Monday, June 17, 2013

Phantom of the Opera (1998) dir. Dario Argento

a.k.a. Il fantasma dell'opera

Logline: A beautiful and talented opera singer, Christine (Asia Argento), ascends the ladder of stardom with violent help from her friend The Phantom (Julian Sands), a rat-raised orphan with telepathic powers who haunts the Opéra de Paris. Having fallen under the (um) charismatic Phantom's spell, Christine is physically and figuratively kidnapped, her only hope for salvation being her noble suitor, the pencil-bearded Raoul (Andre Di Stefano). But does Christine want to be saved, or does her affection for her Phantom lover extend beyond the erotic?

By being the most unique film in Argento's long and largely excellent but nonetheless rather unvaried filmography, The Phantom of the Opera appears to have inspired a brief bout of enthusiasm in its otherwise increasingly complacent director. There's a sizable gulf separating Phantom from Argento's early stylish masterpieces in terms of quality, but-- in contrast to his sleepy effort in Trauma (1993)-- Argento at least seems like he's trying here, though what exactly he's aiming for is up for either debate or a series of vigorous head scratches. Argento has never been known for the thematic depth of his films, but here he manages to stage a social critique of the hollow materialism of late 19th century Paris, a materialism that--in Argento's imagining-- was corrupt enough to produce candy-toting pedophiles alongside fame-grubbing dandies, with the suggestion that the two are essentially similar. But while Argento and his collaborators were certainly grinning snidely while designing their laughably opulent opera house and its petty aristocratic denizens, much of this critique originates in the film's source material, Gaston Leroux's Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, the basic plot of which this film follows by broad strokes. With that in mind, we're left to evaluate Agrento's particular critique primarily through his alterations to the text. And that's where things become muddled.

What are we to make of Argento's handsome, non-disfigured Phantom? As portrayed by Julian Sands (horror's dopey English pin-up of the '90s), the Phantom is a snarling bohemian, hanging out in the opera house's bowels not because society is revolted by his physical appearance but because he refuses to accept the hypocrisy of Parisian society. Though not a repulsive physical pariah, he is marked by his lower class status (he's an orphan raised by rats, after all) and in a society as vain and superficial as the film's, such an upbringing is enough to lower a person to sub-human status: Sands's Phantom doesn't need to be disfigured to be an outcast. Moreover, his common physical appearance means that this Phantom, unlike the ethereal Phantoms of the novel and previous adaptations, doesn't do much hiding. He spends the film lurking about in plain sight, a lustful bodily presence who is always biting, scratching, and sniffing his victims and the objects of his affection alike. This alters the Phantom's significance in the world he occupies: his anonymity, rather than being the result of the cultivated ghostly persona of a disfigured outcast, is granted  to the Phantom because of his lowly social status. As a member of the lower order, the Phantom is invisible to society, his self-exile under the opera house being merely a physical realization of his place on the social ladder. It is only after he has caused trouble for the more civilized classes that he's noticed and violently dealt with, much like an invading rat would be after it has nosed out of the sewers.

And yet none of this makes Argento's Phantom a sympathetic figure, much less one with a coherent ideology. Far from being an avenging specter aiming to right the wrongs wrought by the wealthy upon the poor, the Phantom spends most of the film slaughtering and mutilating those poor working stiffs sent down to tinker under the opera house, those blighted folk who (filthy and crude as they may be) you'd imagine he would find some common ground with. Sure, we might say that he attacks his fellow paupers because they're guilty of the crime of complicity by working for the upper class, but this would be ignoring the fact that his own violent efforts against that upper class (like the famous chandelier crash, here rendered magnificently as the gory demises of countless dummies) have little to do with rebelling against the unjust station forced upon him and much more to do with securing his beloved Christine a better job entertaining that stuffy crowd. The Phantom is a sleazy prick-- a kidnapper, a murderer, and a rapist-- and pretty soon the lines dividing him from his comically corrupt and perverted opposites dissipate. In one scene near the end of the film, Christine catches him opening his shirt and taking erotic pleasure as his rat friends climb upon him and start their nibbling, in a gross-out mirror image of a nude orgiastic bathhouse romp that the wealthy characters (including his romantic rival, Raoul) take part in earlier in the film. The Phantom wears his class-based indignation as a sort of disguise: underneath is the same hypocrisy.

But what is the film trying to say with this undermining of our troubled antihero's motivation? It's not too taxing to imagine that it's all a misanthropic screed, chuckling at the notion that those at the bottom are more righteous than those at the top. This reading is supported by how the film presents our ostensible heroine, Christine. In the novel and in other adaptations, she is often portrayed as a pure-hearted young woman capable of feeling astounding sympathy for others less fortunate. By contrast, Argento's Christine actively pursues her own advancement at the expense of others, and doesn't put up too much protest after the Phantom kills to help her achieve it. She expresses that she's torn between her equal attractions to the Phantom and Raoul, and finds little fault in sleeping with the Phantom immediately before betraying him to other lover. The film plays Christine not as duplicitous but as a woman incapable of denying a man that which he desires: Raoul and the Phantom both "love" her, and her affections exclusively rest with whichever one she's with in the moment. Though the film attempts to blame her shifting allegiance on the Phantom's telepathic control of her-- "his will is my will, and his thoughts are my actions," she claims-- one can't help but feel that this is feebly obscuring a misogynistic bent of the "frailty, thy name is woman" variety. Because, stripped of any telepathic influence, Christine's lack of autonomy is still chilling: when being "rescued" by Raoul after she willfully ran away with the Phantom, Christine begs of her aristocratic lover, "don't you ever let me disappear like this again."

It's apparent in its presentation of its "heroes" that the film finds that it possesses no human soul to root for. We're stuck watching rats, perverts, and empty vessels take bites out of each other's flesh, and the assumption seems to be that we'll enjoy this viewing experience, which probably doesn't say much for the film's opinion of us either. Phantom of the Opera is far from being the nadir of Argento's latter day work, but it's never much fun to watch. Its distressing social commentary, repugnant characters, and mean-spirited tone, when combined with a flat visual style and an over-reliance on shoddy VFX, create a rather bleak and uninviting world to enter into for even a short spell. The film and its effect on the viewer is best encapsulated by the scene in which one of its pedophilic aristocrats chases down a young girl and force feeds her some Swiss chocolates as she struggles against it: it's uncomfortable, much too much to swallow, and-- despite any intended sweetness-- leaves a sour taste in one's mouth.

No comments:

Post a Comment