Reptiles & Rhymes: a Trip to the OPERA (with Spoilers!!)
My chronological revisiting of the Argento canon continued last night with another viewing of what I consider to be once of his finest films, OPERA – an elegant and enigmatic giallo whose complexities fascinated me from the first. I’d read several analyses of the curious epilogue which attempted to cast suspicion on Betty, but I’d never found them terribly convincing…until now. Yes, I am now in a position to reveal to the court the evidence which I believe reveals the truth of that climactic bonding with Mother Nature. Betty’s guilty – guilty as charged!
As if to encourage a subconscious awareness of the notion of twinning – and specifically, towards the twinning of Betty (Cristina Marsillach) with her pursuer, the killer – Argento returns (on a smaller scale perhaps) to the rhyming of images employed previously in PROFONDO ROSSO; there’s the avian mobile in Betty’s changing-room which prefigures the attack of the ravens in the theatre, Daria Nicolodi’s left eye is shot out by the murderer whose own left eyeball falls prey to the ravens, not to mention the more explicit efforts to twin Betty with her mother through the use of elliptic flashbacks suggesting her complicity in past sadomasochistic crimes… and the “Red Dragon”-inspired coda in the Swiss mountains even extends this rhyming idea to retrospectively “prefigure” Argento’s previous film, PHENOMENA, with Ian Charleson performing camera tests on a tethered bluebottle – as Argento himself had already done. (The glimpses of the Swiss TV news show “Tagesschau” also echoes scenes in PHENOMENA.) The connection between Betty and the killer takes on a telepathic profundity at times (another echo of PHENOMENA): the pounding of the killer’s blood in his veins, prior to each killing, produces a complimentary response in hers – a clear sign that some moral consanguinity is being posited. (Note that in the Italian version, Betty appears to think, so to speak, with a man’s voice – her interior monologues are spoken by a male narrator, as opposed to the more conventional English dub, where Betty provides her own voice-over. Not that I know much about the subject, but Argento may be drawing on Jung’s theories to present the voice of Betty’s animus – the male aspect of her personality which houses the aggressive tendencies Santini is attempting to awaken.*) And can it be coincidence that Betty is playing Lady Macbeth, the infamous villainess who encourages her husband to commit dreadful acts of murder but can never erase the bloodstains on her own hands? (And look at the way Argento emphasises Betty’s triumphant brandishing of the pistol on the night of her first stage success…)
Argento subtly constructs a scheme of complimentary “doubles” to introduce us to the hidden meaning of that enigmatic epilogue, so apparently bursting with innocent bucolic charm and vivacity. Betty’s cold indifference after the dramatic police rescue (“I knew you were coming, I saw the dogs”), taken with her too-casual dismissal of Santini’s comparisons between Betty and her mother (“Oh, just a lot of nonsense…lies”), shows a sinister disregard for the death of Mark, whom she has just witnessed knifed only a few moments earlier. She’s much more excited by the prospect of embracing her true nature, which has emerged at last under Santini’s guidance (perhaps that splash of Mark’s blood over her chest was the final trigger?), leaving her luxuriating in the freedom which results when one transcends traditional moral considerations. When she frees the small lizard from the grass, she is symbolically liberating a part of herself – a reptilian, atavistic part of her nature which civilised convention usually keeps under lock and key. (Remember that Mara Cecova described her earlier as a “little serpent”, too – tyrants are often the first to recognise corruption of the soul in others, having seen it reflected in the mirror countless times.) In a sense, Mark was her first victim, with Santini her second – both sacrificed so that she might be reborn. It’s a positive coda – but only from the perspective of a nascent psychotic.
OPERA concludes with an evolution, a dark reflection of the more hopeful image which ended PHENOMENA - both extremes of the evolutionary spectrum united, the chimpanzee (symbol of ancient prehumanity) and Jennifer, a telepathic human of the future. The rebirth which closes OPERA on such an apparently uplifting note only takes on a more sinister aspect in hindsight, when the clues are assembled; Betty has survived but, despite her taunting of Santini (“I’m nothing like my mother, nothing at all!”) the indications are that she occupies the same moral vacuum and may even go on to surpass her, severed from the ties that bind the rest of us (wrongly, perhaps?) to conventional modes of conduct.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that Argento doesn’t see his ending as “sinister” at all – he’s trying to explore abstract notions of self-actualisation, away from pejorative notions of “good” or “evil”. Perspective is everything. I’m reminded of something Cronenberg once said – from the point of view of a virus, plague’s a good thing. Maybe Argento, like Croneneberg, is just trying to be even-handed – showing us the world from the viral perspective.
* Actually, the subtitling (or “dubtitling”) of the Arrow Films’ UK DVD may be slightly misleading on this point; while the subs present Betty’s interior monologues in the first person, despite being spoken by a male narrator, the actual dialogue (if my rusty Italian can be trusted) appears to be in the third person – i.e. this is really another guest appearance by the omniscient male narrator of SUSPIRIA and (briefly) PHENOMENA, who steps in to provide cryptic authorial comments at certain junctures. Still, it raises interesting questions – why would a third-person male narrator in the Italian version be replaced with a first-person female narration in the English-language edition? Perhaps the notion of twinning extends even to these two complimentary versions of this film – the Italian and export versions must be seen as two faces of the same coin, both clues towards a solution of the final riddle…