Franco Zeffirelli's reimagining of the final days of Maria Callas opens with the driving guitars and pounding beat of the Clash's "Complete Control." A jet plane touches earth, and the words "Callas Forever" zoom toward the screen. If you think that sounds a bit loopy, wait till you get a load of the other 107 minutes.
In fact, Zeffirelli has a point, if a trite one. Callas was an uncompromising artist, a lesson yet to be learned by Jeremy Irons's Larry Kelly, who takes to the Parisian airport terminal like a rock star, even though he's only the promoter for a punk outfit called Bad Dreams. "They said we'd be artistically free/When we signed that bit of paper," Joe Strummer wails on the soundtrack. "They meant let's make a lotsa mon-ee/An' worry about it later." The opening credits note, with no apparent irony, "Fanny Ardant is dressed by Chanel."
Ardant plays real-life opera singer and legendary diva Maria Callas, with whom the fictional Kelly supposedly collaborated in her operatic prime. Barreling his way past her protective layer of servants, Kelly offers the reclusive, 53-year-old Callas one more chance at glory: though her voice has thinned with age, she can film Carmen, an opera which she had only performed before a studio microphone. All she has to do is to lip-sync to her own youthful recording. In an exchange typical of Martin Sherman's hilariously overripe dialogue, Callas tells her journalist friend Sarah Keller (pop-eyed Joan Plowright), "I'm confused—am I selling my soul to Satan?" "It's 1977," Keller replies. "Satan is redundant." Ookay.
Keller and Kelly both fret over Callas's unpredictable emotional state, with Keller summing up, "She's in mourning for her voice, her career, Onassis. It's like the last act of one of her operas!" Callas commits to the film production, and begins to come alive again, even entertaining the possibility—in a hilariously soap-operatic scene—of an affair with her years-younger co-star. Sherman's script is quotable in the worst way, with glazed lines like "You know, sometimes I have visions inside my head. You've read my heart." That Zeffirelli isn't joking only makes it all funnier.
If the 80-year-old Zeffirelli isn't joking, he's also not telling the truth. The tail of the end credits quietly note, "The events depicted in this film belong both to the fantasy of the author and his memories of his long-standing friendship with Maria Callas." In fact, almost none of what Zeffirelli depicts here ever happened, though it could have, the director insists, if only... Zeffirelli befriended Callas when directing her in numerous stage productions, and the openly gay director puts himself into the story by way of both Irons's gay producer (who enacts a dead-end romantic sub-plot with a hunky painter played by Jay Rodan) and the visionary director hired to shoot film-within-the-film Carmen. In one of the film's most self-reflexive gags, Irons asks Rodan, "Oh God. You're not one of those ghastly Callas queens, are you?", but who isn't in Callas Forever?
French actress Ardant is unfortunately hampered by having to perform the role in English, but even in the film's wordless or lip-synced scenes, the director encourages Ardant to emote vigorously, the better to represent Callas's turmoil with her phantoms of the opera. The Carmen sequences, though consistent with Callas Forever's washed-out '70s look, have a beauty and immediacy which the rest of the film lacks. Before we can indulge in the fantasy of a lost Callas performance or weep at the lost possibility, Zeffirelli snaps us back to his false reality, where the singer finally decides Carmen is "not honest—it's a fake." The valedictory resolution is as silly as everything else in the picture, which is to say it's not good, but hardly boring, either: perhaps merely as pointless as Callas's untimely death.