Phantom of the Opera (1998)

     directed by Dario Argento

          starring Julian Sands, Asia Argento, and Andrea de Stefano

I run into problems, now and then, with the more notorious interpretations of the story; specifically, it's hard to avoid hearing others' opinions on them. Since I'm trying to be at least a little objective here, I'm trying not to absorb too many "This sucks!" or "This is awesome!" vibes before watching and reviewing any materials on my own, lest my opinions be unduly influenced by others instead of being entirely my own impressions. This was one of the harder ones, because this film is almost universally hated by most buffs of the story, and they are inclined to say so. Loudly. At length. With profuse use of punctuation marks.

 

Nevertheless, I do have my own opinions, and here they come. You've got to be prepared: there's a lot of weirdness in this film. People will tell you that it is bizarre, and they are not lying. You really have to take a lot on faith, and the fact that I didn't feed the disc to the garbage disposal tells you that Argento does manage the suspension of disbelief necessary to his audience's survival at least 50% of the time.

 

The credits are excellent; a very haunting and romantic violin theme plays over a disquietingly frantic string background, a perfect aural representation of the juxtaposition of romance and terror to come.

 

Then things become a little bit confusing (confusion is a familiar state to a viewer of this film, actually); a woman is walking through the rain, weeping, and generally looking like she's just been through some sort of trauma. I was reminded forcefully of Argento's previous Phantom film, the 1987 Opera, which utilized almost identical shots of its heroine wandering through the rain in shock after the first time she was attacked. Context clues after the fact lead me to deduce that this is probably our Phantom's mother, though she isn't coming back later in the film and her only real purpose is to add an extra shot of pathos to the proceedings. It is interesting, however, to note that she's here at all; since the original novel displayed a distinct dearth of mother figures for the Phantom (with, of course, the exception of Christine), it's interesting to ponder Argento's decision to include the mother here. While she's certainly not going to provide much in the way of mothering imagery, her inclusion does remind the audience of her existence, and by extension humanizes the Phantom by reminding us that he was a child with a mother like any other person. Argento goes to great lengths in this film to humanize his Phantom, perhaps because he has made him bizarre enough to need it to remain sympathetic for the audience.

 

Our young mother here is upset because, apparently, she has just put her baby in a basket and sent him floating Moses-like off into the sewers (no one will explain why, so I guess just assume that she's poor or destitute or the father left her, or whatever plucks at your heartstrings). The Moses imagery is intriguing, though ultimately I was unable to find any way in which the character was really going to live up to that particular idea (unless you try to view him as a sort of rat prophet, which... I think that might be too odd even for this film). At any rate, the baby (who, based on the small flashes of his screaming face we see here and there, doesn't appear to look particularly abnormal for a baby) is saved from certain watery doom by some compassionate rats, who decide to jump into the water and tow the basket to shore, despite the fact that rats totally do not do that and also could never tow a basket against the current with their tiny body weights. But these are special rats, we discover, when their eyes start glowing red as the baby grabs at their whiskers (well, what did you expect, my furry friends? It's a baby!). Exactly how special they are is up for debate, but we'll get to that silliness later.

 

Of course, this already puts Argento's Phantom in a completely different box than Leroux's original character. Leroux's Erik had lived under the opera house for a long time, true, but it is heavily implied in the epilogue that he arrived there as an adult; he had a life prior to that in various other parts of the world, which Leroux does not share all of with the reader. Argento's Phantom, raised entirely in the sewers and cellars under the opera house, never had that previous life experience, which puts him in a unique situation. He is at once much more of an outcast from humanity - seeing as how he's never interacted with them and has been raised entirely by animals, apparently - and completely removed from any of the original Erik's angst over being an outcast from humanity, since he has never tried to join his biological people and seems to display no particular like of them (with the obvious exception of Christine) at any point during the film. So already, we have to approach this character from an appreciably different angle, though the film will still follow much of Leroux's storyline.

 

Bizarrely, Argento makes use of a dialogue plate here, which reads, "Thus, by chance, a mysterious bond is forged between the abandoned child and the inhabitants of darkness." Its shaky filming, lack of punctuation, and unfathomable placement made me think that he was going to be doing this periodically, perhaps as a sort of homage to the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, which used plenty of such plates since it was a silent film. Alas, this was not to be; this is the only instance of a plate anywhere in Argento's film, and while it might be a nod to the silent film format, it kind of looks just strange all by itself out there, and certainly interrupts the flow of things.

 

And then, boom, it's twenty-something years later. Surprise! There's nothing wrong with a time jump, except that Argento doesn't really bother to tell us that he's making one, so I was forced to mentally switch gears when the Phantom showed up in person and was, you know, an adult. A little warning would have been nice. Again, this is a departure from Leroux's original novel, in which the Phantom was somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty or even sixty years old; Argento's Phantom is a young man in his prime. The film claims that it is set in 1877, which confuses me a little bit (why set things four years ealier? they're still having political crises right then!) but which doesn't appreciably affect the story, I suppose.

 

The film has sharp ups and downs for me when it comes to technical aspects. The score, by Argento's long-time collaborator Ennio Morricone, is excellent, bringing in plenty of suspense and eeriness where appropriate while still managing some truly lovely romantic moments. On the other hand, I wished there had been more of it, and the sound editing for the rest of the film had a woefully soap opera-ish feeling to it, with a lot of echoes and unpolished incidental sounds and a whole lot of dead time with no sound at all (not the kind of silence that would have been building suspense; just the kind that made me think that the filmmakers had been too lazy to fill something in).

 

The lighting was, in most places, absolutely stunning, and always did an excellent job of setting the scene, whether it was in the grandeur of the opera house, the dank undergrounds beneath it, or the more symbolic, specialized shots. On the other hand, I was sorely disappointed by the camerawork; while the shots were as well-executed as in Argento's last film and I had no complaints about his use of the frame, the film itself often seemed to be of poor quality and to distract me from what was going on by reflecting that this looked like the same level of film quality you get in your nicer sitcoms these days. It is possible that this film choice has something to do with Art; I am not good with film, as I've said, so damn if I'd know, but I do know that it bothered me, and not in a good-thinky-art-film way.

 

It's worth mentioning, by the way, that this was mostly shot on location in Budapest, just like the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film (though, in my opinion, that film made better use of the ethos of the city). Unlike that film, however, which used a smaller Budapest theater, the opera house footage here was filmed in the stunning Magyar Állami Opera House; it is nothing short of grandiose in scale and certainly gorgeous, and all the performance shots are a pleasure to watch because of it. The film is still ostensibly set in Paris, though there's little enough to suggest the locale one way or the other.

 

However, lest we forget that this is a horror film, we have to kill some people off now. This was one of the most WTF scenes of the film for me, largely because it made little sense, and also didn't really operate as intended anyway. In your usual horror story form, someone is Investigating a Little Too Much (in this case, some hapless guys who are testing the sides of a well) and Discovers Evil by accident (by accidentally breaking through the wall of the well into what appears to be part of the Phantom's domain), with Tragic Consequences (they all get thoroughly murderized). This was confusing for a few reasons:

 

1) The guy who actually did the breaking through ends up, when his fellows hoist him back to the top of the well, with no torso above the belly button; they end up with a pair of legs and a twitching, bleeding spinal column. This is excitingly gory, of course, but based on the amount of time that it took them to haul his ass back up to the surface (literally!), there's no practical way the Phantom could have torn his entire upper body off (and it's definitely looking torn, not really carefully sliced, and anyway, there wasn't time for that, either).

 

2) No, even if all the rats in Rat Town helped out, there still wouldn't be time to part half his body.

 

3) The Phantom then comes surging up out of the well to also waste both of the other men. It is entirely unclear how he managed to do this, since he's in a well, and there is no way to the top unless you are Spider-Man.

 

4) The Phantom is very indistinct, which is all fine and dandy since it prevents the viewer from getting a good look at him so early in the game, but it's the reason for the obfuscation that causes me concern: he's wearing a lot of clothes, including a flowing, dramatic cape. Now, this confuses me, because we're supposed to understand that this guy has been raised underground by rats his entire life. So why on earth would he be wearing clothes? Wouldn't it make more sense for him to be, you know, naked and covered in hair (entertainingly, our underground rat-friend is always totally smooth-shaven, too. Apparently the rats have a rat barber)? There's a confusing inconsistency in this film regarding the Phantom's human side versus his inhuman or "rat" side; while part of this is on purpose in order to set up the divide between human and monster that was so prevalent in Leroux's novel (albeit, Leroux's version did not involve a lot of rats, or at least not in a starring role), a lot of it seems like just messy plotting and a gleeful indifference to the pleas of sense and reason.

 

Anyway, so those guys die, and it's kind of up in the air as to whether he eats them or not, and then we're done with the obligatory "Here's the horror villain!" part of the exposition and we can get on with things.

 

And get on with things we do. There's the lovely Christine, taking advantage of the empty house to get up on stage and twirl around and sing and generally feel pretty, oh so pretty. I've had no luck trying to find out who the actual singer they dubbed over Asia Argento is, which is a shame because whomever she is has a stunningly lovely voice. Aside from the improbability of there being absolutely no one around to hear her playing around, it's a cute scene, and certainly a lovely showcase of the opera voice and of Christine herself in her pretty, flowing white gown.

 

Speaking of there being no one around, her maid pops in (holy recurring actresses, Batman, it's Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, the horribly murdered costume girl from Argento's last Phantom film!) and hurries her off to get her dressed for the rest of the evening. Which is when, now that we have some close-ups of Christine, I realize that she is... not dressed. Like, at all. Even by modern standards she's not "decent", but by 1877 standards, oh hell no. I can see corset lacings. I can see nipples. This woman is going right to hell in a handbasket according to sensibilities of the time. You'd think, if she wanted to run around on the stage pretending to be a diva, she would put on some clothes first and save herself some pretty profound embarrassment if anyone besides the maid caught her.

 

After sending her maid on ahead for no real reason except that she needs to run through the corridors half-naked by herself in order for this next scene to work, Christine bumps into none other than our friend the Phantom (we know this because he's a creepy guy staring at her, and also still wearing that enormous cape). There's a little more indignant internal ranting on my part about how she just hangs out and has a conversation with him, despite totally being in nothing but her underwear, but that really falls by the wayside as we pause to consider one of the largest facets of this film: the total lack of any kind of physical deformity for the Phantom.

 

And this is not one of those porno "Oh! Your horrible deformity which is apparently the size of a mosquito bite because no one else can see it but I will shun you anyway, shun!" lack of deformity situations. Our friend here literally has absolutely no physical problems of any kind; in fact, Julian Sands is pretty gosh-darn attractive. Initially, I thought that he might be a sort of prettier-than-usual Ivan-style helper, a la the 1962 and 1983 films, but it became apparent pretty quickly that this was not the case. So what are we to make of our pretty, pretty Phantom?

 

Well, for one thing, the usual problem that I have with attractive Phantoms is that there is no plausible reason for them to have been rejected by society, and therefore the character's central conflict is absent. Argento has neatly circumvented this by having the Phantom raised almost since birth outside of the realm of other humans, making him an outcast by default, rather than through conscious choice either on his part or on the part of his fellow men (arguably, you could say that his mother made that conscious choice, but the framework seems flimsy since she probably thought she was killing him and she doesn't have much in the way of metaphorical significance here). We're left with a character that is at once more and less relevant to Leroux's story; on the one hand, he's definitely not a tortured soul, cruelly cursed by God and constantly trying to reaffirm his worth as a man in the eyes of both his society and his deity. He is not seeking salvation or exoneration of any kind. On the other hand, he is a powerful illustration of one of Leroux's major social points: the abandonment of a perfectly normal child by his mother (she can have some metaphorical significance after all, here, as a representative of society) has directly led to the creation of a terrifying, murderous monster. No other Phantom to date has so clearly illuminated the idea that society creates its own monsters; we create our own evils through callousness, indifference, and abandonment of society's disenfranchised members.

 

There is, of course, the second angle from which to look at this choice, which is that Sands' Phantom is every bit as psychologically "disfigured" as his illustrious forbear was physically. This is not a perfect metaphorical situation, however, since the original Erik was very obviously afflicted by mental illnesses and/or trauma in his own right, and was much more effective as a combination of physical deformity and mental/spiritual decay (giving Leroux the opportunity to examine the chicken and egg question regarding which caused the other). This Phantom lacks that depth, but remains a very intriguing character, primarily because he represents a very clear-cut question, in his constant struggle between his human urges and his rat behaviors, of nature vs. nurture (which is also quite present in the original Erik's character, who was prone to insisting that nurture was to blame for his condition and behavior but mortally afraid that it was simply his own nature to be evil). So in the end, I have to conclude that Argento has veered substantially away from Leroux's story, but has not only added enough interesting elements of his own to keep me intrigued but has also kept some of Leroux's major ideas intact. It's a dizzying tangle. Even now, after watching the whole thing through, I am not entirely certain how I feel about it.

 

By the way, this Phantom, like Lloyd Webber's, is never given a name. However, there is no discernible influence from Lloyd Webber's musical to be found in the film, and considering that Argento's previous Phantom film came out less than a year after Lloyd Webber's show did, it's probably safe to say that Argento had been a fan of the story before Lloyd Webber's version ever hit the marquee. Certainly there are far more references to Leroux's novel and to the film versions preceding it than to anything that might be construed as "Webberish".

 

And now, hard on the heels of all this confusion over the Phantom's pretty face, comes the second extremely bewildering aspect of the character: he appears to be telepathic. Not just "oh, the writer was lazy so he sometimes knows things he shouldn't", but straight up able to talk to other people in their heads and even influence them mentally. Once you get past the knee-jerk WHAT? reaction to science fiction elements entering into what is traditionally a historical suspense/mystery/romance, this is actually not a terrible direction to take when it comes to several elements of the story. For one thing, it gives us a totally plausible (as long as you can suspend your disbelief enough to accept telepathy, at least) explanation for his mystical control over Christine, and for her propensity to suddenly slip into a near-trance when he's around. For another, it also provides an easy avenue of explanation for the Phantom's detailed knowledge of everything that is going on in his opera house, since he doesn't have to be physically present to spy on someone. Even further, he later demonstrates an ability to force others to do his bidding using these mind powers, thus making him more of an impressively fearsome character to the denizens of the opera house.

 

While most adaptations (with a few notable exceptions, like the 1989 Little/Englund film) of the Phantom story choose a very down-to-earth, mortal basis for their version of the character, Argento has chosen to go the unnatural and bizarre route, which I would frankly love to see explored more often; Leroux made a point of gleefully refusing to be entirely clear on whether his Phantom was an impressively skilled mortal or actually in some way supernatural, and either choice can be validly explored in a film or literary context. This Phantom's mental gymnastics are also pretty necessary for Argento's version of the story, since this particular reiteration of the character does not sing or play violin, two of the vehicles most commonly used to effect Christine's entrancement.

 

Speaking of the violin, there ain't one, except for the lovely violin melodies of Morricone's love themes. The father aspect of the story has been entirely excised in this film, which I could take as an opportunity to speculate considering that Argento has cast his daughter in the lead here, but of course I won't because who the hell am I to try to guess what goes on in the minds of filmmakers?.

 

So, all things considered, I can pardon Christine when she suddenly becomes melting, half-naked butter in the hands of a guy she literally met ten seconds ago, because he's getting freaky with her cerebral cortex, and you can't really blame a girl for not knowing how to handle that.

 

But never mind Christine for now; it's time to visit the rat-catcher. Hot dog! You remember the rat-catcher, right? It's a little-used, oft-neglected character from Leroux's novel! Huzzah! Wait, Argento's Phantom was raised by rats, wasn't he? Oh, dear, that doesn't bode well for this poor fellow.

 

The Phantom demonstrates his mental prowess by forcing the rat-catcher's hand into his own trap, which is old-school. This is not a wussy little spring-snap trap. This is three iron spikes that come down and spear the rat through its head. He then sends his little rat minions to nibble on it while the man tries, shrieking, to free his impaled limb. The rat-catcher manages to free himself eventually and limp off, we presume to seek medical attention. At least he got to live, right?

 

It's nice to see the character included, though with Argento's focus on rats here he could hardly have done otherwise. When, slightly later, he visits the doctor to take care of the mess, we get both a classic Argento horror shot of the hand (gross, you can see the bone of his thumb!) and a storytelling routine that clearly establishes him as the somewhat grimy but perfectly honest Buquet character of the film (interesting, a fusion of Buquet and the rat-catcher... haven't seen that before). His obvious pride in his work, including his assertion that he keeps the tails of the rats he's killed in jars of formaldehyde, makes it pretty clear that he will probably not be surviving the movie.

 

Back to Christine, who has thankfully been allowed to get dressed before proceeding. She and her maid receive a splendid arrangement of roses, which the maid goes on and on and on about and all but suggests that Christine should shag the brains out of whatever admirer she had that was rich enough to send them, only to do a complete 180 upon discovering that they were sent by the Baron de Chagny and refer to him as "that insignificant creature". Leaving aside the question of why the de Chagnys have been demoted to a barony, I don't get most of what this maid does or says. She's generally very unpleasant, places a great deal of importance on title and wealth but despises Raoul for no apparent reason despite his claim to both, and generally annoys me as the unnecessary female friend who is only present to give Christine someone to share exposition with. The maid also shares a naughty giggle with Christine here over Carlotta, whom they both believe to be a terrible singer.

 

Yet, when we go on to watch a rehearsal the next day, Carlotta is singing Bizet's Carmen and sounds perfectly wonderful to my ear. Yeah, a little throaty, but she's obviously both well-trained and immensely talented. As a former music major, I was annoyed by some of the sloppy treatment of soprano roles and singing in general in this film; based on her earlier performance when she thought no one was watching, Christine sounds like a lyric coloratura or a light lyric soprano. However, she's supposed to be the understudy for Carmen, which is traditionally a mezzo-soprano role (though it is sung by dramatic or spinto sopranos sometimes). Carlotta, who is actually singing that role, has a much heavier and darker sound, because she is a dramatic or spinto soprano. Christine would therefore not necessarily be appropriate as an understudy for such a demanding role, which is more than a mouthful for any singer so young but definitely not suited for a lighter voice. Similarly, I had trouble taking Carlotta seriously as the lead in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, which demands a lighter, more flexible voice (though they didn't have her sing any of the higher coloratura passages, possibly because the singer they hired looked at them like they had asked her to moonwalk in full Elizabethan costuming). Application of musical knowledge: not optional in a story centered around opera.

 

Christine takes off out of rehearsal when the Phantom summons her via his cool telepathic powers, and she descends into one of the prop rooms to meet him. Her entrance is very innocent and romantic; Argento makes copious use of white, taking us past an array of pillars, horses, and other props as the soft violin love score plays in the background. The Phantom, of course, spoils all this innocent nostalgia by getting right into the groping as soon as she gets there, which is very very creepy considering that he seems to be mind-controlling Christine so she can hardly make a decision about whether she likes this or not.

 

The dynamics of the situation are complex; Christine is obviously terrified, but equally obviously unable to help herself when it comes to the Phantom's magnetic attraction (possibly because he is literally cheating with magic). The Phantom, on the other hand, seems to be more fixated on his ambitions for her, discussing his future plans for her and the fact that he's planning to put her in the lead soprano role soon. Despite the fact that he certainly isn't the older gentleman of Leroux's novel, he calls her "child", which could be construed as just another facet of how innocent she is when compared to him, or how weird and creepy he is being overall. The end of the scene, wherein he demands, "Believe me," and she responds, "I believe you," and he demands, "Trust me," and she responds, "I trust you," is especially powerful; the exchange is powerfully reminiscent of wedding vows, and reinforces the idea that she is helpless in the face of his mastery of her.

 

I had a few problems with this scene. Why is Christine the "innocent"? Sure, she is very fetchingly childlike, despite running around in her underwear like that's a normal thing, but wouldn't the guy raised by rats and entirely outside the sphere of human temptations be the most innocent of all? He's like Tarzan, except with rats instead of apes. I don't understand where his apparent appreciation of her innocence comes from, since the entire concept ought to be somewhat foreign to him. One could argue that he's gotten plenty of human contact from mucking around in other peoples' heads, which could also explain why he's wearing clothes (maybe... I could see him learning he should wear clothes around other people, but why the hell would he wear clothes when he's just chilling with the rats? is it just cold down there?) and that he is therefore aware of his own depravity and able to distinguish the difference between her naivete and his own behavior, but I don't buy it. It's way too complex and subjective an idea for him to have come up with on his own, and I don't believe in the argument that he could have learned it by "eavesdropping", either. It's a plot hole, is what it is. A big, fat plot hole.

 

And in the same vein, why is he so fixated on getting her the lead roles in the opera house? Rats don't generally give a shit who's singing over their heads, and this particular Phantom, being not a singer and having had no apparent musical training, doesn't bother with anyone in the opera house at all unless they happen to intrude on his territory. His obsession with Christine appears to be based upon having heard her singing in her little pretend performance and having fallen instantly in love with her, so clearly he appreciates her voice, but I'm not sure where the very human leap from "Pretty voice, I want it" to "Pretty voice, she should be a featured performer" comes from in his rat-raised worldview. The only thing I can come up with is that, with the telepathy (it's like a carte blanche for plot fixes!), he may be reacting to a desire to see her happy; he knows she wants to sing the roles, so he'll give them to her, simple. But that's a lot of work to make me, the viewer, do to justify you, the filmmaker, and your kinda flimsy plotting.

 

(This could go on for a while. For example... why the hell does he even talk, for that matter? Even if he could learn human language via telepathy, why would he bother to use it when he can just beam thoughts straight into peoples' heads? Wouldn't a guy raised by rats be much more inclined to use his natural talents instead of learning and using a clumsy "language" invented by the people he dislikes? The plot holes threaten to swallow me whole.)

 

There is a slight interlude which is primarily for exposition purposes, but which I mention because it includes Madame Giry in her original form, as the boxkeeper for the Phantom's box! She won't be appearing again, but it's been so long since I've seen a boxkeeper-Giry that I had to mention her. By the way, she does add to the Phantom's supernatural mystique by stating that he brings an unnatural chill with him wherever he goes, which will come up a few more times in the film. Again, this touch really cements Sands' Phantom as a supernatural agency rather than a mortal one, though why he has supernatural powers when we saw that he was a pretty normal baby, nobody really explains.

 

The assumption that makes the most sense (view "sense" with a grain of salt here) is that the rats themselves are telepathic, and communicated this sense to the young Phantom (see? I told you they were special rats). I find that too much of a stretch for an audience; I prefer the idea that telepathy is something innate that is obscured by the more developed personality, so that animals have access to it and people don't, which would explain why rat-boy there, who was never taught all that human junk, can use it but normal people can't. Again, though... that's me having to sit down and come up with reasons to justify your plot, Argento. Not a good sign. And even if I do that, I've got nothing when it comes to the cold wind from beyond.

 

And, while I'm on the subject of the Phantom's supernatural trappings, how old is he, anyway? Argento doesn't tell us how long the jump from the baby in the basket to the goings-on in the opera house is supposed to be, and the shot of the mother is vague enough to have come from a few different time periods. There's some suggestion that the Phantom may be ageless, particularly in the commonly-held belief that he was present long before the opera house was built, though since this is set in 1877, the house was only opened two years ago anyway. This could also explain his thinking of Christine as a "child" earlier, but like everything else in this film, Argento doesn't bother to explain and I end up just spinning theories out of nothing. (It's good that I'm spinning theories... means I'm not bored or disgusted. Bad that I have to do it, though, that makes me testy about lazy plotting.)

 

Unfortunately, a young stagehand up in the flies overhears part of the Phantom's rendezvous with Christine and sees him disappear into a secret door; excited, he runs back to his washerwoman girlfriend and tells her all about how they can now sneak into the Phantom's lair and steal his treasure (they assume there must be one, because... well, it's a nice idea, isn't it?). This so excites her that she rips off her top and they go at it (offscreen, y'all, sorry), which is worth noticing because it's a well-placed moment on Argento's part; the unabashed nudity and sexuality of the two workers represents the passion and lack of pretense among members of the lower class, and is immediately and sharply contrasted as we cut to the next scene, a high-class salon in which the nobility and monied patrons of the opera are hobnobbing and generally looking not at all like they're going to take their clothes off, ever.

 

And, interestingly enough, look who's at the salon, sketching some of the ballerinas... Degas! The famous painter was, indeed, in Paris in 1877, and quite well known for his paintings of ballerinas and singers. He has no relevance to the plot, but it was nice to see him there. And wait... yes, indeed, we have seen this before! The 1994 Meyer novel also included the well-known Impressionist in a small role, and the 1995 Microprose game also included him in a brief cameo. I wonder if Argento ever tripped over that book in his travels?

 

There are two purposes to this salon scene. The first is to establish the corruption and general moral bankruptcy of the upper class, which is achieved via several obvious examples of the patron/performer relationship scattered here and there throughout the room. And in case people demanding sex in return for giving the performers money and social status wasn't enough of a hot button to bother his audience, Argento steps it up by bringing in a pedophilia angle, depicting several hoary old managers and gentlemen lusting over the prepubescent ballet girls and attempting to buy their affections with sweets. Not only does this reinforce Christine's innocence in a profession wherein innocence is a rare commodity even among children and young girls grow up very, very quickly, but it also helps make sure that we, as the audience, have no sympathy whatsoever for the upper crust gentlemen that run and patronize the opera house. This is appropriate since the Phantom is representative of the discarded, vengeful dregs of society, but it's a little bit heavy-handed, in my opinion. I'm also not a fan of equating the sexual favors being traded by adults with the sexual abuse of children; the first could be consensual (we won't get to know any of those characters well enough to tell), but the second is universally heinous.

 

The other reason for this scene is to finally introduce poor Raoul, the already much-maligned third wheel on this telepathic brain-date. He has a very slimy look to him, at least to my eye, but he's earnest and sincere and nice, so at least he's not going to get cast as a villain, as so often happens in stories wherein the Phantom is viewed sympathetically (and despite the killing and possible cannibalization of people, Argento does treat his Phantom very sympathetically). Despite being a baron, Christine (and everybody else) always seems to refer to him as "Monsieur de Chagny", which seems a bit less than accurate; I could see Christine getting away with it because he likes her (though why she would do that, I don't know), but wouldn't most people use his title?

 

To remove any confusion over who arrived where first, Argento's version of the character has no pre-existing relationship with Christine, nor were they acquainted in childhood or previously embroiled in any sort of a real courtship. In fact, their dialogue implies strongly that he's been attempting to press his suit with her for some time and that she really doesn't like him very much, and has no romantic interest in him whatsoever. Of course, after making this clear, she then turns around and says that the language of his love letter to her was beautiful and she loved it, and then tells him that she would like him to be like "the brother [she] never had". Raoul is confused, and I don't blame him, though he's gentlemanly about it and agrees to being shoved in the brother box, never to get any of the cuddling he's dreaming so wistfully about.

 

And now we're back to Underground Bad Plans Theatre, with the stagehand and his paramour wandering lost and confused through the maze of the Phantom's warren, looking for treasure. Argento emphasizes this darker underground world by making use of several generally unsavory images, such as an orgy of slimy earthworms or an enormous crawling spider crossing the humans' paths; the effect is that they are in a completely different domain from the opera house over their heads. I haven't been able to find out where the underground scenes were filmed, but the set appears to be at least partly real stone and would be just as at home in a science fiction film where it doubled as the surface of a hostile planet or something (which isn't a bad thing; the Phantom's domain is more effective if it's somewhat otherworldly). While Argento remains a master of suspense - in particular, the argument between the characters over who goes first is great, as the audience sits there breathlessly trying to figure out whether the person going first or the person going last is going to be the first one to get the axe - many shots in this areas feel lazy and uninspired, only perfunctorily hitting the major scene elements and characters, and the music seems to be poorly modulated in volume, which is a shame since I think it could have added a lot to the scene.

 

It's the stagehand himself that gets grabbed up first, and after proving himself to be an enormous douchebag by trying to blame his girlfriend for the intrusion to save his own skin, the Phantom kills him by tossing him off a ledge and impaling him on a stalagmite below. I wondered here if super strength was on the list of supernatural powers possessed by the Phantom, as the toss was pretty damned impressive and reminded me of the demon-augmented toss in the 1989 Little/Englund film, but my questions went unanswered as he never seemed to demonstrate that particular talent again.

 

More interesting, however, is the fact that when the terrified stagehand tries to beg for mercy and appeals to the Phantom's human side, the Phantom declares that he is not a man but a rat. The significance of this is lost on the bleeding stagehand, but it reinforces my assumption that the Phantom is not meant to be entirely human; he was raised by rats and, even if he is aware (as, apparently he is, what with the clothes and all) that he is not technically a rat, he prefers the society of rats to the society of humans and chooses to identify himself with the rodents. This actually helps the character to appear more sympathetic to the viewer; having watched rats being treated as nuisances, objects of scorn, and pests to be exterminated, the Phantom has no difficulty viewing people the same way, yet another example of his disdain for and hatred of the society that spawned him. He doesn't murder out of any of the passionate human emotions usually associated with the act; he does it with the same cold sense of extermination and survival with which the rat-catchers murder his furry friends.

 

The washerwoman, after coming upon her boyfriend's impaled body, lets loose with a truly impressive scream and starts trying to hightail it back to the surface, a plan that is hampered by the fact that she's kind of lost and she's also desperate to keep the Phantom from catching her, as she can see or hear him giving chase. The chase wasn't as pulse-pounding as it could have been - after all, it's not like I was expecting her to survive, so I wasn't really on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen - and I found myself wondering about the Phantom's attitude toward the many bats in the underground maze. Does he think of them as furry cousins, but with wings? Does he list sonar among his impressive superhuman capabilities? Does he see them as competition for a food source? These are burning questions!

 

Anyway, the washerwoman finds a corner of a grotto to hide in and blows out her lantern so it won't lead him to her, which is a decent enough plan for now, I guess. However, Argento loses me immediately again when the girl looks at the ground, sees that she's left footprints leading to her hiding place in the sandy floor, and in a panic starts trying to sweep them away. You see, I've been in underground caves; my family was big on them, and we went on tours of the Cameron and Mark Twain caves in Missouri pretty much every summer when I was a child. Those are pretty wussy caves when compared to the Phantom's domain, especially since they have lights installed in some areas and chains across gaps to keep you from plummeting to your doom or anything. But the thing about caves is that, if you have no light source (like, say, you blew out your lantern to hide from somebody), you can't see anything. Literally. You could actually poke yourself in the eyeballs without ever seeing your fingers. Anybody who's been in a basement or cellar without windows in the dark has a small idea of this, but underground there is actually, literally, no light, not even the infinitesimal bits of light that we don't normally notice.

 

So, unless she's so close to the entrance back to the opera house that she really needs to get her ass running instead of hiding, there is no possible way she could even see her own footprints, and likewise no way the Phantom would be able to follow them (of course, he has telepathy so she's screwed anyway, but she doesn't know that). I know that there has to be a light source in order for the camera to film things happening in an ostensibly black cavern, but that doesn't mean you can assume the characters have a light source. Instant, total destruction of my suspension of disbelief.

 

So by the time he actually cornered and killed her, I didn't care a lot anymore, though I did cry when he ripped her tongue out in extremely gory detail because I'm a wuss. I managed to overcome the wussiness long enough to point out that the Phantom is very rat-like in his aggressive reactions; he attacks and murders the washerwoman with his teeth, despite the fact that he could easily have picked up the knife that her boyfriend dropped practically at his feet. In fact, throughout the entire film, he attacks people only with his teeth and hands; the concept of an external weapon seems to be as alien to him as it would be to any other animal.

 

So now that we're done with that mess, we get to meet Buquet up in the opera house. I know, I'm as surprised to see him as you are; I'd thought the rat-catcher and stagehand were really fulfilling his role, what with their storytelling and brushes with death and the stagehand's eventual murder. But no, here's Buquet, who appears to be a little higher on the social totem pole than your usual version of the character but still something of a drunk and a dissolute storyteller, and also kind of a pervert when it comes to the little ballet girls. The maid annoys me, everyone abuses Carlotta by saying that she "blah blah blahs like a fat cow", the whole scene is pretty much a loss. Only slightly more interesting is the following scene in which the manager of the opera house is bought out in a hostile takeover by two new managers, and the old man dies of a stroke after cursing them with the Phantom's presence. Since the Phantom is already pretty darn present, I was unconvinced, and not interested enough in any of the bit characters to care.

 

The following scene depicts a lonely Phantom, sitting on the roof in the moonlight and snuggling with Christine's purloined scarf. It's very romantic and sympathetic with the lovely violin theme playing in the background, until he starts having hideous visions of men dying in a flaming rat-trap, followed by visions of Christine wearing only... twine? It's hard to tell. Both visions are obvious in their symbolism - the Phantom is dreaming of taking his revenge on the men who slaughter his rat kinfolk, and of possessing Christine - but they are extremely clumsily executed, especially since we saw Argento do visions much more effectively in the 1987 Opera. The static presentation and unsmoothed edges of the images made them look to me like something that belonged in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus more than in this film. Again... this may have to do with Art. I wouldn't know. But I do know it seriously didn't work for me.

 

Christine finally gets her chance to sing when Carlotta is indisposed, but she does such a botch job of it (the dubbed singer is lovely as always, but Asia Argento's lip-synching is a bit off and her body movements are terrible, not to mention the fact that the poor girl looks so terrified that she can hardly stay upright) that she faints in the middle of the performance (it is unclear whether she was actually performing for someone, or just auditioning to see if she could cover Carlotta's role for the night... either way, I doubt the managers have much confidence in her). This is okay because the Phantom whisks her off to her dressing room, and Raoul runs off in pursuit, and then he hears the famous lines from Leroux's novel through the door, and hey! We've arrived at the beginning of the novel! Hot damn. Whatever else I may say about how some things in this film are silly, it has to be noted that Asia and Sands have sensational chemistry and play their power-struggle dynamic extremely ably; the relationship is very believable when they're actually onscreen together.

 

Raoul's older brother Philippe, another smaller character from Leroux's novel getting his shot at the big screen (though his name has been changed to Jerome for no reason I can see), takes him off to a debauched variant of a Turkish bath in an attempt to stop him from moping an unnecessary amount over a silly opera girl. The bathhouse scene (which reminds me of a few previous films that used a similar scene, particularly the 1983 Markowitz/Schell production) is wildly exotic, featuring plenty of breasts and dark-skinned servant girls, sex workers, and hookahs filled with what we presume are unnamed and unfiltered drugs. This exoticism is, I believe, mostly in place of the daroga and his trappings of Eastern flavor, as he is not going to be included in this film; the idea that the Eastern world was considered mysterious and full of taboo pleasures in Leroux's time is certainly carried across, though it seems less than necessary to the plot as a whole.

 

Raoul has some visions of his own (drug-induced, presumably, not telepathic), mostly involving Christine coming to offer him her sexy body (side note: Asia Argento has an ENORMOUS tongue. You don't even know), but upon realizing that it's just one of the bathhouse sex workers, he flies into a rage. Now, Raoul has long hair and facial hair, and I was already thinking that with his hair down, clad in nothing but a towel, he looked a lot like our artistic conception of Jesus, but I was really not expecting him to go all biblical on us and start screaming, "Get behind me, Satan!" at the bath workers. His subsequent attack on the "den of iniquity", which includes shoving the girls, toppling tables and couches, and hurling fruit and hookahs, is extremely reminiscent of the biblical Jesus casting the moneylenders out of the temple. In fact, the entire scene very obviously sets Raoul as the Christ figure, running him past temptation before allowing him to reject it and remain the pure character of the film. While this is confusing to a reader of Leroux's novel, who might be used to Christine being the Christ figure as she was there (it's even in her name!), it makes sense within the framework of Argento's film; Christine isn't really about spiritual purity or strength in this version, and the Phantom is neither seeking nor about to be granted any kind of absolution, which means that Raoul can now function as a Christ character who allows Christine's salvation, rather than she allowing the Phantom's.

 

But enough of that metaphorical shit; it's time to kill somebody again! In a very obvious example of the disenfranchised taking the corrupt upper class to task for their actions, the Phantom bloodily murders one of the dirty old men who is chasing some poor little ballet girl into his catacombs. Argento makes very sure that we will be rooting for this guy to die, from his manhandling of the girl (who can't be more than ten years old) and his attempts to force his chocolates down her throat, to his puffing, panting, red-faced exertion and extremely creepy attempts to seem like a comforting father figure to the terrified girl he's chasing. The poor kid is even more traumatized when the Phantom drops out of the ceiling and rips the man's throat out with his teeth; he still has blood running down his chin when he stalks over to her, pauses, stares at her, and then pets her head and tells her to run on home. I'm unclear as to why the man raised by rats would have any particular sympathy for the kid, who is just going to grow up into a human who kills rats, but maybe he has some kind of abandoned child complex and sees himself in her. Or maybe, for whatever reason, he does value innocence and lets her go because she's still just a child. Or maybe he's just tired of killing people that day, or maybe he's sleepy. How the hell would I know? Argento is giving me nothing here!

 

Christine, who likes to wear a hat with a white dove on it, not that that's symbolic or anything, moons about in her dressing room and whines about how she's "fallen in love with both of them". What? But... but you're all making out with the Phantom all the time, and you told Raoul you don't like him and you never even hang out. I don't get it. I understand the intent, but Christine isn't coming off as a woman with a divided heart; she's coming off as a good old-fashioned attention whore. Not that that isn't realistic, but any "pure and innocent" cred she had left is getting trashed for me.

 

But forget about that, because this is the most awesome thing ever: in pursuit of continuing excellence in his chosen field of employment, the rat-catcher (and his little person assistant) has apparently gone back to school and gotten an engineering degree, because he has managed to create a thing of great wonder: a little two-seater copper car for them to ride around in, complete with the patented Rat-Vac(TM). Seriously, it's a copper car that the two of them drive around in the tunnels under the opera house, shrieking with glee, as its lawnmower attachment captures and cuts up rats and its vacuum-cleaner attachment on the other side sucks up the remains. I could not have made something this zany up if I tried, folks. It's horrific and yet also so awesome - so very Jim Henson's Labyrinth - that I really can't be mad. In fact, I think I love it a little. I couldn't do anything but laugh hysterically as the two of them careened around the tunnels, squealing with happiness and chop-suck-chop-sucking the rats up as they went. It was manically wonderful. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and they manage to accidentally crash the car; its rat-chopping blade beheads the assistant, and the rat-catcher collapses in his own blood, which presumably saves the Phantom the trouble of murdering them both rather nastily.

 

Anyway, the Phantom has telepathically summoned Christine down to his lair (she has to hide in a cranny on the way to avoid getting run over by the Rat-Vac, which only made it funnier; on a metaphorical level, that suggests she's becoming like the rats - and Phantom - herself, doesn't it?). The entire underground sequence is much more dreamlike and surreal, which is really what I've been needing from the film all along; the sequences are dynamic and compelling with just enough realism to keep things properly tied to the plot. This is good, because there are so many things that just don't make sense going on down here, starting with the Phantom, who's playing his ginormous pipe organ like most Phantoms do. Even if he was a fan of music, and did find some way to get that bastard down into his quarters... how the hell does he know how to play organ? The rats sure as hell didn't teach him. And his quarters are as palatial as the original Erik's, down to the oriental rug, the chairs, the clothes, the comfortable canopy bed... not only do I want to know where he got these things, but I want to know why he got them in the first place, when he's supposed to be all rat-raised and rat-aligned and stuff. What does a rat need with a canopied bed and an oriental rug? Damnation, Argento, this is why Leroux's character had more backstory than "He was raised by rats, now he's telepathic."

 

At any rate, the Phantom has Christine sing for him as he plays the organ (the scene's setup is very reminiscent of the 1962 Fisher/Lom production, though without the fainting and slapping), and both he and she seem to be seriously involved. They are so into it, in fact, that it seems pretty obvious as a metaphor for sex; they're stimulating one another musically (and in the Phantom's weird telepathic mental case, mightn't that be akin to sex anyway?), and Christine's apparent fear of him seems more like the apprehension of a virgin on her wedding night than the fear of a kidnapping victim (which she ain't; she walked down here and rowed her ass across the lake herself). As if to point and laugh at me and my metaphorical assumptions, however, the characters go right on ahead and have actual sex next.

 

Contrary to what it may sound like when I rag on some of these more pro-Phantom stories, I have no objection to this; I think that there is plenty of representational subtext in Leroux's novel that encourages one to conclude that there might be at least an implication of something along those lines going on, and even if there's no actual sex, Erik's status as representative of sexuality/creation and Christine's inability to say no to him certainly provide that element on a metaphorical level anyway. The sex scene itself here is intimate, believable, and lovely; it certainly showcased the more human side of the Phantom's personality, which Argento has been pushing quite a lot. I would have really enjoyed it, except that the nasty implication that Christine may not be able to make informed decisions thanks to being under the influence of the Phantom's psychic roofie prevented me.

 

Meanwhile, in the world above, poor Raoul is looking everywhere for Christine and her maid is being her usual nasty, unhelpful self. I would not have cried at all if this maid had gotten killed, but alas, apparently she has immunity after getting killed in the last film. The Phantom takes off to go secure Christine the lead in tonight's production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, despite her screams of protest; in fact, I am not really sure what the hell was going on with Christine here, except that she didn't want him to leave without taking her with him and then she threw a fit of epic proportions and screamed that she hated him repeatedly at his retreating back. This is but the first of Christine's many bewildering changes of heart, which seriously add to my feelings that she might be compromised by the phantom's telepathic interference.

 

Things are a bit more recognizably part of Leroux's story now, as the Phantom heads off to personally threaten Carlotta if she decides to sing. Considering what a jackass he was about it, I was with Carlotta, and cheered when she refused to back down and went to sing anyway. That's right, girl. Don't you be intimidated by some asshole who gropes you and tells you he'll hurt you if you do what you love to do. Fuck that guy.

 

The managers also receive their traditional note from the Phantom, declaring that Christine will be singing tonight, though again I hate this because seriously, what part of a rat-like worldview includes sending people notes? I was assuming Argento was excluding that in Carlotta's case because this version of the Phantom simply isn't a notes kind of a guy, but apparently not. The managers are, of course, very confused by this demand, since Sands' Phantom hasn't done a single thing to interfere with the workings of the opera house ever before (except for killing people who venture under it, but that apparently doesn't affect the stage much).

 

Of course, since things aren't going his way, the Phantom goes off to drop the chandelier in the middle of Carlotta's performance (she sounds lovely, by the way... I should be such a "fat cow"). He takes a very direct approach, strips down to just his pants, and spends a good fifteen minutes or so beating on the chandelier's support beam with a sledgehammer. Nobody notices this. I couldn't help being seriously amused by the shirtless, muscled Phantom, long hair blowing dramatically in the wind, hefting and striking over and over with his giant manly hammer. He looks like the Norse god Thor.

 

Argento does, however, do an amazing job of building the suspense here, often lingering on shots of a packed crowd in the seats, most of them decked out in all their finery and enjoying the show, completely innocent of the mayhem about to occur. When the chandelier does fall, it's messy; people are seriously injured and killed, and Argento doesn't spare us seeing it, which is a change from the book (in which only Madame Giry's replacement was killed, though later versions, particularly Bischoff's 1976 novel, have upped the carnage level considerably). Raoul finds the maid and demands she help him find Christine, and the maid does another weird about-face and nastily informs Raoul that she's with someone "who loves her more than you do" before having a change of heart and agreeing to lead him down to the cellars (even though... well, she doesn't).

 

Christine is busy screaming at the Phantom upon his return, of course, and is busily telling him that she hates him even though they were getting along just fine about three or four hours ago. Not being one for subtlety, he just picks her up and carries her off to bed again, telling her in a manner very reminiscent of Erik's dialogue in Leroux's novel that she'll "get used" to him in time. And then they have some more sex, which seems like it's going to be rape but then she suddenly decides to be into it, despite all her earlier screaming. Y'all, I am SO uncomfortable with all this.

 

Unfortunately, the rat-catcher, who is in bad shape but has apparently survived his epic crashing of the Rat-Vac (hee!), looks through a crack in the wall and sees them getting it on. It's pretty obvious foreshadowing to Something Is Going To Go Wrong, but what the hell, at least I understand what's going on.

 

Christine, oddly enough, is not bothered (again... the shouting is over, for now) by all the murdering and shouting and imprisonment and throwing her into bed, but when she gets up later on and discovers the Phantom cuddling a large number of rats in the other room, that is THE LAST STRAW, BUCKO. She is OUTTA HERE. He's not doing anything particularly weird, just letting them run all over him and petting them like an affectionate man with his pets, but they're rats, so that is gross and she's done with this and she flees in the boat even though some other rats, in distress, try to nip at her feet to stop her. This scene, I understand, elicits a lot of mirth in the fan community because of the Phantom opening his shirt up halfway through this cuddlefest, but there really isn't actually all that much that's sexual about it; it's more that he's attempting to get closer to the rats, to recapture his "natural" state. The scene is, in fact, very restful-looking, and I enjoyed it when I wasn't constantly scowling and going back to my question of why he's wearing clothes and using furniture in the first place.

 

He's very lost and confused when he discovers that Christine has left, though he uses his telepathic powers to determine that she's running for the surface (and why didn't we do his earlier visions in this "flash" style, Argento? It's so much less... mockable). He spends a lot of time down in the lair, stroking and sniffing at her shoes and scarf and generally being mopey over her absence, which is cute in an obsessive stalker rodent kind of a way.

 

The first person Christine runs into upon reaching the surface is Raoul, who has been searching for her for quite some time, and she immediately grabs him and starts crying, "My love!" and fainting in a flowerlike fashion, which really just made me think she was smartly deciding to make him feel like he was in the romantic running again in order to gain his protection. I mean... she was just underground playing sexy games with the Phantom and calling him "my love", but at least with Raoul we can be fairly sure she's saying it because she wants to. Raoul, because he's a nice guy, hugs her and soothes her and generally tries to calm her down (even when she's crying, "There's darkness inside of me!" Raoul, honey, she's not being metaphorical... she's trying to tell you something).

 

When they have their conversation on the opera house roof (no masquerade ball in this film, which is a first, isn't it?), Raoul asks a very telling and intriguing question: "Who is he? Is he real, or does he only exist in that dark corner of your soul?" That's another possibility I would dearly love to see explored in Phantom literature: that there is no Phantom at all, and Christine has entirely created him in her mind due to some form of trauma or delusional mental illness. It could be so cool, right? It's not the case here, but Christine's response, "Both," is conducive to my daydreaming about it, anyway. I have a lot of stuff to get through; who knows, maybe one day! Of course, Christine goes through a huge song and dance about how much she loves Raoul, which I TOTALLY do not buy because this film has done a piss-poor job of presenting any kind of convincing romance between the two of them, and they start making out on the roof while the Phantom cries nearby.

 

The final performance, which is of Faust (as a side note, I'm assuming some time must be passing between these shows, because otherwise the opera house is putting on a new opera like every other day, which is totally ridiculous), is entertaining for all the wrong reasons. It's a lovely touch to have Gounod conducting his own opera from the pit (he was, in fact, in Paris in 1877, though I can't find much record of what he was doing), and Christine is much happier and more confident without the Phantom leering at her from his box. However, the happy illusion is shattered when the rat-catcher manages to stagger up from the bowels of the stage, freshly escaped from the Phantom's domain, and begins screaming about how he saw her underground and she's the Phantom's whore and she fucks the devil, et cetera, while Christine stares at him in mute horror and fails to look anything less than supremely guilty. The audience goes into a predictable uproar, especially when the Phantom decides to solve this problem by swooping down onto the stage and carrying her off.

 

Then it's into the catacombs for the chase scene that every modern film version, following the model of the 1925 movie, always seems to have. The Phantom takes a moment to pause and sniff and touch all over his mate in a very animalistic manner, complete with growling "MINE", all of which complements his "animal" status nicely. She hits him in the face with a rock in an attempt to escape (good), but when he comes over looking all sad and bloody, she does another of her abrupt about-faces and starts hysterically apologizing and calling him "my love" again, which AGAIN may or may not be because he's in her brain.

 

So he's dragging her off through the tunnels, and she seems to be going of her own free will but might be hypnotized, and poor Raoul is charging around with a rifle looking for her, and the police are stumbling around in a throng somewhere behind him... it's a mess. While the police are panicking over the finding of the somewhat putrid corpses of the stagehand and his girlfriend, Raoul manages to corner the Phantom and Christine and demand her release. In a somewhat hilarious move, the Phantom decides they're going to fight this out mano-a-mano and takes off his cloak to stalk over to attack his rival, while the audience chokes on all the testosterone in the air. Unsurprisingly, he loses, because Raoul has a gun and simply shoots him in the shoulder... and is rewarded for his heroism by Christine screaming in horror and running to cry on the fallen Phantom. Impressively enough, after watching Christine and the Phantom whimper and pet one another for a moment or two, Raoul actually ends up helping them escape, presumably moved by his love for Christine and desire to see her happy, even if it ends up being with the dangerous rat-dude. It is the weirdest thing I have ever seen.

 

The final scene does involve a sacrifice on the Phantom's part, but it's in a completely different manner from Leroux's original story. He bundles Raoul and Christine into the boat and then shoves it off without getting in, prompting Christine to start screaming hysterically when she realizes that they're leaving him behind; it's unclear why he doesn't just go with them, though my working theories are that the boat will only carry two or that he was afraid of the mob continuing to give chase if he didn't distract them in a manful fashion. Raoul becomes almost the villain here, "kidnapping" a sobbing, wailing Christine by rowing her away from the Phantom no matter how much she begs him to go back; while the Phantom's sacrifice is noble in its way and it has to require a lot of fortitude for Raoul to keep rowing her to safety when she's screaming back for the other man, this is the ultimate and final undercutting of Christine's character. Far from being the ultimate decision-maker that she was in the novel, Christine here ends up completely powerless to affect the situation, making her a damsel in distress rather than a woman in her own right (for heaven's sake, she couldn't even have jumped out of the boat and swum a yard if she wanted to go back so badly?). Again, if we view most of Christine's decisions in the film as being influenced by the Phantom, there may or may not ever have been many autonomous choices for the poor woman.

 

For the Phantom's part, his sacrifice is not because he wants Christine to be happy with Raoul or because he has understood the error of his ways, but born out of simple pragmatism (i.e., the mob will kill Christine for being attached to him if he doesn't get her out of here). He fails to be redeemed, but like so many sympathetic Phantoms, he doesn't really require redemption; Argento has set him up as misunderstood rather than evil (somehow this is the intent anyway, even though he's severing peoples' spinal columns and whatnot), and so his ultimate sacrifice is tragic, but not really significant.

 

As with any good villain in an operatic sequence, however, it takes him a damned long time to die. Superhuman fortitude is apparently on his list of handy skills, as he manages to get shot twice, wrest a bayonet out of a soldier's hands and wreak havoc with it, then get shot at least four more times while causing much consternation among the gendarmes before the rat-catcher comes barreling in and stabs him in the gut. Of course, there's a sort of symbolic appropriateness about this - the rat-catcher is killing the king rat, as it were - and it's only heightened by the fact that the rat manages to kill the rat-catcher as well in a nice display of poetic justice. And even after all this physical abuse, he's still upright, calling to Christine from afar, until they manage to shoot him like ten more times and he falls into the water. I don't think Leroux ever envisioned this zaniness, but he would probably have approved of the social symbolism inherent in the rat killing the rat-catcher, at any rate.

 

The final tableau just prior to his death is rich in symbolism as well, with the Phantom watching Raoul row Christine away from him toward the shining white light of the upper world (that is, watching Raoul take her away to be happy where he cannot go, since he represents the darkness); the Phantom insists on keeping his face turned toward this light until he dies, which could be interpreted either as a longing for the life he cannot have or as a sort of redemption or peace at the very end of his life. The violin love theme is back, lovely as ever, and as Christine sobs the Phantom's ring slips off her finger and plunks into the water, lost forever, signifying the breaking of the bond between the two of them. At the same moment that she loses that tie to the Phantom, the white light of the world above comes up over her face, letting us know that she is passing out of the domain of darkness. The choral music that plays as the credits roll is, of course, a requiem, intended for the Phantom.

 

All of this really leaves us wondering why there's a mask on the cover of the DVD when there are no significant masks of any kind in the film, though. Damnation, I just had that problem with the last adult film. The mask is so iconic of the story that some marketing team probably felt that people would be confused and not see the film unless they had that visual cue to go on.

 

I was trying to figure out why all of this weirdness sounded vaguely familiar, and I finally realized that several elements are very reminiscent of the 1989 Wellen short story "The Opera of the Phantom".  That story featured an Erik who had a special rapport and relationship with the many rats of the opera house, who also developed strange, mystical powers in order to flummox and terrorize the humans in the company.  It's a big coincidence; I'm inclined to wonder if Argento drew some inspiration from that little-known short.

 

In the end, despite some serious wackiness and more plot holes than you could shake a stick at, I couldn't fail this film. In fact, based on the richness of the symbolism and the fact that Argento, for all this film's faults, is telling a compelling story with a very creative take on many of the elements from Leroux's original, I almost wanted to grade it higher. It's weird, yes - oh, god, is it weird - but it's a good kind of weird. A thinking person's weird. And if many elements of the original story are lost in this interpretation, others are explored in more depth than I've really seen and with more creativity. Considering Leroux's propensity for dangling plot threads and elements in his original novel, it's hard to completely knock Argento for putting the metaphors before the logic in some cases.

 

All content © 2007-2020 Anne Myers