||One can understand Franco Zeffirelli, now an octogenarian, wanting to make a picture to serve as a tribute to Maria Callas, an old friend whom he directed in several live operas; indeed, his own desire to keep the legend alive is clearly reflected in the proposal of his surrogate Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons) in “Callas Forever” to lure the diva out of her unhappy retirement to make films of her most famous roles in which her voice would be dubbed from recordings made during her prime. (Of course, the fact that no such films exist rather gives away the outcome to anyone in the know.) Though for opera buffs the result may well be fun, it’s also camp with a high C. This is the sort of woozy melodrama in which the heroine, dressed in a flossy nightgown, histrionically lip-synchs to her old records in an ornate sitting-room in the middle of the night, pausing only periodically to down a handful of unidentified pills with a golden goblet of wine before collapsing in tears on a conveniently-situated pile of pillows over the ravages time has taken on her voice. Douglas Sirk and Ross Hunter, eat your hearts out.
Actually the part of the picture dealing with Callas’ reclusiveness and obsession over her past triumphs and occasional failures is enjoyable in its air of exaggerated diva-ness, as are the later segments dealing with the singer’s return to the embrace of her adoring fans when she takes Kelly--the name of whose character is undoubtedly a nod to the co-founder of the Dallas Opera who was instrumental in nurturing Callas’ American career--up on his idea (even if the way he persuades her--by matching her earlier recordings to a tape of her final Japanese concert--is technically absurd). What drags the picture down are all the extraneous subplots that, for some odd reason, Zeffirelli has added to the mix. Entirely too much time is spent on Kelly’s dalliance with Michael (Jay Rodan), a handsome young painter whom he meets on his flight into Paris. The subplot perhaps dovetails with the interests of Callas’ legions of gay devotees, but it isn’t clear how it’s supposed to complement the picture’s themes, which have to do with the transitory character of celebrity and the impermanent nature of artistic accomplishment. It does have to be said, though, that Irons has great fun playing the flouncing, pony-tailed suitor--both of Michael and Maria--something that unfortunately can’t be said of Rodan, who’s stiff as a board as the object of his affections. Then there’s Joan Plowright, who turns up as a music journalist who’s instrumental in bringing Kelly and Callas together again. She’s delightfully dotty as usual, but utterly unconvincing.
Nonetheless “Callas Forever” really belongs to Ardant, who leaves no Lana Turner or Joan Crawford trick unused in fashioning a portrait of the diva suprema. Bitchy, insecure, living in regal isolation with her memories, devastated over the thought of aging, uncertain about whether she can meet public expectations after so long a layoff, laying lustful eyes on the handsome hunk (Gabriel Garko) hired to play Don Jose to her Carmen, Zeffirelli’s aging Callas is a larger-than-life figure, and Ardant rejoices in the oversized aspects of the character. The fact that she looks a bit like Callas isn’t the key; her over-the-top delivery, which holds one’s attention however true-to-life it may or may not have been, is.
Ardant’s star turn, unhappily, doesn’t get the best possible setting. “Callas Forever” looks and sounds like one of those multi-lingual international productions that always seems slightly off technically. The locations are pretty but a mite washed out, and the interiors, though plush, never convince as really inhabited. The sound, importantly, is fine, and it’s good to hear some of Callas’ recordings again, even if only in brief excerpts. It would be nice to think that they might persuade some younger viewers unacquainted with her work to give the full recordings a hearing. But that seems unlikely. Zeffirelli’s film will probably appeal mostly to those who already share with the filmmaker a nostalgic affection for the diva and a desire to revel in her charismatic glow one more time. Beyond that small audience, though, “Callas Forever” is doubtlessly doomed for quick assignment to the cut-out bin.