There’s a bittersweet awkwardness that happens when you discover someone’s work only as a result of their passing. I’ve never been familiar with Ken Russell‘s extraordinary and controversial filmography, despite the many times friends have recommended him. I adore Women in Love but I haven’t seen any of his other features, and from what I hear that’s hardly a representative work. I’ve seen clips of The Devils on YouTube, but have never gotten around to watching the full film. And so, as the film community mourns, I spent some time this morning reading some wonderful obituaries and poking around the web to see if he’d ever directed shorts. I found something entirely unexpected, enigmatic, and hermetical.
Aria, released in 1987, is one of those anthology flicks that opens to great excitement at Cannes and then goes absolutely nowhere. There isn’t much of a market for these things, at least not since the ‘ 60s, and it’s a shame. This particular film tasked 10 celebrated directors to each make a short film around a single opera, giving us a unique opportunity to see how artists like Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman and Robert Altman relate to specific pieces of music. Russell’s contribution is Nessun Dorma, a haunting seven minutes wrapped around one of the most darkly powerful arias in the operatic canon.
He opens with a lone woman, her neck girded by astrological rings, treading the air as if drowning. A group of attendants, dressed in golden ornaments that evoke the most ancient of civilizations, anoint her body with bright red jewels and intriguing glyphs. The air of ceremony fits marvelously with Puccini‘s stately music; Turandot, the opera from which this aria is taken, is a grand tale of love and death at the Chinese Imperial Court. Yet as this strange ritual moves forward, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that something much more ominous is going on here.
Suddenly, as tenor Jussi Björling bursts in with the aria proper, everything is revealed. Russell cuts to our stately figure suddenly bloodied on the ground, the victim of a dramatic car crash. The royal attendants are doctors and nurses, dressing her wounds just as they ceremonially added decoration to her naked body in the dreamscape. The medical operations are just as systematic and orderly as their mystical counterparts in the first half of the film, casting modern medicine as an ancient and occult practice.
With a stylistic sensibility that evokes the magic of Fellini, Russell has used a single piece of music and one woman’s violent accident to collapse the boundaries of time and reality. Turandot, after all, is set not simply in China (faraway enough for a turn-of-the-century Italian like Puccini), but in the legendary and distant past. Its music takes this ancient inspiration and combines it with Puccini’s ground-breaking technique, creating its own lyrical universe on stage. Russell’s film is a beautiful extension of this otherworldly setting, a brief glimpse into human tragedy that takes the emergency room into another dimension altogether.
Give it a look. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finally watch The Devils.