“I know why I hate integrity,” moans Jeremy Irons late in Callas Forever. “It's great for the person who has it; it's pure hell for those around it.” Indeed. As tacky, ponytailed impresario Larry Kelly, Irons makes for one seriously deranged philosopher, but his dedication to the late opera legend Maria Callas (Fanny Ardant) transforms Franco Zeffirelli's latest film from mere valentine to passionate meditation upon art, artifice, and the challenging obstacle course in between.
Zeffirelli was both friend and confidant to the real Callas — or as real as the woman born Maria Anna Sophie Cecilia Kalogeropoulos could be, anyway — and here, after many years of contemplation, he offers us his strange but generally satisfying blend of fact and fantasy. Before Callas' death in 1977 at the age of 53, the director dreamed of lionizing her anew in a fresh cinematic version of Carmen, married to her classic vocals recorded two decades earlier, before her voice lost its luster. The project never materialized, thus Callas Forever is Zeffirelli's grand statement of “What if?”
Irons, as the leisure-suited Larry, essentially plays Zeffirelli's stand-in, and we meet him in Charles de Gaulle Airport en route to a punk concert he's producing in Paris. Certainly, not enough opera-mad movies open with the Clash blaring “Complete Control” (“Lemme see your other hand!” burns eternal), and the thematic parallel, given Joe Strummer's recent death, proves particularly striking. This is a mid-'70s period piece, though, and Larry doesn't even like punk — managing a gang of dorks called Bad Dreams is just a tedious job for him. He's delighted by his young, painterly new boy-toy Michael (Jay Rodan, fetishized as only Zeffirelli can), but still something is missing. It takes Joan Plowright, as wry entertainment journalist Sarah Keller, to remind Larry of his passion for a certain diva hiding somewhere nearby.
And what a diva she turns out to be. Cooped up in her Paris apartment (“I don't go out — out is overrated”), with its to-die-for furnishings and what appears to be a meticulously kept urn collection, Callas has been whiling away her pill-popping years in nostalgia and self-pity. (She manages both at once via a photograph of her lost man, Aristotle Onassis, and with a videocassette of her final performance in Japan, when her voice began to go.) When Larry fights for some long overdue face-time with his former client, she's very skeptical of his showman's ways, sneering, “Do you want me to join a Chinese circus, or show my derrière in public?” Both concepts being amusing in theory, Larry concocts a third option: to film her classic works, for love and money.
The joy of Callas Forever — and honestly, for some it may be agony — is watching Ardant and Irons bitch at each other as only a prima donna and a full-blown queen could. Zeffirelli favors extreme close-ups, and although there are a fair share of moments suitably resplendent and glorious (she sings and weeps; he gazes, and gazes), staring at Ardant long enough conjures a scary amalgamation of Kramer from Seinfeld merged with a steam shovel. Meanwhile, Irons seems to have taken Method classes for this role, to impersonate a cross-eyed prune. They both look completely nuts (if perhaps not as nuts as in Eight Women and Dungeons and Dragons, respectively), but their combined insanity eventually adds to the charm, and their gentle, vulnerable denouement together proves truly touching.
Callas Forever is a very mixed bag. There's a casual openness to Larry's longing for Michael, which is later — briefly and traumatically — mirrored in Maria's hunger for her much younger leading man (Gabriel Garko). These bits are awkward to observe, but ring true in terms of mortality and denial. Zeffirelli also reveals a knack for slagging off entertainment journalists — particularly dumb blond American ones — as Callas in her Chanel finery is dogged by stupid questions en route to the studio.
More problematic are the operatic sequences. Without question, the director of La Traviata knows his stuff, and he directs these fragments of Carmen with flair — however, it's a choppy overall affair, hardly heightened by self-congratulatory asides from Maria and Larry (and Manuel de Blas, as the director) as they celebrate their genius in editing suites. Ardant's lip-syncing could hardly be called perfect either, although she's certainly better at it than today's real-life nobodies.
What's the draw for straight and/or operatically challenged people? Well, beyond the biographical details and rewritten personal history, Zeffirelli drives home the more universal point that any artist's voice is singular, and authentic only from its true source, outside manipulation and fakery be damned.