Callas Forever is cursed by its title. If you consider the diva from her debut in Tosca in 1942 through to her final performance in the same role in 1964, the “Maria Callas” we know was only around for 22 years. Given her dazzling yet merely mortal career, is this title iconic or ironic?
A fictionalised account of the last year of Callas’ life in 1977, Franco Zeffirelli’s film has her living in Paris as a recluse, 13 years after her last major role. Callas (Fanny Ardant) is “in mourning for her voice, for her career, for Onassis.” In reality, Callas made an ill-advised comeback tour with a voice that had suffered badly from a career of over-work, even by operatic standards. Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons), proposes a comeback of sorts, in his film of Carmen, a role she recorded but never took on stage. Given the tattered state of her vocal chords, the idea is to use the recordings she made as a young woman, with the older Callas miming the words during the shoot.
Maria Callas seems an ideal film subject: she had an incomparable voice, a legendary temperament, classic beauty, and turbulent private life. Moreover, she died lonely and miserable. This leaves the question of how Zeffirelli came up with the idea of the Carmen film; he seems to be gilding the lily. Certainly, the fictional “comeback film” raises provocative questions around authenticity: if they use Callas’ voice, and she acts on screen, does it matter that she doesn’t actually sing? From the beginning, she is anxious about the idea of the film being passed off as a new recording. But as Kelly reasons with her, giving a young woman’s voice to an old woman’s performance is like giving her a different coloured wig, or painting a stage set to look like a Spanish town.
The young Callas — in the form of her voice — is set against the old Callas, as she tries desperately to masquerade as a sexy young gypsy half her age for the film. In one scene, Kelly spies her alone, singing quietly an octave below a recording of her old voice, reenacting a tragic scene and collapsing in tears at the memory of her former brilliance.
It might be a strange statement, but the absence of Callas’ voice haunts the film. Although many recordings from Callas’ youth are used in the soundtrack (both in Carmen and in Callas Forever), Ardant’s Callas never once actually sings in public. At one point, she sees some paintings created while the artist was listening to her recordings. This scene offers a neat metaphor for her comeback, as the visual “fills in” for the audio, a kind of synaesthesia. Callas’ contentment with these inadequate replacements implies that in all those years as a miserable recluse, it wasn’t actually her voice she missed, but the limelight. The portrayal of her character as the impassioned musical genius is somewhat diminished as a result.
Ardant plays Callas alternately as seductress or enchanted child, but never brings us close to insight. Working with a bad script, she plays to the needs of each scene convincingly and avoids hyperbole. Yet she supplements her limited repertoire of facial expressions with much meaningful taking-off of spectacles and humorous wagging of fingers.
The film leans on convenient contextualising lines, to make up for thin characters (“I’m a journalist, remember”) and sparse mise-en-scène (“This is 1977, Satan is redundant”). During her triumphant return to public life, Callas is impeccably dressed in clothes fashionable 15 years before. Certainly, to today’s eyes, the perfectly cut, early ’60s wardrobe signifies “diva.” But in 1977, it looks out of date. The bored pedant will also enjoy spotting the numerous anachronisms, such as a bottle of Dolce Vita (launched by Dior in 1996) and a Smart Car. Many scenes feature a template look, as in: “Returning Star Wades Through Throng of Press Firing off Witty Answers in Many Languages,” or “Board Room in Uproar over Production Decisions.”
Every emotion suffers from being announced; the performers speak their lines with inverted commas around them. When Callas decides to let down — and possibly bankrupt — Kelly, he makes a three-minute attempt at looking pissed off, before jumping back on to the Callas merry-go-round. How on earth can we find out why Callas received such extraordinary devotion if all of her flaws are as muted and played down as they appear here?
It’s a truism that a biographer can’t be too close to his subject. Zeffirelli, as is explained at the end of the film, was a great friend of Callas. Sadly, he is doing her no favours in Callas Forever.