Take Aida. Dispense with the loincloths and elephants; strip away the veneer of a Hollywood epic but retain the age-old and universal human tragedy playing out behind closed doors and you will end up with an intimist drama that could easily have featured in the filmography of Claude Chabrol. Everything is there: from the most extreme and conflictual of human passions which divide and destroy, to the potency of a love-smitten, wounded, betrayed or idealised heart, capable of upending the balance of power. Aida is, to borrow the title of one of his films, a story of women. Imagine Aida in a large country house in the provinces at the end of summer. The clouds of discord are gathering. Two women will soon confront each other. And the woman who wields the real power is not the one you think.
INTERIOR - DAY: A bedroom with an en-suite bathroom in a large country house in the provinces towards the end of summer.
The woman is young, beautiful, wealthy, and white. Let’s call her Amneris. She belongs to an old established family in the region (let’s say industrialists), who have risen to prominence over several generations. After studying abroad, she has returned to the fold and will one day succeed her father at the head of the family business. Such is the order of things, a comfortable, pre-determined life on the right side of the tracks. A life in the spotlight as an influencer and an A-lister. Until now, everything has gone as planned. Better than planned in fact, because she is in love, or at least she believes she is—or wants to be. Indeed, as someone as intelligent, lucid, and courageous as Amneris knows, without love we do not amount to much; we are but an empty shell, and all the material possessions in the world can be no substitute for it.
This is the story of a woman who loves a man: a man of rank and background (white, ruling class, well-established): the gifted young mayor of the nearby town. A man destined for a brilliant political career. Let’s call him Radamès. He too is extremely handsome, and highly ambitious and he already sees himself rising to the pinnacle of power. On the face of it, everything logically propels him into the arms of Amneris. Whether it be it out of pure self-interest or lust, the beautiful heiress can scarcely hide her desire for him. (In Amneris’s world, there is no place for false modesty and no time to lose in the game of seduction.
She and Radamès are cut from the same cloth. They can identify with one another. Their alliance will be immediate and indestructible. Their marriage, the union of two driving forces, is all but a foregone conclusion).
She has just taken a long hot bath in scented water. With her mind swirling with vivid, erotic, archaic thoughts (Ethiopian slaves in tunics dancing around her, fanning her with palm leaves), she abandons herself to her forbidden fantasies of Radamès and the glittering future that awaits them both. And yet, like the irritation caused by a grain of sand, a far less palatable notion intermittently gnaws at her and clouds her joyful vision: But what if Radamès doesn’t love her? The very idea is baseless and absurd. Amneris knows it full well and she reasons with herself with characteristic firmness: They are engaged to each other, and no doubt the remoteness which she senses from him is just a projection of her own latent fears. Her own desires disconcert and debilitate her. Overcome by her emotions, she grows impatient and reveals her hand too soon. Radamès has greater control of himself. He feigns indifference when, in reality, he wants her with all his heart. He has a better grasp of the rules of deception, he’s a strategist and a man. No, there’s no problem and no reason to worry.
And yet, that ugly, niggling notion is still there, impossible to dispel. Worse, it feeds and grows on whatever it dredges up in the darkest recesses of its frenzied path. An intuition, a presentiment. A dire, unthinkable thought. Amneris wrings her hands. That look. That glance which, the other day, in her presence, Radamès furtively cast upon that girl whose name she can barely pronounce… Did she really see it or was it a figment of her imagination? That girl who, a few months prior, she had rescued from the street, taken in and offered a roof and protection (in exchange for just a few minor household tasks); a migrant, as they say, an unknown woman with a dark complexion arriving on these shores from one of those distant lands whose name she can never remember. Her name was Aida, the girl she fed, housed, and dressed from head to toe. She even took care of her hair and makeup. That girl, her good conscience. Her good deed. Her plaything. Her doll. Her personal possession which she took pleasure embellishing with a few of her accessories—her pale imitation, her black double. Aida. The girl with the eyes of a tortured dog, who wore her misfortune like a permanent accusation and whose silent shadow, with its quasi-imperceptible, almost invisible presence precluded any overt manifestation of joy. And yet, Radamès… Radamès gazed at her for just an instant. And in the space of that moment, Amneris’s world was shaken to its core. Ridiculous. unimaginable. A grotesque manifestation of jealousy unworthy of her. In no way could Aida ever be her rival. The insidious poison of jealousy needs to be rooted out as soon as possible so as not to blight her happiness. In short: she has to know for certain.
EXTERIOR – DAY: Late afternoon on the terrace of a large country house in the provinces towards the end of summer.
Amneris is waiting for Radamès to join her for drinks on her impressive terrace overlooking the garden. She has some major news to share with him. Cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, floating tea lights, and a playlist of jazz emanating from the living room sound system combine to create a romantic atmosphere. Amneris is drop-dead gorgeous. She radiates from head to toe. No normal creature has the power to resist her. As this particular day wanes, she feels sure of herself. Her foolish doubts have all but dissipated. After her first drink, she begins to wonder how she could ever have entertained such irrational thoughts and when Aida, her young protégée appears with a tray of crystal glasses, her instinctive, spontaneous reaction is to feel pity.
After all, the poor girl is far from her war-torn homeland and her family—a family she has had no news from. A family which has probably been decimated. Perhaps in another life, under a different light she could have had a place in this world, muses Amneris. A light like the string of lights along the terrace which suddenly lend the impression that she is seeing another Aida: An Aida of exceptional sensitivity, and dazzling beauty. That dreadful niggling doubt returns with a vengeance, like a breaking wave submerging her and bursting forth to wash away the hors d’oeuvres and tea lights. Amneris knows she has no choice. She needs to know the truth. And so, after uttering a few mundane niceties, she looks her protégée in the eyes and informs her out of the blue of her imminent marriage to Radamès. Unsurprisingly, poor Aida (having not seen such a bombshell coming and ill-versed in the art of concealing her true feelings) falls into the trap and shows emotion with an expression that clearly implies the news is far from joyous to her. Aida quickly pulls herself together but it is already too late. Amneris now has proof that Aida is not indifferent to Radamès: That this treacherous little trull toyed with her and took advantage of her generosity and then dares to pretend to be her equal and have the temerity to fall in love with the man who is destined for her?... Mad with rage, Amneris threatens to exact revenge, which of course risks being terrible. (She still does not know whether Aida’s feelings for Radamès are mutual.
However, she senses it. Her instincts never deceive her and now, everything seems clear. The pieces of the puzzle from the last few days have come together to form the most repugnant picture imaginable which only serves to fuel her anger further. But then again, if this really is the case, there must be some misunderstanding involved: Men of his background have always satisfied certain needs through amorous liaisons with the servants. Radamès is probably just perpetuating an old tradition and the poor girl is deluding herself. Nevertheless, Amneris has no intention of indulging him with the slightest fantasy). Aida then makes a miscalculation. Believing she can sway her benefactress, Aida reminds Amneris that she is rich, white, and powerful. On the other hand, all Aida has, as a poor foreigner from an invisible minority, is love. With that in mind, she wonders if Amneris in her magnanimity could at least leave her with that? (But Aida’s argument is misplaced and even counterproductive. Clearly, the real power lies in love which doesn’t care about money or the colour of a person’s skin.
Amneris is perfectly well aware of this which only serves to vex her further). Upset, Amneris tells the young woman to go to her room. When Radamès arrives, Amneris wastes no time informing him that her father has told her in confidence that if they get married, he will support Radamès’ candidacy for the legislative elections. Radamès would be sure to win and, wedded to the heiress of the industrialist, he would become one of the youngest deputies in France. Nothing would be able to stop him. Radamès, blissfully unaware that Aida is on the other side of the sitting room door listening to his every word, does not openly reject the idea. At that moment, the raw self-interest of careerism prevails over all other feelings. Even if he has no intention of marrying Amneris, his overriding concern is to buy time (feign, toast, dip his lips in a glass of champagne, then pretend to have to return to the town hall on some urgent business). Radamès disappears into the night. Amneris exults and gets drunk on the champagne, and Aida secretly weeps.
INTERIOR – NIGHT: The library of a large country house in the provinces towards the end of summer.
But in reality? Radamès hasn’t left and when Amneris goes up to bed blind drunk, he finds Aida in the house’s magnificent library. A rather painful scene ensues between them. Aida (in a low voice in the half-light), reproaches him for thinking of his own personal interests and throwing himself so shamelessly into the arms of Amneris. Radamès swears on the gods that he will never marry her, and that he will find a way of breaking free from her. Understandably, Aida doesn’t see how he will manage to do so and she has a hard time taking him at his word. (After all, the handsome Radamès is so easily influenced). She realises that it would be better if she took the initiative and found a solution herself. After much contemplation, it dawns on her that there is but one option open to them: to flee.Flee immediately, that night, together, to another country in the hope of establishing a new life in unsullied forests made fragrant by a thousand flowers (when Aida gets going, she tends to wax lyrical). Yes, abandon everything and leave it all behind them. (For Radamès, doing so represents a significantly greater sacrifice than it does for her which explains his initial resistance. He ponders and weighs the pros and cons: to have accomplished so much thus far, to be on the verge of achieving all he has ever yearned for, only to steal away with a young migrant who has captured his heart, and end up with nothing… Not to mention the scandal. It’s the DSK syndrome, the allure of hubris). But when all is said and done, the night is sweet and Aida’s body full of promises and Radamès, who has perhaps drunk a little more champagne than he realises, ends up yielding to the delights that the young woman has promised him. “Let’s go”, he says, as he leads her outside. But neither of them have taken Amneris’s insomnia into account. Whether it was the excessive consumption of alcohol which prevented her from sleeping; or the heart racing because of all those bubbles absorbed in too great a quantity, or just a dire sense of foreboding, Amneris feels compelled to come down to the library. Convinced she hears whispers, Amneris surprises the two lovers just as they are about to run away together.
It is the story of a woman who loves a man who loves another woman.
The shock is terrible. Blinded by her fury, Amneris rouses the entire house, wakes up the staff, denounces the two lovers and has Aida locked in her room. She then telephones her father to alert him at the hotel in Paris where he is staying (on a business trip). Roused from his bed in a foul mood in the middle of the night, he promises to leave immediately and be home early in the morning at which point he will do everything he can to destroy Radamès’s career for good. Amneris reminds Radamès that her father has many powerful friends, and, feeling betrayed by someone he has looked upon as a son and in whom he has placed all his hopes, he will be capable of anything, including dirty tricks, falsifying evidence, and defamation. Not only will Radamès be shunned by all and be forced to renounce his ambitions, he may also find himself in prison, accused of the most heinous acts.
Suddenly aware that he is about to lose everything, Radamès breaks down in the library. In an attempt at magnanimity, Amneris offers to forgive him if he renounces Aida and marries her. In her naivety she believes there is still time to prevent disaster—as if it were even possible now to stop the infernal machine that she herself has set in motion. But Radamès rejects her offer. (Either he is madly in love with Aida or dishonour seems more preferable to him than marriage to Amneris). Amneris curses him and voices her hope that he dies in a state of appalling suffering (it is in her nature to have recourse to hyperbole). She orders the staff to ensure that Radamès remains in the library until the arrival of her father.
EXTERIOR - DAWN: A large country house in the provinces towards the end of summer.
It is daybreak and Amneris is wandering in the grounds of the large house among trees still enshrouded in mist. Her father has been there for an hour already. He arrived with several of his close confidants, and they are all shuttered away in the library with Radamès. (Her father was beside himself. She had never seen him in such a state. His anger frightened her and made her shudder). She knows they will demand that Radamès renounce Aida and since (inexplicably) there is little chance he will yield on that point; in the next few hours they will feed the media and all the networks such awful things about him that it will destroy him. His name will become so toxic he will no longer be able to breathe. It will suffocate him and he will die of asphyxiation, alone, entombed in his grave.
Now, she feels remorse and regrets being so impulsive. Perhaps there was another solution. She doesn’t know anymore. She is confused. The lack of sleep and excessive consumption of alcohol the evening before has clouded her mind. (The evening when she thought she had prevailed and threw herself into Radamès’ arms during a grandiose ceremony with dancers, trumpets and an elated crowd). Now, she despises all the men of power who are capable of forging and then destroying the destinies of others without the slightest remorse; those men who have never felt their hearts beat with love. If she could, she would put a stop to it now and beg them to let Radamès leave in his car as if nothing had happened. (Obviously, she wouldn’t go so far as to let him leave with Aida—let’s not exaggerate! But she wants no more mention of Aida. Aida no longer exists. She never did. Later that day, they will chase her away from here. She will be erased from their lives where she was only ever a parasite, and she will once again be reduced to a mere shadow among many).
Amneris on the other hand will show incredible dignity and a keen sense of duty and, perhaps one day, Radamès (having lost his naivety and grown up) may come back to her. Right now, though, she would love to bang on the library door and insult them all but she is still haunted by the look her father gave her when she rushed towards him as he arrived. Judging by the way he brushed her aside, this was a man who felt hurt and betrayed. A man who could be moved by nothing anymore and whose only reason for living was to consolidate his empire. Radamès was just a plaything, a pawn. He will sweep him away in a single stroke and install another in his place. Amneris walks towards the library and takes up position behind the door. Powerless, she presses ever closer against the wood until she finds herself kneeling. She hears the men serving up their judgement and condemnation. Radamès remains silent. She cannot understand why he won’t say a word in his defence. Instead, it is she who whimpers, weeps and rues and in her despair ultimately chooses her side. (In my opinion, this is the finest scene of the film. All the action takes place off screen. All we see in close-up is the rage, distress and love written on Amneris’s face).
EXTERIOR – DAY: The garden of a large country house towards the end of summer.
Radamès leaves the house in the morning defeated and exhausted. He crosses the garden and heads toward his car. It’s all over for him. Aida has taken flight and disappeared, or so say the men who have given him a few hours to announce his resignation and report to the police to answer for the monstruous accusations they are about to lay on him. He can barely stand. He staggers several times and reels. He feels dizzy. He hallucinates and thinks he hears voices. He wonders if he will even be able to drive. It is at least fifteen kilometres to the town. He clambers into his car. He sets off and forces himself to concentrate on his driving. He thinks of Aida who he will no doubt never see again. He hopes that by being far from him she will manage to pull through.
But suddenly, she is there in the car with him. She was hiding on the floor in the back. The two lovers are overjoyed to be together again. Nothing matters now except for the moment. At that instant, they are the rulers of the world. The car pulls away along the avenue of trees. Paying little attention to the road ahead, Radamès and Aida kiss. From the first floor of the house with her brow pressed against her bedroom window and tears rolling down her cheeks Amneris watches Radamès leave. She whispers what sounds like a prayer for him. A farewell. We do not know for sure if she was aware of Aida’s presence in the car, but I believe she was. However, Amneris knows perfectly well that in a few minutes on that treacherous winding road that leads down to the town, the brakes will not respond and Radamès car will spin out of control over the cliff. And we will discover, thanks to one last close-up shot of Amneris’s oil-stained hands, that she was the one who sabotaged them.
The End. Closing credits. Violins. The sound of a car crashing.
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi
The recording of the new production of Aida will be available from 02/18/2021 to 08/20/2021 on Arte.