Critics both loved and hated Don Boyd’s portmanteau film which pitches ten major directors (Robert Altman, Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, Jean Luc-Godard) against ten classic operas and invites them to use their imagination. What that means, when the directors chosen are mainly white, male and slightly past their best, is a whole lot of undraped female breasts and bums; this didn’t raise much comment at the time, but looking back on Aria, it doesn’t reflect well on the kind of product created via the male domination of directing as recently as the 1980’s.
With a different talent taking up the baton every ten minutes, Aria isn’t a dull film to watch, and there’s some striking moments. Charles Sturridge offers a short MTV-style segment which matches Verdi to a massive close-up of newsreader Alistair Burnett, then fragments to show London kids stealing a car and watching a news-report about themselves. Altman riffs on Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade with an opera being premiered for the inmates of a mental asylum circa 1734; Julie Hagerty from Airplane appears here. Roeg throws himself into the assassination of King Zog of Albania circa 1931, with the king played in a gender-bending casting coup by his wife Theresa Russell. And Bill Bryden’s framing story has John Hurt miming to an ancient recording in full clown costume.
But this is an early film from the Miramax brand, and most of the directors interpret opera on annoyingly limited terms. Jean-Luc Godard imagines naked women in a gym, Bruce Beresford hears Wagner and imagines a naked Elizabeth Hurley, Franc Roddam’s take on the same composer involves Bridget Fonda stripping in a Las Vegas hotel room for her lover before their slash their wrists, Ken Russell imagined the naked body of a woman mutilated in a car crash but festooned with gems. What these visions have in common is an objectification of women, and that’s what makes Aria feel more than a little distasteful in 2020.
There is a gem here, and it comes from Julien Temple. Buck Henry, avuncular writer of The Graduate, appears as a frustrated husband who takes a hit of ecstasy to clear his mind to cheat on his wife (Beverly D’Angelo from the National Lampoon’s Vacation films). What he doesn’t imagine is that she has a lover too, and it’s only when their sex-tapes get mixed up after a tryst that he realises the error of his ways. (Henry is seen negotiating with “Woody’ over the phone about directing a segment of the film, but Allen declined to take part in Boyd’s project, as did Orson Welles and Fellini for different reasons.) It’s a funny little bit of storytelling, but notable because it subverts the notion of men being in control of women, and reveals male fantasy as pitiful, empty machismo.
Aria is a sporadically interesting project, but what it shows clearly in 2020 is that diversity is something that cannot be ignored. If all films are directed by elderly white men, then self-indulgence and juvenilia result. It’s understandable that many complaints are made about shoe-horning diversity into projects, but the supposedly inclusive and global vision of Aria feels like being locked in a cell with a collection of dog-eared soft-core VHS tapes. One good thing about the MeToo era will be that films like this will, surely, not longer be made.