I’ve never considered Dario Argento a particularly self-reflexive filmmaker, but I don’t know how else to describe his 1987 film Opera. His self-insert character here — a well-known horror filmmaker taking a stab at the world of opera — is depicted as vain and calculating, a man sadistically obsessed with a good bloody story. In any other film, he’d turn out to be the killer, so blind to the real impact of his splattering narratives that his bloodlust turns to reality. Since this is Argento’s work, though, our villain is a psychosexual sociopath who also represents state power and patriarchal dominion. All in all, something of a lateral move.
Opera, like most Argento, is an easy film to watch. His mad camera moves are arresting, constantly swooping and sweeping and flipping and spinning and refusing to stay still. It’s a film in a constant state of agitation, as panicked and nervy as its protagonist. Argento never takes a moment to breathe, nor should he. Opera is enjoyably relentless. I never felt exhausted by Argento’s madcap antics. It’s thrilling throughout.
Part of that is down to some truly ghastly violence, which I found hard to watch at times. At multiple points, the typically Argento-ish young ingenue at the film’s center is tied up and has needles taped under her eyes so she can’t blink. It’s the sort of wildly sadistic machination you’d expect from a Saw movie, but it feels less cynically provocative here. There’s something honest about Argento’s love of violence, a genuine excitement for the most twisted gory setups he can imagine. Movies like Saw want you to look away. Argento wants you to keep watching.
I couldn’t help but think while watching Opera of how unlikely the success of a filmmaker like Argento would be in 2019. An artist so fascinated with the startling bright red of a bloodstain, or the gruesome sound of scissors ripping into flesh, or the shape an eyeball takes when it’s been ripped out by the beak of a raven — these aren’t qualities the general public has much time for anymore. Audiences at large these days prefer bloodless, sanitized “action” and decry as problematic the more gruesome depictions Argento was famous for. The only people picking up his legacy are useless provocateurs like Von Trier or Refn, people who don’t understand that Argento was so great because he wanted to bring the audience in on his obsessions rather than scare them away. Opera is a fun watch because Argento is fundamentally an inviting artist. You may want to avert your eyes, but his lavish use of color and wild camera movements bring you right back in. There’s no one else like Argento, and there probably never will be.