Aria is one of the better-known omnibus films from the 80s, a strange period of film history that almost brought together the likes of Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, and Nicholas Roeg. Minus Welles, Fellini, and Allen, and plus a few others, Aria was constructed with relatively broad formal freedom but strikingly narrow thematic content. Perhaps predictably, many of these segments are very operatic indeed, paired as each of them is with a piece or two from Verdi, Puccini, and others. Considering the caliber of the filmmakers participating, it is surprising how tethered many of the shorts are to traditional operatic content. Jarman’s contribution may experiment most with the wedding of cinema with opera, offering a montage of images somewhat liberated from narrative confines and thereby allowing such a short piece to stand on its own. Roeg’s attempt to integrate narrative (from a classical source, no less) into into such strict temporal constraints results in a rushed product, something that defines neither opera nor cinema; but maybe this was his intention?
Godard is right at home here, especially following his 80s fare like Passion and First Name: Carmen. In this decade more than ever before, Godard was preoccupied with the fusing of image and sound, in the vein of Renaissance art and music. This means that he’s obsessed with the human form, male and female bodies. Historically, this creates something curiously hybrid. While classical opera may have to do with bodies, Godard’s style is decidedly closer to that of pre-Classical painting, with uncovered figures posing still in order to be admired or, better, worshiped. Godard’s use of male bodies juxtaposing the females here fits nicely into his standard approach to bodies along with everything else: exchange of commodities. The transaction doesn’t take place in the segment; the problem is an imbalance of supply with demand, a Marxist cliché that Godard is only too glad to inject into a series of films supposedly just about art and love. Such pretense is beneath him, effecting what may in fact be the most (retrospectively) comical episode of the bunch, even next to the straightforwardly funny segment with Buck Henry and Beverly D’Angelo.
Opera is in many ways a romantic medium, in both its form and content. While this probably shouldn’t be debated, Aria fascinates by its general failure to expand on the basic, proverbial romance. Exceptions have been noted above, but tongue-in-cheek and slapstick stand only on their relation to what they mock. It seems that only Derek Jarman’s episode in Aria really does justice to romantic form and narrative while experimenting successfully with a new attempt to blur the classical with the contemporary.