Aria: 30th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Lightyear
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (3rd March 2017).
The Film

Ten international filmmakers come together to create vignettes set to opera in one of the more outré projects from Virgin Vision's expansion into motion picture filmmaking in the mid-eighties, Aria is a visually-striking but uneven collection that finds the filmmakers dabbling but producing nothing noteworthy within the context of their own filmographies, requiring a familiarity with the plots of the operas to glean meaning from the episodes. In "Un Ballo in Maschera" from Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now), a performance of the Giuseppe Verdi opera in 1931 Vienna provides anarchists an opportunity to assassinate King Zog of Albania (Bad Timing's Theresa Russell) who has made a secret visit to the city to see "his" mistress (Stephanie Lane). It is possible the casting of the Russell in a male role references Verdi's writing one of the principal male roles in his opera for a soprano and the resemblance in some shots of Lane to Russell a coded reference to Verdi's own coded references to the alleged bisexuality of Gustav III who inspired protagonist Renato. Cinematographer Harvey Harrison also photographed Roeg's Castaway and The Witches. Charles Sturridge (Runners) uses "La Vergine degli Angeli" from Verdi's La Forza del Destino to underscore his shapeless episode in which two churchgoing girls and a boy steal a car and take it on a joyride through London. Insubstantial and difficult to relate to events of the Verdi opera but full of gorgeous monochrome images by cinematographer Gale Tattersall (Wild Orchid). Jean-Luc Godard () transposes the setting of Jean-Baptiste Lully's "Armide" to a modern day gymnasium and recasts the lovestruck sorceress into a sexually-frustrated cleaning girl (Lapse of Memory's Marion Peterson) who fails to capture the attention of several untouchable posed bodybuilders, and a fellow cleaning girl (Alouette's Valérie Allain) who seems to stand in for the Goddess of Hate here is similarly condemned to unrequited eternal desire. Godard's contribution is not particularly rewarding but interesting in the context of his other features from the period that drew on opera (First Name: Carmen) and myth (Oh, Woe Is Me from the legend of legend of Alcmene and Amphitryon) for inspiration. The most conventional in terms of narrative comes from Julien Temple (Earth Girls Are Easy) who uses Verdi's Rigoletto for a neon-lit Southern California-set bedroom farce in which a producer (Eating Raoul's Buck Henry) takes a Swedish aspiring actress Gilda (National Lampoon's Vacation's Beverly D'Angelo) for a tryst in the Neanderthal Room of the Madonna Inn and constantly crosses paths unawares with his own unfaithful wife (Ruthless People's Anita Morris) and her spandex-clad physical trainer (Vision Quest's Gary Kasper) in the next room.

In "Glück, das Mir Verblieb" from Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt, Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant) uses Bruges as the titular "dead city" (as was the case with the source novel by Georges Rodenbach) with Peter Birch as widower Paul and Permanent Midnight's Elizabeth Hurley as dancer Marietta who consummate their love before fading away into memory. The episode is gorgeously photographed by the great Dante Spinotti (Manhunter) but suggests nothing of the bitterness tragedy to following the third act, and it seems as if any attractive models could lip-sync the vocals while reclining on a plush bed in an ornate room. A private performance of Jean-Philippe Rameau's subversive opera "Jean-Philippe Rameau" in Robert Altman's (Images) tale is attended by a crazed and syphilitic audience more interested in carousing than culture. The uncredited and unrecognizable cast members of this shapeless piece include Airplane's Julie Hagerty, Pirates' Cris Campion, and Belle de Jour's Genevieve Page. Cinematographer Pierre Mignot shot several of Altman's eighties productions including Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and O.C. and Stiggs. James Mathers and Bridget Fonda (Single White Female) are Tristan und Isolde in "Liebestod" if the doomed lovers ran away to a Vegas to end their lives as in Franc Rodham's (Quadrophenia) take on the final act of Richard Wagner's opera that is prettier to look at (thanks to Blue Velvet DP Frederick Elmes and an undraped Fonda) than to appreciate as an adaptation or homage. The most audacious segment of course belongs to Ken Russell who had just directed the horror-tinged Shelley-Byron biopic Gothic for Virgin Vision. Here he visualizes "Nessun Dorma" from Giacomo Puccini's Turandot as a vignette about a woman (An American Werewolf in London's Linzi Drew) in a car accident who hallucinates her surgical treatment as a pagan ceremony in which neckbraces become gold collars and lacerations are ruby- and diamond-studded adornments on the skin where bruises are tattoos and body paint. Photographed by Gabriel Beristain (Caravaggio) against stark backgrounds with minimalist use of props and set decoration, this episode is the only one that most closely resembles an avant garde take on opera. Derek Jarman (Sebastiane), on the other hand, turns in a more sedate entry with "Depuis le Jour" from Gustave Charpentier's Louise which intercuts the final performance of an opera singer (Amy Johnson) with 8mm-lensed memories of her youthful self (Orlando's Tilda Swinton) in the flush of first love. The first nine episodes are bridged by scenes of a tubercular John Hurt (1984) wandering Venice and arriving in a theatre where he prepares to perform "Vesti la Giubba" from Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci for a spectral audience of one (Young Sherlock Holmes's Sophie Ward) in the final entry by Bill Bryden (Ill Fares the Land) and producer Don Boyd (Sweet William). What could have seemed a slight and sentimental sketch at the end is drawn out by being preceded by segments that seem rather arbitrarily cut up and inserted between the stories. Sadly, some of the slate of filmmakers here seemed to have peaked career-wise at this point and either retired to the stage, television, or music video (eighties guilty pleasure fans might be more likely remember to remember Rodham for The Bride than for creating Masterchef hopefully), and the project's Palme d'Or nomination at Cannes seemed more likely on the basis of its pedigree than achievement but it is highly enjoyable on an aesthetic level and of interest in the context of Virgin's output.

Video

Released theatrically stateside by Miramax, Aria has had three problematic DVD releases in R1. Image Entertainent released a barebones anamorphic widescreen Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround DVD in 2002 that was reissued with a 5.1 soundtrack; however, both of these releases were of the shorter American version. Lightyear's 2008 DVD was a fullscreen DVD of the shorter version. Fortunately, the same company's new 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is of the longer cut and the barebones but high bitrate BD50 encode is quite beautiful. Sharpness and clarity varies depending on the episode with much eighties backlight and diffusion on view in some of the vignettes but this must be the best the film has looked on video.

Audio

Although the back cover specifies Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, the mix is actually an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 encode of the Dolby Stereo track. Apart from the music, the filmmakers have different approaches to sound with the Roeg and Russell segments featuring directional effects while Temple's and Altman's feature more layered soundscapes. There is some throwaway English dialogue in the Rigoletto episode but some French dialogue during the Godard sequence is not subtitled.

Extras

While the UK DVD from Second Sight featured a commentary from producer Don Boyd and lengthy featurette with interviews from Boyd, Roddam, Roeg, Russell, Sturridge, and Temple, Lightyear's Blu-ray only features still galleries for each segment; however, these do showcase the work of well-known photographers Lord Snowden, John Swannell, Diana Miller, Greg Gorman, Bob Carlos Clarke, Clare Muller, David Bailey, Annie Leibovitz, Terry O'Neill, Angus McBean, and Koo Stark, as well as the film's theatrical trailer and a start-up trailer for Tanna.

Overall

More likely nominated for the Cannes' Palme d'Or on the basis of its pedigree than its achievement, Aria is uneven but still highly enjoyable on an aesthetic level.

 


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