Dario Argento once entertained the notion of providing audiences for his films with rows of straight pins attached to pieces of tape, which they would place directly below their eyes. This would force the spectator’s eyes to remain open during the goriest portions of his films. Argento’s “Eyeorama” never came to fruition for obvious reasons though he fascinatingly incorporates this idea as a conceit in Opera, his last full-fledged masterpiece. Opera is a violent aria of memory, bad luck, the artistic drive and the horror of the stare. Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is haunted by memories of her dead mother, once an opera diva herself. Argento’s flashback sequences are predictably opaque. Secret corridors and staircases run alongside both Betty’s apartment and the film’s opera house, evoking the secret recesses of the subconscious. An image of a pulsating brain (here, a visual signifier of the girl’s Freudian despair) precedes images of a killing spree that imply that the girl’s mother may have been more than a passive victim.
The film’s performed opera is an avant-garde rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth with Betty taking in the lead. She lands the part only after the great Mara Cecova fights with the film’s director and breaks her leg. Cecova remains unseen throughout the film, a reminder perhaps that some divas refuse our stare. Vanessa Redgrave was to play Cecova but declined the part after her high salary demands were rejected. This is a blessing because Cecova’s non-presence becomes a rich composite of Argento’s fascinating attention to cinematic absence. When she falls and hurts herself before the opera house, a voice declares: “The great Mara Cecova has been knocked down by a car.” Of course, she hasn’t (the cab pulls up after she has fallen), but the illusion is far more dramatic than the reality. Opera itself is a film of forced illusions. The film’s opening shot (a close-up of a crow’s eyes) immediately establishes Argento’s fascination with mnemonic despair and distortions of reality and internal spaces.
Verdi’s opera is historically known for bringing bad luck to its casts, a fact that is not lost on Argento. Incidentally, Argento was advised to choose a different opera for the film but wholeheartedly refused. Though Opera was never plagued by post-production chaos of the Poltergeist sort, a series of on-set occurrences seemed to suggest that Argento’s production may have been compromised by some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The director has suggested that Opera‘s loveless tone was intended in part as a kind of AIDS metaphor. Ian Charleson (Macbeth‘s director, Marco) would tell Argento during the filming of Opera that he was HIV+. (Charleson, whose film credits included Oscar winners Gandhi and Chariots of Fire, would die of AIDS in 1990.) Betty performs her grandiose aria with faceless women seemingly hovering in the background of the stage, their frilly garbs flapping in the wind. A wayward bullet kills one of the girls. Not only has the prophecy been fulfilled but on-screen death has never looked this beautiful.
The cast of Argento’s opera-within-a-film is a typically weird lot: Daria Nicolodi’s stars as Betty’s agent and mother substitute; Urbano Barberini as Alan Santini, the opera-loving inspector; William McNamara as Stefan, Betty’s horny boyfriend; and Coralina Cataldi Tassoni as Giulia, the show’s half-witted seamstress. Once Betty takes to the stage as Lady Macbeth, a monster from her mother’s past is awakened and the killings begin once more. If the crows in the film only screech in the presence of a familiar evil, then the killer must be the only character here not directly involved in the production of Mabeth. If you’ve pinpointed the identity of the film’s killer, it’s of little consequence—the genius of the film lies not in such details but in Argento’s operatic attention to death and the way in which the film’s killer forces Betty’s gaze.
The killer ties Betty up and places a row of needles below her eyes, forcing her to watch the grueling deaths of her friends. Stefan is stabbed in the throat with a sharp knife. Giulia is killed but swallows a bracelet belonging to the killer, forcing him to perform a last-minute autopsy on her body with a pair of scissors. What with the crunching sounds that imply bones being cut into, this may be one of the more squeamish sequences ever captured on film! More impressive is the fact that Betty is placed inside a glass container and comes to resemble one of Giulia’s many mannequins. Mira’s death also serves to reinforce Argento’s obsession with seeing and sightlessness. Betty’s vision is temporarily blurred after she applies drops to her dried-up eyes. This is precisely at the time when she allows a detective into her apartment. Mira enters the apartment and Argento introduces a second detective, one who stands outside the apartment. Is the killer the man outside or inside the apartment? Regardless, he has free access to the apartment (not to mention Betty’s consciousness) via the corridors that run alongside the apartment. As for the film’s infamous keyhole set piece, it reinforces Argento’s fascination with seeing as terror mechanism.
Opera was Argento’s most expensive production and it shows (indeed, the film’s many elaborate compositions don’t look cheap). Macbeth‘s crows circle the opera house in a secret plan hatched by the show’s crew. When the birds spot the killer, they go directly for his eyes. While Opera‘s ending isn’t a favorite among fans, Argento fascinatingly toys with the spectator’s perception. The killer supposedly died in a fire at the opera house, leaving Betty and her director to enjoy life in the country. A helicopter suddenly appears in the air and a horde of dogs run wildly through the forest. Both the audience and Betty pay little mind to these otherwise strange occurrences. The killer makes one final appearance, forcing Betty to stare at death one last line. This finale may seem forced and facile but Betty’s delirious romp through the countryside and her strange relationship with a lizard recalls Jennifer Connelly’s transcendental relationship to animals in Phenomena. Here, though, it really looks as if the heroine has cracked. Take Opera as the last time the great Argento was cracked himself.