Costuming & Italian Horror: Opera (1987)

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Frequently heralded as Argento's last great giallo and the swan song of the genre at large, 1987's Opera is one of the director's most ostentatious works; perfectly encapsulating the grandiose operatic excesses of Argento's cinematic career in a visually sumptuous and gloriously meta examination of the relationship between creator, performer and audience. Opera showcases the director's uninhibited trademark visual style and is a film imbued with a sense of creativity and dramatic flair that displays Argento at the peak of his mastery. What perhaps makes Argento such a proficient storyteller is his ability to create layered visual narratives that relay the outlandish themes and concepts at the heart of his films in such an aesthetically pleasing and visually cohesive manner. In Opera, Argento conveys thematic ideas pertaining to Shakespearean tragedy, identity, environment and sexual dysfunction through the film's visual storytelling extending through to production and costume design. In order to examine some of the aforementioned themes and characterisation in Opera, I will examine how costume design denotes key themes in Argento's text and conveys the facets of the character of Betty. 

Before discussing Opera’s costuming, it’s worth examining Argento’s foray into the fashion world prior to directing his 1987 giallo. Fashion and contemporary design have always been an integral visual component of Argento’s oeuvre, from the daring Luca Sabatelli designed costumes worn by Catherine Spaak in Cat o’Nine Tails (1971) to the bleached and pastel costuming of Piero Cicoletti and Franco Tomei in Tenebrae (1982). In the examination of costuming in Argento’s films, one of the most interesting case studies is his 1985 supernatural horror, Phenomena which featured designs by Giorgio Armani - somewhat of a rarity for the Italian designer (you can read my thoughts on the subject in my booklet essay for the Arrow 4K release of the film). Argento’s collaboration with Armani yielded impressive results with the sharp tailoring and cool colour palette of Armani’s mid 1980s designs perfectly complimenting the film’s mysteriously cold yet magical feel. Whilst Armani and Argento did not collaborate again post Phenomena, it was the Italian designer who suggested Spanish actress Cristina Marsillach for the leading role in Opera when Argento voiced his desire to cast an actress he had no previous experience of working with.

In 1986, Argento forged another connection with the world of Italian high fashion, directing a fashion show for Italian fashion brand Trussardi (you can read about the show in greater detail here). The runway show was for Trussardi's new fashion line, Trussardi Action - a line focused on emerging new fashion trends such as sportswear, utilitarian and unisex looks for the young adult market. The Trussardi show is an interesting artefact for fans of Argento featuring motifs of the director’s oeuvre staged in the confines of a fashion show. The Autumn/Winter 1986-1987 show also gives an insight into youth fashion trends of the era; some of which are replicated in Opera’s costuming. Whilst Opera was largely inspired by Argento's failed attempt at staging his own characteristically violent production of Rigoletto, it’s likely that the Trussardi fashion show also played a role in influencing his subsequent cinematic work. Opera details the behind the scenes processes of a live production and the subsequent trials and tribulations involved for a creative director - a notion familiar to a director with recent experience of conceiving and directing a live fashion show of his own.

As a production, Opera was marred with difficulties, supposedly befalling to the theatrical curse of “The Scottish Play”. Argento suffered personal tragedy with the loss of his father and relationship difficulties with long term partner and collaborator Dario Nicolodi. The production itself was disrupted by a series of unfortunate events including the death of a minor actor and a car accident involving Ian Charleston who later found out he was HIV positive (Opera was his last cinematic role before his untimely death). Additionally, substantial script changes had to be made when Vanessa Redgrave pulled out of the production at the last minute due to salary negotiations falling though. Yet despite the numerous issues that befell Opera’s production, Argento persevered with the film and cites it as one of his personal favourites. 

For Opera, Argento enlisted a crew made up of familiar names such as editor Franco Fraticelli and  production designer Davide Bassan alongside new collaborators such as British cinematographer, Ronnie Taylor. For Opera’s costume design, Argento collaborated with Italian costume designer Lia Francesca Morandini with costumes provided by Costumi D’arte, Sartoria Ferroni, Basile and children’s fashion label, Magil. Morandini would later collaborate with Argento once again on his 1996 psychological thriller, The Stendhal Syndrome (my piece on the film’s costuming can be found here). There are similarities between the two films in regards to their costuming with the fashions worn by protagonists Betty (Cristina Marsillach) and Anna (Asia Argento) comprising of predominantly casual looks presented in a non form fitting sexualised fashion. In Opera, Marsillach reportedly did not want to be dressed in a sexualised fashion - a request that likely, and unfortunately, added to her reputation as a diva on set. There’s been much discussion surrounding the tempestuous relationship between Argento and Marsillach. The relationship between the two was reportedly so fraught that they couldn’t communicate with one another directly during filming. Whether it was a result of Marsillach’s request or the production’s own direction, Marsillach’s costuming outside of her role as Lady Macbeth, positions her as somewhat childlike and reflective of the teenager she is. As a character, Betty feels somewhat less refined than Argento's previous teenage protagonist, Jennifer Corvino of Phenomena (1985) - a character who is remarkably more mature than her childish peers who worship teenage idols and eat baby food from jars. Whilst Corvino is positioned as a young woman beyond her years, in part due to her unconventional upbringing, Betty seems far more fragile as a character and possesses a sort of childhood innocence which is effectively challenged throughout the film. In Opera, by undertaking the role of Lady Macbeth, Betty is challenged as both a performer and a person. Betty’s relationship with Inspector Santini and his perception of who she is forces her to examine her identity as well as her connection to her opera singer mother - a source of conflict and confusion. Whilst, it’s perhaps not conveyed overtly in the film’s script, Betty as a leading lady is seemingly on a journey of self realisation which is perhaps why she lacks the gumption and pluckiness of some of Argento's previous leading ladies and again, why she attracts criticism in some circles. In Opera the 'who' element of the central mystery is perhaps less important than in Argento's other gialli with the 'why' being far more crucial relating to who Betty is, how she relates to her mother and her past and uncertain future. Throughout the film, costuming helps visually signify aspects of Betty's character that are perhaps not so apparent in the film's storytelling, marking her differences from those around her and the changes she goes through.

When we are first introduced to Betty’s character, her youthful innocence and childlike naivety is immediately apparent. In Betty’s introductory scene, she is shown lying on her bed listening to music before taking a phone call. In these initial moments we see that Betty resides in a grandiose apartment yet despite the opulent setting, her bedroom is littered with teenage and childlike items; a fairy ornament, a cup with drawings, a pink stuffed rabbit and a collection of colourful VHS tapes. Betty, who casually lounges on her bed appears to be your typical teenager but what sets Betty apart from her peers is the music that plays through her modern eighties hi-fi, not pop but opera. Betty is different from her peer group, possessing a talent that has presumably dominated her young life and predestined her future. Betty's profession as an opera singer seems at odds with her youth and this dichotomy in her character casts doubts over her ability to succeed in the coveted role of Lady Macbeth that circumstances catapult her into. We the audience, and the opera’s production team, question the ability of this young teenager who appears lacking in the gravitas and age required for such a monumental role.

Throughout the film Betty is portrayed in a somewhat infantilised manner, or at least her youthful, and at times, naive nature is emphasised in certain scenes. This is arguably to highlight the vast difference between Betty the teenager and Mara the middle aged opera star who she replaces. Betty’s youth is viewed negatively, casting doubts over her proficiency as a singer and ability to perform the coveted part of Lady Macbeth. Betty’s youthful appearance also highlights the differences between Betty and women such as her mother and her agent, Mira. The contrast between the various women in Opera is important as it illustrates the initial youthful naivety of Betty and how this aspect of her character is repeatedly challenged throughout the film. Opera’s cast largely comprises of capable women in various professional roles; Betty’s mother and Mara are commanding opera singers, Giulia is the opera's wardrobe supervisor, Maria is the assistant director, Marion is a successful model and Mira is a powerful agent. Betty enters into a world filled with powerful and dominant women already established in their careers whereas Betty is still unsure of who she is and her capability when it comes to the daunting role ahead of her. It’s interesting to note that many of the women in Opera have almost interchangeable names; Mira, Mara, Maria and Marion. This once again sets Betty apart from the others highlighting that she is different to the women who surround her - a realisation she herself comes to at the film’s end. If anything, the female who Betty seems to relate to the most and finds a kindred spirit in is Alma, the young girl who lives in the apartment next door. Alma, whose mother is shown to be callous and uncaring, feels like a representation of a past version of Betty and a reflection of her past relationship with her mother. Undoubtedly in Betty’s youth, her mother too, decided to forgo her motherly responsibilities in favour of her pursuing her own desires.

Much of Betty’s internal struggle, and the subject of the killer’s fascination, comes from Betty’s connection to her mother and the similarities and differences between the two women. Throughout Opera Betty will battle with comparisons to her mother and will question if she too, embodies her mother’s cruelty and depraved peccadillos or if she will forge a different path of her own volition. The complexities of Betty’s mother’s life and her relationship with her daughter are largely unknown and our experience of her character is contained to a few flashback scenes and Inspector Santini’s reflections. In the flashback scenes, we see Betty’s mother as an unassuming woman dressed in a beige cardigan and black dress. Her daughter, who is watching nearby, also wears a beige cardigan and has her hair styled in a similar fashion to her mother forging a connection between the two, showing that Betty is created in her mother’s image - a notion more overtly shown in Betty’s profession. Due to the absence of Betty’s mother, it is Mira, Betty’s agent, who takes on the substitute maternal role in Betty’s life acting in a career advisory role but also in providing emotional support and guidance to the young opera protege. Argento's films typically lack healthy maternal relationships so, despite being somewhat of an unconventional maternal dynamic, Opera still feels like a marked change for the director with the tender relationship between Mira and Betty reminiscent of the kinship between Professor McGregor and Jennifer Corvino in Phenomena or Cookie and Lori in Cat o’Nine Tails. Argento typically favours paternal relationships with mothers often typifying the monstrous female archetype; shown to either lack or possess a twisted interpretation of the empathetic nurturing qualities associated with motherhood e.g. Deep Red (1975), The Three Mothers Trilogy (1977, 1980, 2007) and Phenomena. In Opera, Mira will ultimately sacrifice herself to protect Betty in an act of motherly love. Whilst Mira and Betty’s relationship is portrayed as warm and nurturing, Betty's mother is painted as a callous women who placed her sexual gratification above her daughter and partner's needs. Mira is the counterpoint to Betty's mother, highlighting the warped unfeeling nature of Betty's mother’s actions. Betty and Mira’s mother daughter style relationship is conveyed through the aforementioned examples but it is also illustrated through the costuming of both women, asserting the generational divide between them and emphasising the childlike nature of Betty compared to her refined mentor.

When Mira first appears in Betty's bedroom at the film’s beginning, the contrast between the two women is stark. Mira towers over Betty creating a visual dynamic of mother and daughter. Betty is dressed in a baby pink top with pink satin lining - evoking the look of a traditional baby blanket - which she wears with a pair of chinos, her hair messy in an unstyled bob. Betty’s overall look is unpolished and lacking in refinement but is perhaps very much the picture of a teenage girl. As she talks to Mira, in tears, she clings to her pink stuffed rabbit - the image of an upset child who needs to be comforted by her mother. In contrast, Mira is dressed in a beautiful black suit with embroidery and a fur stole very much signifying her position as an accomplished woman and refined theatrical agent. Mira's initial costume is somewhat reminiscent of the costume Betty will later wear as Lady Macbeth when she takes to the stage for the first time. The black fur and jewelled brooch of Mira's look drawing comparison with Betty's bejewelled headpiece and feather adorned cape. This could perhaps be viewed as a connection between the two women and the strength and power Betty obtains by taking on the role of Lady Macbeth transitioning the young teenager into womanhood. 

Betty’s transformation from shy, insecure teenage girl into the domineering and forceful Lady Macbeth of Verdi’s opera is accentuated by the elaborate costumes she wears for her debut performance. One of the most fascinating aspects of Opera is horror director, Marco's staging of the classic Verdi opera, Macbeth. In the reviews of his production, Marco is criticised for staging the opera like a music video and this is certainly evident in the elaborate production design in which the stage has been transformed into a post apocalyptic wasteland featuring the charred wreckage of a military plane, a foreboding back projected skull and a large digital clock that hangs ominously above proceedings. As Lady Macbeth, Betty stands out from her surroundings and the other players who are dressed in military uniforms juxtaposed with sunglasses. The transformation of Betty's character from the previous scene is significant - the meek young woman from before has transformed into a powerful opera diva, commanding the stage and stealing the show much to the chagrin of her detractors. Betty's costuming reflects the anachronistic post apocalyptic look of the opera and her outfit is an amalgamation of 1980s jewelled excess and a throughly eighties vision of a dystopian future. The jewels stitched onto her costume and in her statement jewelled headpiece glint in the light like the repeated shot throughout the film of the eye of the raven. In a later scene, we see Giulia repair the costume cutting the jewels from the fabric in a manner similar to the way in which Santini tears through the ravens of the opera house; the billowing fabric in the background moving like the feathers ripped from the creatures. The feathered black cape of Betty’s Lady Macbeth outfit, which reappears in her second costume, mimics the appearance of the ravens who are an integral part of Marco’s staging of Verdi’s opera. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the raven is a bird of ill omen signifying King Duncan’s impending death. Argento’s staging of Macbeth in Opera emphasises the significance of the raven to the production’s narrative by incorporating an unkindness of ravens (technically a murder of crows) into the stage’s production design. The raven provides Opera with much of the film’s distinctive imagery and will play a crucial role in the unmasking of the killer; utilising the bird’s ability to recognise those who have wronged them to bring about Santini’s downfall. Lady Macbeth’s raven like cape adorned with feather detailing invites comparison between her character and the raven positioning them as kindred spirits, intrinsically linked. In Betty's first performance as Lady Macbeth, she outstretches her arms as ravens fly around her and perch on her arms, once again cementing this idea. In Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth speaks the line “The raven himself is hoarse” in reference to Duncan’s imminent death creating a connection between her character and the raven as a harbinger of the bloodshed and darkness to come. Betty, who wears a cloak that imitates the feathers of the ravens that surround her, will act as an ill omen for Santini, ultimately bringing about his downfall in a similar manner to how the ravens enact their own revenge.

What's interesting about Betty's portrayal of Lady Macbeth is how she inadvertently takes on the attributes of her mother in assuming such a notoriously ruthless role. Lady Macbeth, like Betty's mother, is a woman who seemingly lacks humanity, a woman who lacks the caring and compassionate qualities associated with womanhood. Betty's mother's relationship with Inspector Alan Santini also somewhat mirrors Lady Macbeth's relationship with Macbeth as both women cruelly manipulate their lovers into carrying out violent acts. Inspector Santini, despite being portrayed as the villain of the film, is essentially a puppet for Betty's mother and his inability to consummate his relationship with Betty's mother renders his character impotent tying into themes of frigidity, chastity and impotency in the film - particularly in regards to Betty's character. Betty's mother's manipulation drives Santini to carry out depraved acts on her behalf and his character becomes unable to associate love with anything other than brutality when he meets Betty. Santini is desperate to relive the relationship he had with Betty's mother, viewing Betty as a chance to finally receive the sexual and romantic validation he so desperately sought but was unable to fully obtain from her mother.

Santini's first encounter with Betty takes place during her debut performance as Lady Macbeth and the way in which Santini first sees Betty is perhaps key to how he relates to her character for the duration of the film. Santini does not see Betty, the childlike and fragile young woman she initially appears as to us, the audience, but as a powerful dominant young woman who commands the stage in her role as the strong yet heartless Lady Macbeth. In many ways, this warps Santini's perception of Betty as he views her as the character she is playing rather than the woman she is, perhaps due to his desperation to view Betty as a substitute for her deceased mother. When he first her on stage from afar he remarks “You’ve finally returned” believing that Betty is her mother. His failure to see Betty for the person she is and instead a doppelgänger of her opera singer mother fuels his desire to recreate his past relationship despite the differences between the two women. Santini views Betty as a chance to do-over his past failed relationship and to win the affections of the object of his desire, something he was unable to do with her mother as she became greedy and had to be destroyed. Due to his inability to view Betty as a separate entity from her mother, Alan Santini embarks on a killing spree in a desperate attempt to impress Betty unaware that she does not share her mother's predilections. When Santini kidnaps Betty and forces her to watch him murder her love interest, Santini is clearly carrying out the same sadomasochistic behaviours he enacted with her mother seemingly oblivious to Betty's revulsion. Santini feels Betty and remarks that “It’s not true you’re frigid. You’re a bitch in heat” casting aspersions over her Betty’s true nature.

Costuming inevitably ties into these ideas and Betty's initial Lady Macbeth costume is paramount in forging this connection between Betty and her mother. The elaborate costume made up of golden chains, straps and an armorial bodice feels S&M influenced which draws comparison to Betty's mother who liked to be tied up and to engage in the extremities of sadomasochistic behaviour with her lover. Betty’s costume also possesses a regal quality in which she is positioned as a queen of sorts; adorned in jewels, she is a woman to be worshipped and obeyed. In Santini's initial interaction with Betty he is meek and timid, like a star struck fan in awe of the object of his affections. This is somewhat ironic as Betty herself is someone who inhibits these qualities when we are first introduced to her character. Santini acts in a somewhat submissive manner which juxtaposes against his dominance in the capture scenes where he will rejig the power balance between the two as part of his sexual fantasies and desperation to have a woman who submits fully to his love. Betty, the performer is powerful but Betty the teenager is weak and afraid - in order to overcome Santini, she must harness the power that comes from assuming the role of Lady Macbeth without relinquishing her humanity. 

The second Lady Macbeth costume worn by Betty is less elaborate than the first but still embodies the regal and ostentatious feel present in her initial stage look. The dress features pearl beading on the bodice and neckline and is accessorised with matching pearl adornments including an elaborate pearl necklace and a belt and hair tie. The most striking part of the costume is a pair of thick gold arm cuffs that coil around Betty's arms. The serpentine arm cuffs feel like a pertinent addition to a costume designed for Lady Macbeth. In Macbeth, the snake is used as a metaphor for wickedness and treachery. Lady Macbeth speaks the line “… look like t’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” meaning her husband must be duplicitous; appearing perfectly innocent and unassuming in order to enact his treacherous plan to kill Duncan so he can assume the throne. Betty and Marco’s plan to unmask the killer in the climatic scenes of the opera mirrors the plans of the Macbeths; they must maintain the illusion of the performance in order to put their plan into motion. In the finale of Opera, Betty must once again deceive Santini in an act of self preservation. Upon the violent murder of Marco, Betty tricks Santini into believing she is just like her mother, sharing in her perverse peccadilloes. By appearing to succumb to Santini’s love and deviant lifestyle, mirroring her own mother’s path, Betty is able to finally thwart Santini double crossing him in the film’s final scenes. Despite Betty’s naive and fragile beginnings, by Opera’s end she grows into a powerful woman able to successfully manipulate and betray Santini. Betty is triumphant in overcoming her childlike fears, transitioning into womanhood and forging a different path to her mother, one of purity - “Because I am different. I don’t even vaguely resemble others, any of them.” 

When the police rush to Betty’s aid in the film’s climatic scenes, we see her delicately handle a flower whilst wearing her signature piece of jewellery; a gold snake ring. This alludes to Lady Macbeth’s quote “… look like t’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t” exposing the duality of Betty’s character - she is innocent and fragile yet possesses a deceptive quality which allows her to ultimately persevere. When opera singer, Mara, snidely sends Betty a congratulatory gift of perfume she writes "Good luck, little snake” - another allusion to Betty’s affinity with the serpent. Opera’s final scenes concern the choice that Betty will make and the revelation of her true character. Will Betty denounce her mother’s perverse ways or will she reveal an appetite for sexual bloodlust proving Santini’s assertions about her sexual excitement in Stefano’s murder scene to be correct? Opera explores thematic ideas pertaining to nurture versus nature culminating in the film’s finale that takes place outside of the confines of the opera house and in the open landscape of the natural world. Betty rejects the artifice of the modern world and finds solace in the nature around her. Once again she finds affinity with animals, in this case, the lizard. Betty’s snake ring connects her to the natural world she longs for whilst symbolising the connection forged with the character who has become the making of her.


The more ostentatious aspects of Opera’s costume design feature the aforementioned distinctive golden jewellery and adornments that characterise Lady Macbeth’s costuming as well as Betty and Mira’s individual pieces. The jewellery on display throughout the film was designed by theatre actor turned jeweller, Nino Lembo, a designer who supplied jewellery for various films such as Danger Diabolik (Bava, 1968), The Girl With a Pistol (Monicelli, 1968), The Night Porter (Cavani, 1974) and Nosferatu in Venice (Caminito, 1988). Lembo's jewellery often possessed a sense of fun and whimsy, created to invite conservation. In Opera, his designs vary from classical pieces to distinctive character pieces such as Betty’s snake ring. Like many other gialli, a piece of jewellery is also pertinent to film’s plot with Santini’s gold inscribed bracelet acting as a clue to the true identity of the killer and his motivations. Another piece of jewellery worth commenting on is the oversized gold pinwheel brooch that Betty wears on her dark blue blazer - a whimsical piece that denotes the youthfulness of her character. The pinwheel, a simple children’s toy, fits in with the stuffed teddies and bird mobile of Betty’s dressing room as visual signifiers of her initial childlike demeanour.

Despite her expensive and distinctive gold jewellery, outside of her operatic performances, Betty is dressed in a fairly casual and typically teenage like manner. Her wardrobe consists of slouchy oversized garments and looks that could be considered unisex fitting in with some of the more androgynous styles of the time, as displayed in the Trussardi Action show. Marco’s wardrobe is also reflective of some of the trends present in the Trussardi show. His character’s costumes are made up of practical and popular items of the time such as chinos, bomber jackets and fisherman jumpers. Interestingly, Betty and Marco’s wardrobes are at times almost interchangeable which again showcases the more unisex trends of the period. Both characters wear practical style clothing in muted colour palettes. In one scene, the two stand side by side both dressed in chinos and t-shirts appearing as a mirror image of one another. In Opera, there is a sense of glamour but one that’s framed as artificial - part of a stage production. Outside of the opera, characters retain a sense of normalcy and practicality and are far removed from the glamour of the decadent 1980s. This contrast is important as it reinforces the idea of Betty's world being somewhat of an illusion, created via smoke and mirrors. In comparison, Inspector Santini dresses in sharp tailored suits accessories with expensive spectacles. Santini presents as a desirable, professional man - a smokescreen for his barbaric identity. Morandini’s costuming for Santini and the character of Alan Santini himself, feels like a precursor for Alfredo Grossi in Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome - both men masquerade under a veneer of respectability in order to carry out their perverse crimes. 

Like Betty, the opera’s production team are mostly dressed in practical, casual clothing that marks them as behind the scenes players rather than those on the centre stage like the performers in their military clothing and sunglasses. However, costume designer Giulia (played by Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni of Demons 2 infamy) has some of the more interesting outfits of the opera’s production staff. As a costumier working in a creative field, she has an artful flair with her character embodying a sort of eclectic, late 1980s Vivienne Westwood aesthetic with her safety pin brooch, pixie boots, layered necklaces and ethnic inspired accessories. Marco’s partner, the fashion model Marion, is another character who dresses in a decidedly more bold, scene stealing fashion that might be viewed as more “eighties” in style. Throughout the course of the film, Marion dons a pastel blue jumpsuit, a high shine black evening dress with diamanté neck detail, a taffeta ruffled cocktail dress and an oversized Zang Tumb Tumb graphic t-shirt representative of the big logos and graphics that were popular during the period as seen in the Trussardi Action line and Italian fashion brand Moschino’s in your face fashion. Antonella Vitale, who plays Marion, will wear the Zang Tumb Tumb t-shirt once again in the Buona fine e miglior principio episode of the Argento produced miniseries for Giallo Turno di Notte later that year. The fashions for the show were supplied by Italian fashion magazine Moda.

The age old tradition of dressing up for the Opera is naturally on display in the film’s opera scene. The opera gives us a chance to see the film’s characters in all their refinery, displaying some of the more glamorous styles of the era. The aforementioned fashion model, Marion, wears a high shine evening dress whereas Alma’s mother, who is evidently more preoccupied with entertaining gentleman callers than supervising her daughter, wears a very 1980s tailored black suit with matching pillbox hat and white blouse with oversized taffeta collar. She is accompanied by her daughter, Alma, who wears a design by children’s brand Magil - a tartan peter pan collared dress which creates a picture of childhood innocence. The grandiosity of Parma opera house and the ostentatious and expensive fashions worn by the patrons that traverse its hallowed halls is undercut by the savagery of the events that take place there. The pomp and ceremony of the opera dissipates as Betty and Marco’s plan sets into motion. Patrons are crushed by one another as they flee to escape the carnage. As a raven gobbles Santini’s eye, pearls and accessories lie broken on the floor - the grandeur of the evening decimated by the primal nature of both Santini and the ravens’ actions.

As a film predominantly taking place in an opera house, Opera is naturally indebted to the Phantom of the Opera and its various iterations but there’s also clear references to other forms of cinema including Argento’s past oeuvre and the giallo in generalised terms. Perhaps less obviously, the film’s ending feels like a cinematic reference to Robert Wise's 1965 musical, The Sound of Music. The final scenes of both films take place in the Swiss alps against a backdrop of snow capped mountains, crisp blue skies and lush green grass. Argento's sinister take on the beloved musical turns the beautiful Swiss countryside into a place of murder and mayhem but ironically also a place of solace and realisation for protagonist Betty. The audience’s doubt over Betty’s true character accentuated by the blood stain on her blouse denoting the soiling of purity. Beyond the environmental similarities, the character of Betty seems to mimic Julie Andrews’ Maria  Von Trapp running through lush grass wearing a flowing cyan blue ankle length skirt and a white blouse that echoes the costuming of Andrews in the 1965 musical. Of course, Betty the slovenly teenager compliments her Maria Von Trapp style outfit with her signature pair of Stan Smith trainers putting a modern twist on a classic and showcasing that despite her personal growth, she has not completely lost sight of who she is. 

Despite assertions of weak characterisation, Dario Argento’s Opera follows on from thematic ideas in his previous cinematic offering, Phenomena, acting as an examination of a coming of age story framed in the grandiose world of the Italian opera. Costuming in Opera is an imperative part of the film’s visual storytelling conveying pertinent information about Betty’s character and her transformation from frightened child to self assured woman. Opera’s costuming reveals the different facets of Betty’s character and acts as an exploration of her identity in relation to her role as her mother’s daughter as well as her fictional role as Lady Macbeth in Marco’s staging of the Verdi opera. Like with Argento’s other cinematic works, Opera utilises costuming alongside the director’s trademark visual style and distinctive thematic concepts in order to tell a story of self discovery realised through the prism of taking on the identity of another to ascertain who one really is. It is only when Betty understands herself that she can reject the horror of the world she once knew in order to find solace in the purity of nature.

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1 comment:

  1. A very insightful article, with good photos, too! I have loved Argento for 20 years, yet never looked into his creative process or the events surrounding his films. His films are worth repeat-watching, even though the story-lines become more inconsistent the more one examines them. Plot-holes, bizarre character motivations... I think of Argento like David Lynch. In fact I came upon this article after seeing Opera for the tenth time, and trying to figure out the meaning of the gold bracelet. Why did the killer deliberately attach it to the costume, and then work so hard to get it back, all within one short section of the film...?... and then it never came up again, I don't think.


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