Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Film review: Opera

There is broad agreement on the notion that OPERA constitutes the end of Dario Argento's decade-long golden age. While he would subsequently go on to make a number of good and even great films -- 1996's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME being the standout -- this 1987 giallo is clearly the end of an era in many regards. It was the final time he would work with a number of his key collaborators and the last time his camerawork truly featured the vibrant, sweeping, Grand Guignol qualities for which he is justly celebrated. It would be six years before Argento directed another feature length project, and it's tempting to lay at least some of the blame for his subsequent decline on that self-imposed hiatus, bowing out at the height of his creativity.

With its sordid sexuality, allusions to the AIDS virus (it's no accident that the killer wears latex "protection" over his traditional black leather gloves) and a distinctly cruel streak running through its proceedings, OPERA feels very much like the giallo, which grew out of the sociocultural climate of the early 70s, responding to the mood and anxieties of the 80s, and provides a tantalising glimpse at where the movement might have gone had it continued to flourish. Even the camerawork, courtesy of the Oscar-winning English cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, feels aggressive, constantly moving, alternating between sweeping overhead shots and claustrophobic close-ups of the actors' faces. The latter are used to particularly powerful effect in the numerous shots of the protagonist, opera ingenue Betty, with rows of needles taped under her eyes to prevent her from closing them -- surely one of the most uncomfortable and arresting visual images Argento has ever created.

Like much of Argento's output, it's not really an actors' film, but the best performance by far is courtesy of Scottish stage actor Ian Charleson who, a few short years before his untimely death, delivers a nuanced and oddly sympathetic portrayal of a horror movie director helming an experimental production of MACBETH -- a thinly veiled stand-in for Argento himself. As Betty, Cristina Marsillach is a good deal more drippy than both previous and subsequent Argento female leads, serving as far more of a damsel in distress than the likes of Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA or Jennifer Connelly in PHENOMENA, but she does what the role asks of her and acquits herself perfectly adequately. As far as the stable of Argento regulars is concerned, this is the last appearance of Daria Nicolodi (prior to MOTHER OF TEARS in 2007) and the first of three appearances by the wonderfully over-the-top Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, who a year earlier made her debut in the Argento-produced DEMONS 2.

Its flaws -- awkward dialogue, the ill-placed use of heavy metal and a plot that doesn't stand up to scrutiny -- are par for the course with Argento's output during this period, but are part and parcel of what gives these films such a distinct identity. Indeed, the sheer audacity of its set-pieces -- of which the infamous "bullet through the peephole" is but one of many -- thoroughly overshadows any narrative shortcomings. It may not hit the dizzy heights of SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED or THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, each of which constituted a perfect alchemy in which every single element worked in tandem to deliver a film that was more than the sum of its parts, but OPERA remains one of the greats and serves as a fitting swansong to the most productive and creatively satisfying period in its director's career.

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