“You’re the producer, that’s your job”
Aria (1987) is a collection of ten vignettes from ten different directors (with different casts, cinematographers, editors, etc.), each interpreting—in a very loose sense of the word—a famous orchestration by assorted classical composers. While having some knowledge of the represented operatic performance is certainly beneficial, to draw points of thematic contrast and potentially clarify the events that transpire in the associated film, each segment works suitably in its own right without any advanced point of reference. More often than not, the respective musical accompaniment serves as an aural enhancement of the frequently striking imagery, or the other way around. In other words, though Aria is surely a film opera aficionados will glean an extra level of appreciation from (or distain for, depending on if they feel the filmmaker blasphemes the composer’s work), the individual contributions succeed or fail on their distinct merits, without requiring prior insight from the viewer.
Nicholas Roeg gets things started with his vision of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo In Maschera.” The film stars Roeg’s wife, a mustached Theresa Russell, as King Zog, who is in 1931 Vienna visiting his lover and thwarting an assassination attempt. Like few of the ten sections, which generally favor elliptically structured presentations without a straightforward, or even any conceivable narrative, Roeg’s is noteworthy for its fairly conventional, essentially effective tension and its establishment of solidified characters. By comparison, Charles Sturridge’s “La Forza Del Destino,” also by Verdi, works as an abundantly atmospheric piece, relying on tone more than plot. The only black and white portion of Aria, this affecting account follows a group of forlorn teenagers who steal and eventually crash a car. Matching the somber tenor of the aria, Sturridge likewise crafts a short but remarkably powerful film with moments of great illustrative despondency.
Jean-Luc Godard’s “Armide,” by Jean-Baptiste Lully, is something quite different. Set in a stark, metallic gym, where the clamor of weights banging together mixes with the music to form its own symphony, this 11-minute film picks up with a group of bulging bodybuilders as they are accosted by two beautiful young women, who are usually nude. On a few occasions, the women speak in French—with no English subtitles—so while it’s possible what they say is in some way relevant to what is happening (chances are, it isn’t), there is no way of knowing unless one is fluent in the language. Perhaps this is Godard’s commentary on the physical ideal of male and female representation, perhaps not. Perhaps it’s just Godard being Godard. As perplexing as “Armide” is, though, and it is by no means the only seemingly incongruous contribution to Aria, it is the first of the ten films to touch on what will be a continuing motif in the compilation. From here on out, most remaining films are marked by overt sexuality (the film was widely sold on the basis of its bountiful nudity). At the same time, not exactly surprising given the operatic genesis of these films, they are also infused with tremendous passion, opulent sensuality, and sporadic violence. Some segments are light and comedic, some are painfully serious. In any given section, the performances range from basically realistic to blatantly theatrical. And some, like those of Buck Henry, Beverly D’Angelo, Gary Kasper, and Anita Morris, in Julien Temple’s madcap look at adulterous coincidence, “Rigoletto” (Verdi), are nearly bordering on slapstick. Where else can you see Henry high on ecstasy as he romps around in a caveman outfit?
Bruce Beresford’s “Die Tote Stadt,” by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, stars Elizabeth Hurley and Peter Birch as two performers who, in a touch unique among the films, sing along to their assigned aria, while Robert Altman’s “Les Boreades,” by Jean-Philippe Rameau, actually takes place in a theatrical space, one populated by a grotesquely made-up and costumed audience as they await the opening of the Parisian Ranelagh Theater. Altman and Godard are the only two directors who also edited their episodes, and like in his feature films, Altman’s flowing, floating camera roams amongst the mania of its boisterous cast, in this case as they engage in all sorts of exaggerated and bawdy behavior.
For a film that has an obvious focus on the interplay of its musical masterpieces and its diverse filmic impressions, great care has been paid to the cinematography of Aria’s varied chapters. Harvey Harrison’s sensitive work on “Un Ballo In Maschera” capture in sharp, glimmering detail natural elements like snow, sunlight, and fire, all with a hazy sheen, while famous names like Frederick Elmes (“Tristan und Isolde”) and Dante Spinotti (“Die Tote Stadt”) lend their credited films a noteworthy photographic stamp. Along these lines, though it is difficult to pick which segment of Aria is the best, Franc Roddam’s “Tristan und Isolde,” by Richard Wagner, is among the most visually arresting, in large part due to its Las Vegas setting. Against the neon lights and frenetic exterior movement, Roddam’s tale trails weary, suicidal lovers played by James Mathers and Bridget Fonda, she in her screen debut (save for her uncredited infant appearance in daddy Peter’s Easy Rider ). Ken Russell’s “Turandot,” by Giacomo Puccini, is also a pictorial stunner, teeming with a bizarre combination of surreal sci-fi design and graphic bloodshed, all principally concerning model Linzi Drew as a bedazzled, car accident victim.
Then there is Derek Jarman’s “Louise,” by Gustave Charpentier, which achieves its appeal largely by featuring the always enigmatic Tilda Swinton as an opera singer giving her final performance and reflecting back in 8mm memories. And bridging the nine aforementioned films is Bill Bryden’s “Pagliacci,” by Ruggero Leoncavallo, which fills in the gaps between segments by charting the course of a dapper John Hurt as he transforms into the famously tragic clown Canio for a final performance of “Vesti la giubba.”
Aria was the brainchild of producer Don Boyd, and at various points, directors like Woody Allen and Federico Fellini were also approached to participate (Allen passed, Fellini was ill). Ultimately nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Aria is nothing if not a great film to look at and to listen to, and its audio-visual presentation on a new 30th anniversary Blu-ray from Entertainment One flourishes on both fronts. One would have hoped, however, that there would also be included some insight into the film and its assorted participants, but the sole supplement to the disc is a stills gallery with the work of well-known photographers like Annie Leibovitz and David Bailey.
Like most omnibus productions, Aria can be hit or miss. Not every contribution is particularly stimulating or especially inventive. Fortunately, as a whole, and with regards to its separate parts, there are more plusses than minuses. And with the longest chapter lasting just 14 minutes, and the shortest just five, at least the worst of the ten avoid wearing out their welcome while the best conclude as concise, perfectly satisfying components.