Thursday, February 08, 2007

Lovefest '07: #6. Be Free

Cristina Marsillach in Opera (1987)

Cristina Marsillach plays the traumatized opera ingenue, Betty, who's lost everyone she cares about in a string of serial murders, which she is forced to witness by means of eyeball-threatening needles taped to her face. But those celebrated scenes are not what need to be redeemed. What happens in the final moments of Opera may be a kind of Rorschach test for viewer's cynicism and generosity. The film's coda abruptly switches settings, from a violent, dark vision of Parma, Italy to the pastoral Swiss Alps, as our tormented heroine seeks some much-needed r-&-r, only to find herself walking into the story's last fake-out and twist scare. After witnessing the final stabbing of her last remaining friend, and turning the tables on the killer to bring him to justice, Betty, splattered with blood and emotionally exhausted, dismisses pursuing reporters, and wanders away from the crime scene. In her crimson-stained white blouse, she throws herself into the grass, and crawls on hands and knees through the wildflowers, as we hear her internal monologue in voice over:
"I no longer wanted to see anybody. I wanted to escape altogether...
Because I'm different.
I don't even vaguely resemble others, any of them.
I like the wind.
The rain.

She comes upon a lizard pinned by a twig, studies it a moment, and sets the helpless creature loose, calling after it "there my beauty. Go free."

What's going on in this scene? To be honest, I am well aware a lot of audiences find the finale infantile, laughable, embarrassing and/or simply terrible. Maitland McDonagh has evaluated that the only possible conclusion is that Betty has gone mad, probably from the horror and loss she's undergone, but mostly the internal resistance to the killer's insistence that a latent sadism inherited from her mother makes her get off on being forced witness to the murders. This is a frequent line of reasoning adopted by Argento apologists. To me that smacks of tough-guy excuse making and a false choice: either Argento is soft-headed about the spiritual, or hey look, at least the hero goes crazy at the end. It's just not a foregone conclusion either way.

We're privy to Betty's thoughts, but there's no definitive answer about her mental health, or sublimated motivations she's not even expressing to herself in the voice over. We can't know what's happened to Betty any more than we understand what's happened to Marc Daly in Deep Red, to Anne in Tenebre, or to Anna Manni in The Stendhal Syndrome, in the similar enigmatic closing shots of those films. All we can know is that Betty is changed. Her final voice over is a refutation of the villain's claim over her, a resistance to the possibility of complicancy with the violence, a self-absolution from guilt. In her final act of compassion, freeing the pinned lizard, she undoes the nasty work of the reptile-torturing little girl in Deep Red. Faced with a creature whose helplessness in bondage mirrors her own during the murder scenes, Betty chooses to liberate it. The attentive viewer will also see Betty shucking off her mother's influence in shaping her psyche: when Betty releases the lizard, she's set free.

Betty is the only character able to transcend the twisted meanness of Opera's world without being annihilated. Even if she has gone mad, and is manically overcompensating to prove it to herself, we watch Betty make the choice. Whether the capacity for sadism is present is not important: of course it is. It always is. She suppresses it. Until this scene, Opera is not at all about relationship between people and nature. It seems instead, that only by exposure to the darkest edges of human experience, is Betty able to consciously set herself apart from the brutish, insensitive species that populates the film. That is as fine a mission statement for horror movies as I know.

Half of this scene is a credit to Argento, the rest is all Marsillach's doing. Her strange performance is what allows the latitude for readings as divergent as McDonagh's and my own. Marsillach paws across the grass in rapture, ignoring the gore on her shirt. She smells deeply of some of the plants, pets some of them and simply stares and grins at others. The wild, ecstatic expression on her dewy features cannot be read, beyond the wide-eyed glee of her oneness with nature. Un-sane or not, it's frightening as she buries her face in the foliage and comes up open-mouthed with wonder. Promptly after the lizard's rescue, Betty throws herself flat on the ground, embracing the Earth itself, and the screen fades to black. Such awesome joy as Cristina Marsillach conveys, we can never know. Can we? Go my beauty.

Be free.


Anonymous said...

you try too hard to be clever. i'm not meaning to be cruel but this is the most purposefully obtuse--and by proxy, annoying--film blog i've ever read.

Chris Stangl said...

Those who can make films -- do.

Those who understand films -- criticize.

Those who can't criticize -- complain.

Anonymous said...

ah, but i do understand films, and i do critique them. i am also paid to do so. are you?

learn to be graceful when someone offers you constructive criticism. you -are- purposefully obtuse, and it's a bad affectation to cultivate.

Chris Stangl said...

Bragging about one's job, trolling on blogs you claim to find annoying, framing yourself as a wise old (paid!) movie critic whose sage advice a young poseur should be happy to accept, are far, far worse habits to cultivate than anything perpetrated here. Use that pay to buy a shift key!

Sorry, Jackson, but you sound like a square. Include me out!

Stephanie said...

This is a brilliant analysis of one of my favorite film endings. While I love McDonaugh's work, her facile dismissal of OPERA's finale always bugged me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this.