Jesper Just at the Opera


The catalogue for the show Jesper Just: Romantic Delusions draws our attention to how Jesper Just uses a variety of popular songs in his films, from the Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” to Olivia Newton-John’s “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting.” Those pop tunes are prominently featured in two of the films shown in the exhibition: Bliss and Heaven and The Lonely Villa.

There is, however, another episode in Just’s treatment of music, this one involving the rarified world of grand opera. His early film The Man Who Strayed (2002) consists almost entirely of a sparse restaging of Violetta’s death scene from the end of Verdi’s La Traviata. And surprisingly, this could be Just’s most widely seen film, largely because it’s available online at Artnode and has been bootlegged on YouTube (below) and elsewhere.

In The Man Who Strayed, what are we to make of a classical-music drama so remote from the torch songs, ballads, and Top Forty hits heard in many of Just’s other films? Why does he take us to the opera?

It’s useful to remember that Verdi’s 1853 masterpiece is only one of numerous adaptations of the story of Marguerite Gautier (called Violetta in Verdi), first told in the novel The Lady of the Camellias (La Dame aux camélias) by Alexandre Dumas, fils, published in 1848. Stage adaptations of the Dumas novel about a tubercular courtesan of the Parisian demimonde subsequently became vehicles for stars from Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse to Tallulah Bankhead and, later on, Isabelle Adjani. On film, the property served Greta Garbo well in her MGM Camille (1936), directed by George Cukor, as it has many other actresses (or, as we now say in our gender-neutral way, “actors”).

The story has become a touchstone, in recent times, of gay-themed drama, in which it has been frequently retold. The 1973 play Camille: A Travesty on La Dame aux camélias, written by—and starring, in drag—the late, great Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, is in some ways the most important neo-Traviata: a full-fledged cross-dressing remake in modern colloquial language, its denouement capped by a memorably tragicomic eulogy spoken over the deceased heroine: “Much will be forgiven you, for you have loved much. Toodle-loo, Marguerite.” Adding a further layer of reference, a decade later Ludlam would play the lead role in his Galas: A Modern Tragedy (1983), about a thinly disguised diva named Maria Galas, a renowned Violetta and Norma, whose stage career ends bitterly, as does her affair with a Greek tycoon. Others have pursued the Violetta/Camille story as well: in Terrence McNally’s 1989 play The Lisbon Traviata, the two affectionately satirized opera-fanatic principals, Mendy and Stephen, briefly act out lines or vignettes from their favorite Maria Callas records (epitomized by the pirate LPs of her celebrated performance in Lisbon) as comments on their own unsatisfactory love lives: to them, the way she abandoned herself to the role of the doomed heroine becomes a template for how destiny inexorably undoes the life of the heart. The chapter “The Callas Cult” in Wayne Koestenbaum’s book The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (1993) points to the broader implications of such self-identification with Callas’s Violetta: remarking on fatalistic views of the late soprano, who died aged only 53, Koestenbaum writes, “Untimely death assists her legend and connects her to themes that have shadowed gay culture: premature mortality, evanescence, solitude.”

The Violetta/Camille trope thus inevitably carries a lot of baggage. Yet despite an array of precedents and analogues, The Man Who Strayed puts its own distinctive twist on this familiar nineteenth-century story.

For one thing, The Man Who Strayed tells the story in a relentlessly anti-glamorous way. Its barren urban setting, perhaps recalling the cruising zones in certain Fassbinder films, consists of little more than rough pavement under a concrete overpass, seen in unforgiving daylight, with none of the lush, shadowy, film-noir atmosphere of other Just productions.

Another deglamorizing feature of the film, unusual elsewhere in Just’s body of work and in La Traviata retellings: both protagonists are decidedly middle-aged. As his characters, Just puts before us two frankly unlovely guys, both with considerable mileage on them, rather than a somewhat older individual infatuated with a much younger person as seen in the relationship between Verdi’s Violetta and the boyish Alfredo or in several of Just’s other films.

Even as it casts a cold eye on its urban streetscape and its aging actors, the film also drags Verdi’s soaring music back down to earth. The two men mime and sing along to the end of La Traviata‘s final act, from the lines “Più a me t’appressa, ascolta, amato Alfredo” (“Come closer and listen, Alfredo my beloved”) to the last cries of “È spenta!” (“She is dead!”) and “O mio dolor!” (“Oh, my grief!”), one of them singing the role of Violetta and the other, Alfredo. We watch with growing discomfort as the rasping, untrained voices of the two men, sometimes resorting to quavering falsetto, sometimes almost shouting, heedlessly take on the high-flying demands of Verdi’s arching melodies. As would-be opera singers, the two of them strain heroically, and fail desperately.

Yet it is precisely the way their distressing vocal performances, at first unaccompanied, are mercifully lifted aloft by the entrance of a professional recording of the opera—welling up, after a while, on the soundtrack—that carries the two men from harsh urban grit to some transcendent realm of human tenderness and utter heartbreak. For there’s no denying the emotional power of the travesty we’re witnessing, as surging waves of melody break over the street-level action. It may come as something of a revelation that the death of one graying, badly dressed, middle-aged man in the arms of another can be as poignant, as tragic, as Violetta’s dying in the embrace of ardent young Alfredo. But the outpouring of lyrical music makes it so. Singing along with the prerecorded opera that surrounds the couple, Just’s expiring “Violetta” croons his love-death as a kind of karaoke Liebestod.

The two remarkable actors are Niels Weyde and Søren Steen. The brief scene played out between them, lasting little more than five minutes, can bring tears to our eyes even as it veers dangerously close to the ridiculous—a potently ambiguous state of affairs familiar in opera itself.