Film Review: The Paris Opera (L’Opéra)

A disrespectful documentary that uses decontextualized behind-the-scenes footage to highlight the absurd while spotlighting the work of classical-music and dance artists, directors and administrators of the venerable Paris Opera.
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A disjointed, disconcerting film that may irritate arts lovers, The Paris Opera (L’Opéra) feels more like an exercise in comic film editing than an honest documentary about the current state of the venerable arts institution founded in 1669 by Louis XIV. Shot during the autumn of 2015, the film (in French, with English subtitles) reinforces stereotypes of artists as weird, demanding, self-absorbed individuals, overly passionate about things of no relevance to the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

Director Jean-Stéphane Bron derives sly humor from decontextualizing disconnected snippets of behind-the-scenes footage of performances, rehearsals and meetings showing the institution’s administrators, creative directors, singers, dancers and production staff engaged in what seems to be inexplicably “artsy” behavior. The problem lies in the absence of context. Bron jumps into the middle of events without providing the background or development over time that allows viewers to understand what’s going on in a scene and that makes for an insightful documentary. One wonders if Bron’s purpose was really to shed light on this institution (which presents nearly 400 performances yearly of operas, ballets and concerts) or just to use it to make a statement about the nuttiness of the classical arts world, at least as it operates in Paris. Or maybe Bron’s goal was simply to snidely entertain, at the expense of serious artists.

While the film’s central character is the Paris Opera’s newly appointed director, Stéphane Lissner, much screen time is also given to Easy Rider. He is a bull, and is appearing onstage in the company’s production of the Schoenberg opera Moses und Aron. With no background information, we suddenly find ourselves at a meeting in which bull casting and staging logistics are being discussed. Later, we visit Easy Rider outdoors in his pen and learn he gets massaged several times a day, is given a shower, and has had a stage built for him, complete with lighting instruments, on which he can stand, so as to get used to being in a theatre. How much money is being spent on this, viewers are surely asking, as administrators bicker about budgetary issues throughout the film. Yet maybe if we had heard more about the dramatic significance of the bull’s role in the opera, the whole affair might have seemed less absurd.

And then there are the “prima donna” singers: Each time we jump into one of their blocking rehearsals, they are wearing goofy hats (probably a legitimate costume piece necessary for them to rehearse in) that make them look ridiculous as they do their choreographed gestures or complain about the difficulty of having to sing in a tight box formation. In another staging session, into which we are plopped uninformed, grown men argue heatedly about which is a “better” shape: a square or a diagonal lineup. Two assistants are overheard backstage talking about how much the soprano sweats when she sings in performance; then we see said soprano exiting the stage and being handed tissues with which she wipes under her armpits. As opera star Bryn Terfel sings an affecting aria, there are half-clad bodies writhing on the floor around him; we have no idea why, and it looks mighty strange.

Lacking the contextualizing information that would likely have dampened the funniness factor, virtually every scene in the film evokes an air of ludicrousness. Whereas Bron’s ironic sensibilities and eye for the absurd would be most welcome in a comic satire, they feel disrespectfully out of place in this documentary.

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