mansion-like apartment, ties Betty to a post, and forces her eyes open with razor-sharp needles. After murdering Stefano, the killer lets her go and she stumbles into the rain-soaked Italian street (I presume the film takes place in Rome, or some other Italian city where opera is shown live on television) to anonymously call the police and go about her business as usual.

This is how I get my friends to watch Argento.

She is picked up by the opera's director Marco (Ian Charleson). He is unaffected by her gruesome tale, and agrees with her very Italian distrust of the police and overall sloppy handling of the situation. They both attribute these hiccups to the cursed reputation of the opera, in no way helped by their repeatedly uttering its name in the theater when discussing the curse.

She further exacerbates her danger by stumbling around post-murder, more than eager to serve as recurrent spectator to the killer's systematic acts of brutality. She is again tied up and forced to witness the murder of the wardrobe mistress, and allows an unidentified police officer to roam around her apartment at will, as the killer blasts a bullet through the peephole, killing her agent Mira (Daria Nicolodi).

Why you should always tip your pizza man.

Marco and Betty finally hatch an actual plan to catch the killer (without the police), by continuing Macbeth's regular performance under the assumption that the killer will attend. Halfway through, Marco will release the play's conspiracy of vengeful ravens (again, without police involvement) to seek out and blind the killer.

Have you picked up on the eye theme?

Naturally the plan works. The ravens find the killer and rip out his eyeball in front of the entire audience. Marco and Betty celebrate their victory in her unlocked dressing room, only to have the killer drop in and resume his spree, minus depth perception. He manages to tie Betty up again, to then be consumed by a fire he set moments earlier (or did he?).

Marco and Betty try to forget the entire affair in the Swiss Alps, only to learn that the killer faked his own death, using a mannequin in place of his own body (did the coroner have such a backlog of autopsies to perform that he couldn't cursorily tell the difference between a human corpse and a smoldering pile of hollow plastic?). Will Betty fall victim to another of the killer's voracious murders? You'll just have to watch it to find out!

Ruuunnn toooooo theee hiiiilllllsss. Runnn fooorrr youuurrr liiiiivvveesss.

Argento's musical choices are predictably sporadic. Opera jumps from melodic arias to instrumental score to Iron-Maiden-inspired 80s speed metal. The effect jarringly contrasts the beauty of the opera with the brutality of the killings. Though not as fun as Goblin's music, the soundtrack still serves Argento's intention to create a disruptive dissonance between setup and payoff.

Marco is a pitch-perfect stand in for Argento himself. Critics trash horror film director Marco's operatic adaptation, and he is often perceived as a depraved sadist who portrays violence to satisfy his perverted fascination with it. Police Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini) consults Marco on the murders, claiming that his films would make him an expert on the subject. Marco reminds him not to confuse movies with real life, as I'm sure Argento would agree. Argento's violence is merely a means to an end; a way for the director to flesh out the audience's deepest fears. By confronting our fears head on, as Betty is forced to with her needled eyeballs, we may better understand them.

While Argento has worked frequently with camera movement in his previous films (Tenebre immediately comes to mind), in Opera the camera swoops and tilts, pitches and pans. Rarely is the frame ever completely stationary, and most shots are incredibly long and dynamically elaborate. Where he once made several quick cuts in the murder scenes of Deep Red, Opera's camera lingers on each stab and slice.

After seeing the sloppy execution of last week's Inferno, Opera is a comforting return to form. Though Argento never really improves as a director throughout the decades, his greatness shines when he is given the proper funds and cinematographer to bring his vision to life. A co-screenwriter also helps.

Quotable Quotes:

Stefano: One of the stagehands died.
Betty: What?
Stefano: Yeah it's pretty weird. Leave your costume there. Marco said it needs a few alterations.

Killer: Take a good look. If you'll try to close your eyes, you'll tear them apart, so you'll just have to watch everything.

Marco: Trouble in love?
Betty: Love? Love? Whenever a woman has a problem, men always presume it's love.
Marco: Well you sopranos are famous for, um...
Betty: Whoring around?

Opera Review: "Doubts regarding the direction. Advice to director: go back to horror films. Forget opera."

Argento Trademarks:

Black Gloves? Yes!

Goblin? No, but plenty of inappropriate butt-rock.

Cruelty To Animals? Yes, violence performed upon and by ravens.

Window-Related Death? Does being shot through a peephole count?

Creepy Child? Yes, the little girl who crawls through the vents of Betty's apartment building.

Overall Argento-ness? 4/5. Molto bene.

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