A Monster in Paris (2011)

     directed by Bibo Bergeron

          starring Mathieu Chedid, Vanessa Paradis & Gad Elmaleh

This is a loose interpretation of the Phantom story, but it definitely owes its genesis to good old Leroux and his serial, and since this is a French film, it's much closer to the original novel and previous film versions than to any British musicals which normally dominate later media and shall remain nameless here.

Whenever I see Bibo Bergeron's name, especially in connection with something related to Gaston Leroux, half my brain tries to translate it as Cheri-Bibi and the other half as Bilbo Baggins.

 

We open with a quick round of old-timey vintage footage of the Great Flood of Paris, a disaster that occurred in 1910 when the Seine flooded and turned many of the streets of the city into temporary canals for a week or two. The real footage is a novelty for modern viewers as well as a pleasant and interesting juxtaposition to the rest of the film's 3D animation style. The choice to set the movie during the flood doesn't appear to have any particularly important motivation other than affording the characters the ability to go everywhere on rickety little makeshift wooden bridges and walkways, but really, do we need any other reason?

The 3D animation for the film is pretty good; it's not knocking my socks off or doing anything particularly new or different from other large 3D studios (in fact, John asked if it was a Dreamworks movie in passing), but it's smooth and whimsical, visually entertaining, and the painted backgrounds of Paris are stunningly rendered.

This is a movie with a lot of protagonists, all of which are a fun time with the possible exception of Maude, a shy and retiring ticket-taker at the local movie theatre who unfortunately doesn't get much screen time or development. This isn't her fault; she seems very nice, and she has a moment or two, but most of the show is stolen by Emile, the bashful and wishy-washy owner of the theatre, and his best friend Raoul, an eccentric entrepreneur and inventor.

Yes, you are correct! Raoul is here being an adorable inventor of ridiculous things, including way more modifications than any one early twentieth-century automobile needs and a lot of remote controls that never work the way he wants them to. It's very interesting that Raoul is the tinkerer, clockwork-maker and insatiably curious inventor in this movie, when that role is usually filled by the Phantom himself; later events will make it obvious that this Phantom isn't doing anything remotely like that, but adding those skills to Raoul gives him unexpected and enjoyable dimensions. Also, he's really into bad puns, so if you like that, he's going to be your favorite.

Emile, on the other hand, is not much of a daroga-esque figure; his presence is reminiscent of nothing so much as the 1943 Lubin/Rains movie with its dual leading men, although Emile and Raoul are interested in totally different ladies in this movie so the romantic rivalry is not carried over. Emile's one of those "kinda" characters - he's kinda important, he's kinda sweet, he's kinda interesting, but nothing about him really jumps out and grabs the viewer, let alone impresses them. Rather, he's one of those Everyman character types intended for the viewer to project themselves onto in order to enjoy the film vicariously, which is probably also why he's a quiet nerd with a heart of gold and an active imagination who can't quite get up the courage to ask his crush for a date. We've all been there, dude.

Once it's been established that Maude and Emile are totally all about one another but no one has the basic social skills to bring it up, and that Raoul is quirky and boisterous but not actually mean-spirited, we get on to the actual plot of the movie... which is contrived, I'm not going to lie, but in a fun, fairytale kind of a way so that no one has to get too upset about things like historical accuracy. Raoul and Emile, in the course of fulfilling Raoul's delivery rounds at his Drive Things Around Paris In Weird Inventor Car job, break into the secret laboratory/greenhouse of a local eccentric scientist, which is about one part bumbling and twelve thousand parts Raoul wanting to investigate because he is curious about all things scientifical. Apparently he has a pre-existing relationship with this scientist, who has left him an obstacle course in the form of several condescending notes and an angry monkey assistant to try to prevent him from coming in; it's sort of like the relationship between Hugh Jackman and Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, except with fewer corpses in the basement.

At any rate, Raoul, dragging a protesting and lily-livered Emile all the way, sneaks into the lab in spite of all messages telling him to do the contrary and the two of them have some pretty adorable fun running around in the oversized botanical garden, filming themselves as if they are on safari. The joy stops for Emile when Raoul discovers the chemical portion of the lab and starts trying various potions and solutions with wild abandon. The first obvious Phantom call-back is an atomizer full of a solution that gives the inhaler a beautiful voice for a limited time; of course, we've seen atomizers in all kinds of Phantom movies, from the 1944 Waggner/Karloff horror to the 1983 Markowitz/Schell production to the ever-popular 2004 Schumacher/Bulter film, each time used by the Phantom to sinister effect.

Raoul's fiddling around eventually has the expected result, and he causes an explosion, which is where the plot actually comes in; two potions collide and detonate, and in the clearing mist afterward, the shape of a giant monster looms up in the mist and then escapes into the city. The monster is intentionally ill-defined to enhance the mystery, but suitably insectoid and red-eyed to frighten the younger audience. The Phantom story has always had a subtextual theme of society creating monsters like Erik through their negligence and cruelty, but in this movie the monster's creation by normal people is literal, and its escape to menace society a classic gothic literature trope.

It isn't brought up for a while because, while the movie isn't trying too hard to be mysterious, it is still trying a little bit, but the two potions that exploded to cause this result were labeled, and the keen-eyed viewer can see that one was the potion of beautiful vocal skill and the other a growth hormone that makes things shoot up to enormous size.

At this point, we leave the bumbling twosome trying to escape the lab and pretend that none of this ever happened, and follow the monster, which remains in the shadows and runs around Paris for a while trying to find somewhere to nest. This is hampered by the fact that everyone who sees it screams in terror (not surprising, since it's covered in spikes and stands seven feet tall) and causes a massive panic, and the creature ends up jumping (literally, and very high) from place to place, causing a reign of terror without apparently even being aware of it. This version of the Phantom is clearly not confined to the theater - in fact, it will spend relatively little time there over the course of the film, making its area of influence the entire city of Paris rather than a single building.

Carlotta appears here! And she is a delight. She's the portly mistress of the Rare Bird, a restaurant cabaret at which her daughter Lucille, the Christine character of the film, performs nightly to rave reviews. She is obviously not in competition with her daughter in this movie, so in spite of the name she fills a more motherly role, similar to Christine's Mama Valerius. I almost wish she was a singer, though - I'd be down for a version of the story in which Carlotta and Christine are supportive co-performers and it's just the Phantom being a dick that makes life hard for them.

Lucille, incidentally, is referred to as "the angel of Montmartre", performs in an angel costume and has a very ethereal, otherworldly quality to her voice and choice of music, both of which are likely intended to echo the original Christine's status as a representative of purity and devotion and an angelic saving figure to the original Erik. She is being courted by the police commissioner Maynott (see what they did with his name there?), a wealthy and popular public figure with aspirations toward mayorhood, which is an interesting fusion of elements from the original story; Leroux's Raoul was likewise a soldier and a wealthy nobleman, the policeman aspect comes from the daroga and various inspectors in the original novel and later was added to Raoul's character in various film versions, and later on he will become the chief hunter of the Phantom.

Of course, we're not supposed to like him, so it becomes very clear very early that he's a classist asshole with more ambition than compassion. I wonder if the decision to separate Raoul from him was in order to facilitate the reversal of sympathies this movie will be pulling off in regards to the monster later, or if there's something to be read into the fact that it's the rich and politically important half of the character that has been vilified while the "good" Raoul is good-hearted but fairly poor. Man, that proletariat-driven art.

It's nice, by the way, to hear original music in this movie, and also not what you would normally expect from a childrens' movie musical; the songs are very French and not really designed to be singalongs, more mood pieces to express the story's themes when they appear, but they're still memorable enough that "La Seine and I" is still wandering around in my skull days later.

It turns our that Raoul and Lucille have known one another since they were children, which is a familiar tale, but the movie tantalizingly won't give us details about that for quite a while. They have the typical Sam-and-Diane-style habit of bantering with and insulting one another that is film shorthand for These Characters Are Totally Into One Another and Just in Denial, which is certainly a change from the usual love at first sight dynamic between them in other Phantom-based stories, but also a little bit refreshing. Also, it's always fun to see a Christine character with the chutzpah to make fun of a dude's coat and then tell him he can have the best champagne in the house; all he has to do is win a Medal of Honor to prove his worthiness.

By this point, the monster has gotten some clothing, which it is limpingly attempting to wear to disguise itself. This is both sad, because it's obvious that it's upset by people screaming at it and that it has little idea how to wear human garments anyway, and adorable, as it ends up in an amalgam of a giant coat, a swathing scarf and a wide-brimmed hat, all of which combine to look more than a little bit familiar when compared with the Phantom's famous costume for the original staging of the 1986 Lloyd Webber musical. It's overheard Lucille singing a few times and apparently likes it, because it turns up at her stage door and scares the daylights out of her, and we finally get a good look at it.

Y'all, we have to pause here and talk about this: the Phantom, in this movie, is in actuality a giant flea. As Raoul will figure out and explain to everyone later, it was living on the scientist's lab monkey and was caught in the explosion of potions, causing it to suddenly rocket up to colossal size and gain the ability to make pretty noises with its creepy bug mouth. All of this is well and good, and actually pretty cool and unexpected - the film hasn't been trying to make it a huge secret, but there was also no obvious foreshadowing and no one was even aware fleas existed in the lab until this revelation (much as most of us are not aware there are fleas around until they start making life miserable for someone). And, as evidenced by its ability to sing words, the flea has gained at least some rudimentary increased mental capacities, although how much is hard to pin down thanks to inconsistencies (it can't talk and doesn't seem to understand things said to it, but it can sing words and later participates in a complex plan that I can't figure out how anyone explained to it).

But, and this goes totally unaddressed in the movie: people, this is a flea. I realize he's adorable and cuddly and he makes a seriously cute chirpy sound instead of talking and he is a baller insect musician, but do you guys understand what fleas eat? They eat blood. From other living creatures. And while this is not lethal to most people when the flea is only two millimeters long, this flea is seven feet tall and surrounded by walking, talking, screaming bags of blood. Does no one see the potential problem with this? This is quite possibly the most unintentionally terrifying of all vampire Phantoms ever invented, and no one ever mentions the issue. Someone on the team clearly thought about it at least a little because the creature never eats anything over the course of the movie, thus avoiding anyone being confused about what a flea is doing sucking down an orange, but... 

I mean, I have no problem with not traumatizing children by showing them an animated character graphically exsanguinating something. I'm just unsure of what the plan was when someone originally pitched "Let's make the Phantom a seven-foot-tall bloodsucking bug and then never acknowledge how terrifying that would actually be."

But, on the flip side, the monster is unbelievably adorable, so there's also that (he's not nearly as hideous as a real giant flea would be, but I suppose we don't need to take the kiddies on that Kafka-esque journey into horror). Lucille realizes that her freakout was premature when the creature huddles in the alley behind her theatre and sings a sad song about its ostracization, made all the more poignant by the fact that, while other Phantoms bemoan their separation from the rest of humanity, this one was never human, can never be human, and never wanted to even be stuck with humans in the first place, but now is as a result of their actions rather than its own. She names the critter Francoeur - "honest heart" - which is an excellent name for a Phantom that is both obvious and unsecretive about its behavior and constantly misjudged because of its outside appearance.

Francoeur's singing voice is provided by Mathieu Chedid, a French rock singer who does a stunning job giving the creature a shockingly ethereal and unexpected vocal sound. The monster's voice is high, lilting, sweet, and entirely unlike what you would expect to come out of a giant bug (or any human other than a little girl, for that matter), and perfectly matches Lucille's as well as reminding the audience forcefully of the highest, sweetest tones of Michael Crawford's original 1986 portrayal of the character in Lloyd Webber's musical. (Incidentally, in the English dub he's voiced by Sean Lennon, who goes even harder into the ethereal high tones, and also it's hilarious because he's playing a flea and his father was a Beatle.)

Lucille here takes on the same surrogate mother role for Francoeur that the original Phantom was hoping Christine would, taking it in, providing clothing, and giving it a mask so that it can pretend (albeit poorly, being enormous) to be a human being instead of constantly causing disturbances. Francoeur seems intrigued by anything to do with music, even everyday items that can be manipulated to make tones, and while the fact that it can sing but not talk doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense, the idea of a Phantom who can communicate only through music isn't too far-fetched from a symbolic point of view. After all, the original Erik's opera was the expression of his innermost soul and thoughts, and many later versions and spinoffs of the story play up the idea of the impressiveness of his musical talent being the true measure of his personal worth.

Carlotta accidentally trips over Francoeur while he's in Lucille's dressing room playing with her guitar, but mistakes him for a (somewhat oversized and weird-looking) human and, impressed by his skill with the instrument, decides to set him up as part of Lucille's support band, an idea that Francoeur doesn't comprehend and Lucille is understandably not at all comfortable with. Why the chemical that gave the flea a beautiful voice should have also given it mad classical guitar skills is not addressed, but maybe the movie is just making a comment about the voice as the wellspring of all music, or something. Okay, so they probably didn't think about it much. The point is, Francoeur is awesome at guitar, and that's a pretty fun stand-in for the original Phantom's mastery with the violin so I'm allowing it.

The scene in which Francoeur and Lucille first perform together is probably the best in the film; it's funny, especially the giant flea's obvious inability to comprehend her telling it to get offstage and its total lack of interest in the other musicians, but also transforms quickly into a genuinely enjoyable music video when Francoeur takes off on wild guitar strums and harmonizes perfectly with Lucille, elevating the previously nice stage show to something incredible. Francoeur's influence makes the show more vibrant, energetic, and even sexy, just as Erik's influence brought heart to Christine's performances, and while there's no hint of sexual tension here (thank god), it's undeniable that Lucille and Francoeur are far more alive onstage than at any other time in the movie, making the scene more than a little bit of a shout-out to the Lloyd Webber musical's "Point of No Return". The sequence is surreally animated, which allows for more creative staging and effects on the part of the animators; especially at the beginning, Lucille is lit by the spotlight almost continually while Francoeur follows her around the stage in the darkness, the two of them dancing together but never lit the same way. And man, those flea legs can dance, folks.

Raoul, who is later going to be questioning why he's coming down with a mild case of jealousy over what will turn out to be a flea, obviously has no musical knowledge of his own, which is par for the course. He tries to be supportive. He also fails, but he does try.

Unfortunately, it's hard to keep a massive dancing bug that doesn't understand things like subtlety or the social contract a secret for long, and word of its presence gets out. Commissioner Maynott, visions of a clinched mayoral election dancing in his eyes, has determined that he has to catch and destroy the creature as soon as possible; to be fair to him, there is a public outcry about it because it's scaring people, but he's obviously more focused on his own ambitions than on public safety, especially since he's not really very concerned that the creature is dangerous. He drops from "possibly well-meaning douchebag" to "irredeemable asshole", though, when he storms into Lucille's theatre, violently accuses her of hiding the monster, and physically drags her around and twists her arms in the process. You're out, Maynott. T-minus thirty-five minutes until I assume we will get to see your permanent comeuppance.

Fleas, of course, are natural hiding masters, so Francoeur eludes detection by panicking and hiding inside Lucille's piano. Going to be a massive pain to tune later, but it was pretty cute.

Whichever animators handled Lucille's see-through lace parasol in this outside performance scene deserve a medal. That thing is beautiful.

In a very fun twist on the old story's familiar tale, Lucille, Raoul, and Emile get together to deliberately stage Francoeur abducting Lucille, in an attempt to make it publicly appear that Commissioner Maynott has killed it when they instead drop it through a trap door to hide. The best moment of the "kidnapping" is when Francoeur attempts to roar menacingly at the crowd, but discovers that it can't make any noise more intimidating than a distinctly melodious yodel. Unfortunately, the plan is foiled when the commissioner's way-more-competent-than-him assistant Pate notices the bug's scarf sticking out of the corner of the trapdoor, and Francoeur (and everyone else) is forced to embark on the massive chase scene that will make up the rest of the movie.

The chase scene is basically an unending stream of references to things, other versions of the Phantom story and classic monster movies especially. The chase itself hearkens back to the penultimate moments of the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, the first ever to include a mob chase of the Phantom through Paris, while Commissioner Maynott's hysterical gun-wielding reminds me of the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries and its tragic end, and Francoeur later getting tangled up in and hung from the side of a bridge by ropes (luckily, not having an endoskeleton makes him immune to death by hanging) is a reference to the famous Punjab lasso of Leroux's book. Various classic monster chases are also alluded to, and shades of King Kong are especially strong when the creature is seeking refuge on ever higher landmarks, eventually making its way to the pinnacle of the Eiffel Tower itself.

It is so much fun to watch Francoeur run around, by the way, because it does so by leaping fifty feet at a single bound. Flea jumps on a giant scale.

The dynamics of this final chase are obviously completely reversed - where in most version of the Phantom story Raoul is leading the charge to catch the Phantom who has abducted Christine, in this film Raoul, Lucille, and Emile are all trying to help Francoeur escape as the murderous Maynott chases the poor confused bug across the entire city, shooting all the way. You have to feel bad for Francoeur, who obviously has no idea why this guy hates him or what's going on and is pretty pitifully frightened, but there's also a pedal-driven zeppelin portion of the chase, so it's also hard not to be generally delighted by what is happening onscreen.

By the way, the characters all refer to Francoeur with male pronouns (he, his, him) throughout the movie, in spite of having no real way of knowing what his gender might be. Normal animals don't have socially-constructed gender anyway, but Francoeur is obviously not normal, and no one has ever checked on the creature's biological sex, either. Female fleas are generally larger than males, but it's not like we have a second accidentally blown-up-to-huge-proportions bug to compare, and at any rate no one really makes any effort to find out what Francoeur thinks about itself (if it does). I have to suppose they go with a male default partly because when Lucille first meets it, the flea is wearing mens' clothes and she thereafter dresses it in them, but honestly there's no reason at all this couldn't be a lady flea, or even a gender-identity-questioning flea now dealing with the new complications of being more sapient than it was before. Which would even further change the dynamic between these characters, eh?

Luckily for Francoeur, it has an exoskeleton that is pretty beast when exaggerated to fit a seven-foot-tall flea, so it manages to weather bullets that aren't aimed particularly well. In one particularly touching moment, it dives on top of Emile and hugs him to prevent him from being shot by Maynott's crazed flailings, because while it doesn't understand a whole lot of what is going on, it does understand that its small friends are a lot squishier than it is.

The ladies of the movie are also awesome during this chase scene, probably more so than the dudes who are trying to help at the same time. Lucille tries to save Francoeur, and when Raoul tries to save her but isn't very effective at it, she administers some excellent punches to Maynott's face before being overpowered. Even Maude gets in on the action, and lays down some parasol beatdowns on the commissioner's head when she sees him going after her not-boyfriend.

Unfortunately, even without Maynott's ever-closer mayhem coming after it, it becomes obvious that Francoeur is not long for this world. As has been foreshadowed here and there in a couple of earlier scenes, the chemicals that caused its transformation are beginning to wear off, and it succumbs to a sad-looking disintegration effect at the same moment Maynott shoots it (making its death again reminiscent of Dance's gunshot-murdered 1990 film phantom). For those of us waiting for Maynott to get his just deserts, however, Pate arrests him for murder at this point (fleas are not technically people, but apparently justice doesn't care today) and he is permanently removed from play. Pate gets perhaps the best line of the entire chase scne: "There was more humanity in that flea than the louse I see before me!" Ha. Insect humor!

Raoul and Lucille, and Emile and Maude, all rescue one another from various perilous positions on the Eiffel tower and pledge their love to one another, although Francoeur's death casts an understandable pall over everyone's happy ending. But... never mind that, because the flea is still alive! It's just tiny again, like a normal flea, and... living in Lucille's hair, which is totally gross, but at least it gets to be near her, and it can still sing in its tiny magical flea voice in her ear, so she still gets to perform with it. It's actually a rather nice way of carrying over the idea of the Phantom being "inside" Christine or her voice when she performs, although again, gross.

And because we're living in a happy fairytale dreamworld - which is totally okay by me, because everything in it is adorable - Raoul manages to convince the mad scientist upon his return to make a new and stable batch of flea-enhancer, and Francoeur is restored to its former glory through the Power of Science. Lucille drags Raoul onstage, where he performs the most awkwardly cute disco ever during their show, Francoeur does its thing, Carlotta and Pate get together out in the audience, and generally everything is the cutest happy ending you could ask for. (Assuming that you don't know that at most fleas tend to live for only about a year or so even when they haven't gone through the massive stresses of Francoeur's life... but let's pretend this isn't going to end in tragedy again in a few months, okay?)

And you might think that would be the end of the movie, but before we go, one last set of scenes sure to make you put a hand over your heart and make that crumply expression: we finally get to see flashbacks to Lucille's and Raoul's childhood memories of one another. They're not as halcyon as those of the idyllic couple in Leroux's novel, but they're darling all the same, and the two finally stop sparring and end the movie romancing one another.


This movie is a bundle of contradictions, with its completely horrifying premise but its irresistibly aww-worthy execution. I couldn't not love it. Leave it to the French to make the first A-worthy Phantom-based movie since 1995 - after all, they would be the experts!

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