The Role of Art in Dario Argento’s Opera
Dario Argento’s resume of work makes up some of the most difficult films to critique (or even analyze for that matter) because really, what are they? Are they exploitative slasher films? Or are they in actuality much deeper “art” films merely disguised as accessible horror movies? Well the answer is just as unclear because as a whole Argento’s films simply cannot be labelled. Individually though, some do stand out more than others as art films first, with a murder mystery narrative second. Certainly this would be the case with his 1987 film Opera, a movie which blurs the lines between an assortment of art forms until they ultimately feed off of each other in a strange and beautiful way.
Art as a whole has always played an important role in Argento’s films, dating all the way back to The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. Whether it be used more subtly as a slight commentary in the form of a set piece, or more directly as a weapon for or cause of murder, art in all forms has become a long standing trademark in Argento’s oeuvre. Now with that being said, Opera is Argento’s love sonnet to art, his ultimate dedication to its many forms. The story itself revolves around the production of a quasi-modern reinterpretation of the opera Macbeth (originally composed by Verdi) and the young opera singer Betty (played by Cristina Marsillach) who makes her debut on said production. Akin to the majority of Argento’s films, a black gloved killer stalks and murders the films characters, until the end when he is brought to justice. Luckily, the story itself is of little importance to this analysis because it acts as more of an extension to the running themes created by the works of art that the film contains.
With the film being titled Opera it goes without saying that the soundtrack likely contains a healthy amount of opera music, and luckily Argento does not let viewers down. His use of opera pieces proves to be the most entertaining aspect of the film on a stylistic level, while also adding a fascinating sub-textual relationship between the pieces themselves and the events playing out on visually. Three opera’s (not including Macbeth) are used on the films soundtrack with pieces from each placed exactingly at important points in the film. To properly understand the effectiveness of their use, a short synopsis of the opera’s will be given when necessary.
The first of the pieces used is Un bel di, Vedremo from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904), and it is played shortly after the murder of Betty’s young lover Stefano (played by William McNamara), at the moment she is left alone in her apartment. The piece reaches its highest crescendo when Betty searches through her pocket and finds the needles that were used to force her eyes open. The opera itself tells the story of an American Naval Officer named Pinkerton in Nagasaki, Japan who falls in love with a geisha house wife named Butterfly. Eventually Pinkerton is sent on duty and does not return for three years; and upon returning, he does so with a new American wife. The news is all too much for Butterfly and she eventually takes her own life (Met Opera). The piece itself comes from an earlier moment in the opera when Butterfly is imagining the day her husband returns home to her (Met Opera). Already knowing Argento is too clever a filmmaker to simply pick a random opera to put in his film, the story that the piece is telling holds a very interesting contrast to what is happening on screen. While Un bel di, Vedremo is Butterfly’s ballad of hope for the future, the moment it is playing is perhaps Betty’s first realization of the brutal murder she had just witnessed, her first realization that she will never see Stefano again.
The second piece Argento uses is Casta Diva from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831), and it is played as a part of the diegesis during the point of the film when Betty is hiding from the murderer in her apartment, shortly after Mira (played by Daria Nicolodi) is killed. The opera Norma takes place in Gaul during the Roman occupation of 50 BCE and tells the story of how priest Oroveso leaves his wife Norma for a younger woman, and of Norma’s attempts to win him back (Met Opera). Casta Diva itself is a highly recognizable piece in which Norma is praying to the goddess of the moon for peace, while the crowd behind her calls for war (Associated Content). Again Argento’s use of this piece creates a startling comparison to what is actually happening in the film. Not only does Norma’s prayer for peace – which is being played while Betty (who is likely praying as well) battles a black gloved killer – provide an entertaining contrast, but the fact that the mob surrounding Norma is calling for war causes a slightly disturbing moment of introspection for the viewer. One can safely assume that the audience watching Opera is no better than the mob surrounding Norma; we want to see carnage, we want to see violence, or else we simply would have gone to see The Princess Bride.
The final prominent piece that Argento employs is Sempre Libera from Giuseppe Verdi’s famous opera La Traviata, and it plays immediately after (it is literally the next track in her stereo) Casta Diva is played in the apartment showdown. La Traviata tells the story of Violetta, a popular courtesan who is courted by a young gentleman named Alfredo. The two eventually fall in love, but due to a series of miscommunications they part ways; only to make amends moments before Violetta dies of tuberculosis (Met Opera). The specific piece, Sempre Libera takes place shortly after Violetta and Alfredo first meet and is about Violetta’s initial hesitance towards a relationship with the fellow, while in the background Alfredo can be heard singing for their love (Met Opera). The first thing that comes to mind is the hugely skewed mirror effect that is occurring in the diegesis of this scene. First it starts off with the contrasting imagery of prayer and a terrified woman fighting off a killer. The soundtrack then changes to a piece about a young man who has quietly loved a woman from afar and now has her in his grasps; while on screen a woman is being chased by a violent masked figure who too has quietly loved her from afar! The comparison is actually quite hilarious when thought about, and fits in perfectly with Argento’s overall filmmaking style. The beauty of art, women, and nature has always been contrasted with horrible violence and the abject in Argento’s cinema.
Having looked into the classical opera pieces of Opera, it is now worthwhile to conduct a small analysis of Dario Argento’s use of metal music in the film. The metal most prominently shows up in the two murder scenes that Betty is forced to watch, and the climax of the film in which the identity of the killer is revealed. In regards to the murders, the use of metal acts to make each kill feel like its own digression within the film itself. Since this sort of music is seldom played throughout the film, the viewers’ attention is noticeably heightened. With that being said, Argento’s choice of metal tracks also destroys any chance of the murders being taken seriously, and they are instead met with an almost satirical regard (whether this be purposeful or not). The tunes used in the film were provided by two bands, one an unsigned group that evidentially had/has zero following, called Steel Grave, and the second a slightly larger group called Norden Light. The latter of these groups performed the one track worth mentioning in the film, No Escape. The lyrical connection between the song and the film is fairly clear judging by its title, as it is playing both during the murder of Guilia (who is trying to escape the killer) and near the films conclusion when the killer is discovered by a group of trained crows. Dario Argento’s unwavering use of metal has been the subject of many a debate, and unfortunately while it is more effective in Opera than any previous attempts, it is still quite unnecessary.
Up until now the majority of our discussion (and rightly so) has been focused on the choices Argento has made in the soundtrack of Opera, but visually this is also one of his most vivacious films. Film scholar Pascal Bonitzer has a fascinating analysis of what is known as the plan tableu, which is a shot in a film that resembles a painting (Bonitzer 30) and writer Chris Gallant uses this term in reference to much of Argento’s work, although he appears to leave Opera out of the mix; which is a mistake as the film is one of Argento’s most stylistic pieces (Gallant 67). Bonitzer’s idea that, “The function of the plan-tableau is interactive…ambivalence, discourse in two voices, the unstable mixing of the high (painting) and the low (cinema), of movement (the shot) and of stasis (the painting)” (Bonitzer 30) directly parallels the two scenes that have Betty tied up and forced to watch the murders of her friends. To Betty and the viewer alike these murders all occur on a two dimensional plane and we view them as if they are a production of their own. Betty has the ability to both mentally and physically separate herself from these scenes because she is restrained and left to be a voyeur, just as the viewer is. The murders then become death and violence manifest as art in that both Betty and the viewer witnesses something brutal and yet peculiarly beautiful at the same time. In reference to the painterly quality of film, Hubert Damisch goes on to state that, “When one sees the appearance in a film of an element connoted as pictorial, a stasis is produced” (Damisch 32); this stasis is exactly the feeling that these stage like murders induce. Argento’s use of metal rock in the scenes helps to further this state as the majority of the films soundtrack is otherwise operatic or at least low key in nature. In making the films protagonist stationary and completely changing the style of the soundtrack, these murder scenes become individual works of art unto themselves.
Bonitzer’s use of the plan tableau can also be used in reference to other important elements of Opera, most importantly the scenes which take place at the theatre. First off, the theatre itself is exceedingly beautiful with its baroque architecture, and yet the real eye candy comes in Argento’s ridiculous but outlandishly attractive Macbeth sets. Having Betty (who plays Lady Macbeth) wear a feathery metallic gold dress, while holding a gun, whilst standing in a bleak grey wasteland (that resembles the moon) with crows flying around her, is a spectacle of excess that is both surreal and painterly in nature. The same can be said of his livelier than ever camera which once again is like a character of its own. If Betty loses balance in a scene, the camera loses balance as well, and when her body convulses when shooting a gun, the camera follows suit. In the same vein there is a particularly memorable shot that takes place shortly after Betty is forced to witness the second murder, where she is walking down the sidewalk towards her apartment. The camera floats perfectly in level with Betty’s upper body, and a young child’s crying can be heard over the soundtrack. The brief moment would not otherwise be especially impressive if it were not for the subtle switch to a grainier palette, and the eerie way that gravity appears to have no effect on the camera; it just drifts along as if being carried by the breeze.
Although earlier works such as Deep Red and Suspiria are widely considered to be Argento at the peak of his powers, Opera is a film that deserves a much closer look by filmgoers. Admittedly the story is quite poor, but deep moving plots are not what made Argento the legend that he is today. Opera is a film that above all uses art as a self-reflexive commentary of itself. The soundtrack, imagery, and set design all work together to create a surreal plan tableau that requires “not only a cultural acknowledgement on the part of the public, but also a call for reading, for decoding”(Bonitzer 33).