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Aria 
Written by: on July 8th, 2009


Theatrical Release Date: UK, 1987
Directors: Nicolas Roeg, Charles Sturridge, Jean-Luc Godard, Julien Temple, Bruce Beresford, Franc Roddam, Robert Altman, Ken Russell, Derek Jarman, Bill Bryden
Writers: Nicolas Roeg, Charles Sturridge, Jean-Luc Godard, Julien Temple, Bruce Beresford, Franc Roddam, Robert Altman, Ken Russell, Derek Jarman, Bill Bryden
Cast: John Hurt, Theresa Russell, Buck Henry, Bridget Fonda, Tilda Swinton

DVD released: June 15th, 2009
Approximate running time: 93 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1:85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: 18 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Stereo English
Subtitles: N/A
DVD Release: Second Sight
Region Coding: Region 0 PAL (UK)
Retail Price: £19.99


Synopsis: As he demonstrated in his own work as a director, Don Boyd is a filmmaker intrigued by fusing different artistic types and trends. EAST OF ELEPHANT was a meeting of past Hollywood cinematic traditions with 70s independent filmmaking techniques, while MY KINGDOM was a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s KING LEAR set in gangland Liverpool. Conceived, developed and presented by Boyd, ARIA is a combination of “brilliant cinematic talent with wonderful, extraordinary music” to produce an anthology picture that popularizes opera in a similar vein to what the music video did for the pop single. To achieve this, he approached many of the finest, most acclaimed filmmakers of the era – as well as several up-and-coming directors who had demonstrated a suitable skill and finesse with their work made prior to ARIA – who collectively were to present ten short pieces based on an aria of their choice. Each was allocated a budget of £50,000 and required to work from a screenplay that they penned themselves. They were not given any outlines or restrictions to work within, nor were they aware of what the other filmmakers were preparing. Such freedom inevitably spawns much brilliance, indulgence and unevenness, resulting in a collage of styles that enthrall and frustrate yet, as a whole, unite to create an extravagant venture worthy of both art forms.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that it is the established masters whose films work the best. The picture opens brilliantly with Nicolas Roeg’s UN BALLO IN MASCHERA (Giuseppe Verdi), a lean and taut demonstration of economic efficiency. Tightly shot and scripted with an effective use of cross-cutting editing, while blessed with a dazzling performance by Theresa Russell (portraying a man) and even finding time to make a cheeky reference to THE THIRD MAN, it ranks as among one of Roeg’s best works. Jean-Luc Godard’s ARMIDE (Jean-Bapiste Lully) is a bewildering yet fascinating piece that is the most outlandish and experimental of all the shorts, while Robert Altman’s LES BOREADES (Jean-Phillippe Rameau) turns the focus away from an opera performance onstage and back onto the reactions of the audience. As with the Roeg section, Ken Russell’s NESSUN DORMA (Giacomo Puccini) is an immensely disciplined piece yet is typical of its director. It is a suitably bombastic film that dazzles with its luscious stylistics and is essential viewing to anyone interested in the filmmaker’s body of work (it is worth noting that the lead player is Linzi Drew, an adult film performer whose mainstream work mostly consists of brief appearances in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and other Russell pictures). Derek Jarman’s DEPUIS LE JOUR (Gustave Charpentier) is a moving and lyrical experimentation of Super-8 home movie cinematography comprising of footage shot over several months and featuring Jarman regular Tilda Swinton.

Julien Temple’s amusing RIGOLETTO (Giseppe Verdi) is a tale of hypocrisy and infidelity set in a luridly tacky American motel and is most persuasive in illustrating the young director’s confident handling of material. Filmed with steadicam as (seemingly) one continuously shot and played suitably over-the-top by Buck Henry, Anita Morris and Beverly D’Angelo, Temple’s contribution is the only piece played strictly for laughs. Unfortunately, the other films made by the (then) not-so established filmmakers are much more ramshackle and less assured. Franc Roddam’s LIEBESTOD (Robert Wagner), which features an early appearance by a beautiful Bridget Fonda, relocates the Tristan and Liebestod story to the gaudy surroundings of Las Vegas. Roddam seems to be seduced by the garish city’s bravado, resulting in a film that is visually arresting but sorely lacks the emotional punch necessary for the piece to work. Charles Sturridge’s LA VIRGINE DEGLI ANGELI (Giuseppe Verdi) is shot in crisp black and white and looks amazing, but is too slight to be particularly memorable, while Bruce Beresford’s DIE TOTE STADT (Erich Korngold) is a dull and mediocre effort that is easily the most forgettable of the shorts. Bill Brydon’s I PAGLIACCI (Ruffiero Leoncavallo) features a fantastic performance by John Hurt which functions as a framing device throughout the entire picture and finally brings ARIA to a close.

The DVD:

Framed at its correct aspect ratio of 1:85:1, ARIA is presented in anamorphic widescreen and looks splendid. While one might expect the standard to vary due to the different cinematography and film stocks, but the overall quality is very strong with a crisp image and vibrant colors. There is a healthy amount of grain and a few very minor speckles here and there but overall, the picture looks very good.

The soundtrack is rendered in its original two-channel stereo mix. The audio is clean with occasional, very minor hiss but this is due to the limitations of the opera recordings. Otherwise, the sound is flawless.

Touted as a ‘Special Edition’, Second Sight has provided ARIA with a significant amount of material to make this claim valid. There is an entertaining audio commentary by Don Boyd who enthusiastically discusses each director’s work while divulging fascinating insight into their individual working methods. Also featured on the disc is the 45-minute featurette COMPOSING ARIA, which contains interviews with Boyd and filmmakers Nicolas Roeg, Charles Sturridge, Julien Temple, Franc Roddam and Ken Russell. Boyd discusses some of the directors who were to contribute at various stages of production – including Frederico Fellini, Woody Allen, David Byrne, and Orson Welles (who died just before signing his contract) – and fills in the gaps by the filmmakers not present to be interviewed (most intriguing is the fact that Godard was so unhappy with how he initially shot ARMIDE that that he used his own money to have the entire film reshot). Also on the disc is a stills gallery comprising of work by noted photographers such as David Bailey, Annie Leibovitz and Snowdon (a different photographer was assigned to each film), and the original theatrical trailer.

Running 93 minutes (not 88 minutes listed on the packaging), ARIA is a highly uneven feature film that hits as many times as it misses yet that is part of the fun: It is required viewing for anybody interested in purely visceral cinema that is enriched by beautiful music.

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