Opera (1987)

Viewed January 16th

In this Dario Argento film, a young soprano opera singer is forced to watch the brutal murders of a series of people close to her.

Opera exhibits the tendency towards narrative indifference that one finds in a certain type of work by a certain type of auteur. David Lynch's Inland Empire, Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon, Erich Von Stroheim's Greed, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are other examples. But, like those films, Opera also exhibits the flip side of that scenario. While the narrative may be muddled, the film's tonal or visual palette may exhibit an artsy grandness that pushes the experience of watching the film into a more abstract realm. Or the filmmaker's career-long exploration of a key theme may be pushed into new territory so that one can appreciate the film as a component of a larger structure, a note within a longer song, so to speak.  

So as we see in Opera, the act of guessing the identity of the killer (a key narrative craft concern in giallo cinema) is depressingly easy; in fact, it at first seems like an obvious red herring. But Argento (in a film that purports to be about how stories are told) doesn't bother working out the plot enough to twist things in any interesting way. Further, Opera sets up allusions to both The Phantom of the Opera and Macbeth that don't go anywhere. And, finally, characters are set up but don't come back, not even to be knifed by the psycho killer. But, all that said, if you can enter Opera, not as a singular story in its own right, but as a cinematic gesture, a note within a longer song by Argento as a cinematic artist, it offers more to dwell upon. The most clearcut example is a continuation of Argento's exploration (inherited from Hitchcock, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, and feminist film theory) into questions around the cinematic killer as a metaphor for the filmmaker, along with the related issue of filming & the act of looking as enacting a certain violence to the object of the gaze. Here, Argento forces his female victim to watch one perverse, violent act after another by taping small blades to her lower eyelid so that if she was to close her eyes, the lids would be sliced open. It's extreme; you don't want it to happen to her. You want to stop looking and you want her to be able to stop looking. But Argento doesn't allow that. The killer, the horrific perpetrator of this act, however, receives a fitting punishment (in another Hitchcock connection) when his own eye is pecked out by a swarm of birds--ravens. 

The use of the ravens brings up another theme that extends through Argento's practice, most clearly in Phenomena. In an artificial world, like a movie, especially an Argento movie with its otherworldly quality, the threat of the actual world, the natural world, the contingency of the world outside the safety of the movie theater, can be more existentially terrifying than a human psycho killer. In Opera, Argento pushes the threat of the natural world into more explicit conflict with the world of storytelling and artifice. The first shots in the film feature ravens on an opera stage upsetting a prima donna singer because they're too unpredictable, too natural. (Interestingly, Argento worked with robotic ravens in key moments because real ones would, of course, have been too difficult to reliably film). From there we're introduced to a world of artists whose lives merge with the world of artifice and storytelling. As one dialogue exchange puts it: "It's unwise to use movies as guide for reality," to which the retort is, "Depends on what you mean by reality." Everything is filtered through metaphor or artistic interpretation. In a sign of the times in which it was produced, time itself is no longer represented mechanically; rather, in a maniacal number of cutaway shots through the film, it's become digital--lost in a sea of numbers lit up in electronic displays (the same digital numbers that, at the time, were also beginning to reproduce music, and soon enough, film--themes Opera also gestures towards). In one of the last scenesArgento presents us with one of his finest single cuts. After the trauma of the direct confrontation with the killer, the protagonist and her director/lover have retreated away from the city to the Alps, to the natural world. The director, however, is not interested in being outside. He is too busy setting up a digital video shot of a fly dangling on a string in front of a window looking out to the mountain landscape. For the director, it's all about the digital/unreal representation of nature, not nature itself. This shot of the fly then cuts to a shot of the protagonist in the same mountain landscape. It's complicated. On the one hand, she's compared to a fly caught on the director's string, but, on the other hand, as we see, by stepping out into nature she's also beginning her escape from the world of the opera and, more generally, of artifice. After a final violent confrontation a few moments later, she descends into nature, crawling through the grass, digging into the ground, madly saying she's going to leave it all and become one with the natural world. In a fitting final shot that ties in with so much of Argento's career, she then lets a small lizard (typically an object of control in Argento films) free.