The Phantom of the Cabaret (1989)

     directed by Henri Pachard

          starring Jamie Gillis, Bionica, and Rick Savage

The grade here is based on the plot of the film, sans all the sex, which is unsurprisingly pretty darn weak. However, there were some really interesting things to be learned from this adult adaptation of Leroux's tale.

 

The story is set in Paris, and we do have several shots of Paris streets to set up the story as we dive on in, following the (somewhat peripheral) adventures of Stogie, a wannabe writer who has come to France to get his creative juices flowing (man, everything sounds dirty when you're writing about an adult film). He's looking for Rick, whom he encountered once in a bar and who told him to look his cabaret up if he were ever in Paris. Stogie's intermittent voiceovers are actually quite earnest and believable, in an old-timey hardboiled detective story kind of a way. His role throughout the story is basically as the narrator and vehicle for plot exposition, which often sees him playing the part of a reporter, a choice that reminds one forcefully of the "reporting" style used by Leroux in his novel.

 

Things start to become interesting right off the bat with the first sex scene, which involves a stripper and Rick, who is both the owner of the cabaret and our Raoul-analogue for this story (odd as that may seem; give it time). The encounter is a result of the stripper coveting a fur coat that Rick has bought for Eve, the Christine character (another stripper at the club); Rick implies that she will be given the coat as a gift if she engages in sexual behavior with him. It's a flimsy excuse to spark a sex scene between the characters, but the dynamics of the situation are extremely interesting in that they are an update into modern terms of the average opera girl/patron relationship that was common (if somewhat shady) in the nineteenth century. Not that opera performers can be equated with strippers, per se, but the idea of a relationship wherein a performer trades sexual favors and company in exchange for gifts, money, or social status is applicable in both situations. Rick, as the representative of the upper class (or just the person with power over the other), has what is essentially a "patron" relationship with the performing girls, offering them gifts and favored treatment in return for sexual favors. In a modern context, strippers can easily be seen as effectively belonging to a lower social "caste", treated poorly by society at large and seldom considered suitable to advance to higher echelon company, much like performing girls would have been considered in the nineteenth century. While I doubt very much that Pachard was intentionally making a statement about class divides with this film, it is extremely interesting to see that the class divide of the original novel, and some of Leroux's ideas about the unfairness inherent in it, were so strong that they survived the translation to a modern context relatively intact.

 

Eve, whose name conjures up what are probably intentional connections to the concept of Original Sin, is the Christine character; as a worker at a rather shady establishment, she's hardly Leroux's ingenue, but rather a hard-working girl just like the rest of her fellow employees. The only difference is that she's the somewhat steady girlfriend of Rick, and since he's her steady "patron", she doesn't take on other intimate customers unless he suggests it. She's far from a Christ-like, saving figure; she's mistreated by Rick and sympathetic in her own way, but she's also abrasive and extremely obnoxious in her behavior toward the only person who is of a lower social "caste" than she is - the Phantom.

 

The Phantom (who is consistently introduced by music that is obviously scalped from Lloyd Webber's famous overture, bythe way, rearranged just enough to make it technically different while sounding extremely similar, but it's doubtful that Lloyd Webber would waste time and money suing a low-budget pornography studio) is far from the proud lord of the underground that he was in Leroux's original and the Lloyd Webber musical that this seems obviously based on; he is here the cabaret's janitor, a skulking figure that is a secret to no one and uniformly looked down upon by all. Leroux's original character was perforce of the lowest social status; that is, he had no social status at all, having been uniformly rejected by society because of his hideous appearance. Placing him as not only a janitor, but a janitor at a seedy cabaret where even the strippers (themselves part of the "lower class") treat him with contempt and derision, cements the Phantom as the lowest of the low, effectively rejected by society despite the fact that he is still allowed to live on its fringes in his janitorial capacity.

 

His background is largely unknown to the denizens of the cabaret, though there are rumors that he wears a mask over one side of his face (again, apparently influenced by Lloyd Webber's stage musical) because he was badly burned in a fire or altercation at some point in the past. The other, powerful ideas that attend the original Erik are totally absent - he is definitely no powerful ruler, has no supernatural connotations, and is not representative of any greater idea like sensuality or the dual roles of genius and instability, but his position as a representative of the lowest echelon of society is so well presented that his character is nevertheless intriguing to watch in order to see how those ideas are handled in this undeniably modern context.

 

Once all the characters have been introduced, there's a short digression to the side for Stogie and Missy, another stripper at the club, to go to a hotel and engage in some sexual play themselves. This interlude is notable only for what it's lacking: specifically, that since Stogie and Missy are both members of the same social "class", specifically the lower one, there is no power interplay between classes as there is in all the other encounters of the film. Reflecting this, the background music here is different from the standard boom-chicka-boom music used for the other encounters, being slower and gentler with use of horns instead of only the usual electronic instruments. It's a relatively "innocent", non-commercial encounter, as opposed to all of the cross-class encounters of the film, which without exception involve sexual trade of some kind.

 

Much to my delight, the Phantom's den turned out to be more reminiscent of a gentleman's sparse bachelor pad than a dank hole as later interpretations often tend to paint it. His obsession with Eve is a gentle and undemanding one, in keeping with the emasculation of his character; he worships her from afar, but never bothers her, aware that she views him as disgusting and beneath her. Interestingly, he plays music on a phonograph in front of her photograph and talks about how the music is the only thing that is a beautiful as she is; as in Leroux's novel, music is equated with transcendence, an escape from the misery of his physical shell (and in this case, the general misery of his entire existence, which has been heightened to place him in an extremity of pity and disenfranchisement). Despite being effectively filth on the social scale of worth, the Phantom retains a curious dignity as a gentleman; various details, such as the fact that he is a former violinist and that his disfigurement was caused by an attacker wielding acid, reminded me forcefully of Erique Claudin, Claude Rains' portrayal of the character from the 1943 film version.

 

Eve's relationship with the Phantom is basically nonexistent; there's no mentor/student relationship possible between an exotic dancer and the janitor that cleans up after the shows, but when they do interact Eve displays a combination of revulsion at his presumed ugliness (Gillis is no real prize, but he looks perfectly normal except for the mask) and curiosity to know what lies under the mask. This is intriguing because it's such an obvious presentation of the average modern woman's reaction to the idea of the Phantom; the idea of a mysterious masked man encourages any audience to be intrigued by the lure of the forbidden, exciting a desire to know that is part of the enduring popularity of the Phantom story almost a century after it was first written.

 

A new character, Olympia, is introduced halfway through the film. Olympia occupies a unique place in the social hierarchy in that she is the very upper crust of the lower class. Stogie describes her as a "graduate dirty old broad" and a "socialite slumming", suggesting that despite her fortune and supposed position in society, she is still stigmatized by an implied past in the same performing arts that the girls at the cabaret engage in. Olympia is constantly seeking to reaffirm her power over Rick, who represents the social class "above" her; generally she accomplishes this through Eve, either by taking advantage of her sexually, which implies that Rick cannot stop Olympia from tampering with his woman, or by dangling her own sexuality in front of him like a carrot in order to enjoy forcing him to jump through hoops for her, reconfirming that she does have influence over him (and, symbolically, over the social class that she still cannot aspire to despite her wealth). Olympia's social status as higher than the show girls but lower than the owners and operators of the establishment leads me to conclude that she is probably intended to correlate with Carlotta from the original novel (and, of course, Lloyd Webber's musical), especially as her use of sexuality as a device to control those above her correlates to Carlotta's use of her professional abilities to control the managers and patrons of the opera house. Olympia's power over Rick is entirely sexual, which is a direct analogue to the girls of the opera, whose only power over the rich patrons of the social elite, far above them in society, lay in their sexuality.

 

A few other clues are scattered about as to source influences; notes and roses being left around, for example, are probably indicative of the heavy influence of Lloyd Webber's stage musical, which has already lent quite a lot of source material to the formation of this film. The Phantom's mask is crude black leather and reminds me of the mask worn by Herbert Lom's Phantom in the 1962 film, but there are no other indicators of influence from that quarter, and it seems likely that the leather mask is merely an attempt to "sexify" the mask and give it a more exotic appearance.

 

Rick is clearly set up as a bad guy in this film, at odds with the original Raoul's heroic role; this seems to be a direct result of the stridently drawn class lines, which present the lower class as much more sympathetic than the manipulative, self-involved upper class. Intriguingly, this is not too far off from some of the subtle themes at work in Leroux's original novel. I think the ideas survive the translation so well as a result of Pachard's intended audience; in order to appeal to an audience of average joes, Pachard is demonizing an "upper class" that the average viewer may feel disenfranchised by, helping them to more closely identify with the characters and making the fantasy of the film more immersive.

 

It's a rather bizarre plot contrivance that gets us there - Olympia, toying with a salivating Rick, refuses to give him her sexual favors unless he provides her some proof that he really wants them (in other words, unless he confirms her power over him), specifically requesting that he hand Eve over to the Phantom for intercourse - but Eve and the Phantom finally have their encounter. The way that Rick forces her into it is peculiarly similar to Christine's decision to stay with Erik in Leroux's original novel; he tells her that she must do it as "a supreme act of love", a way to prove that she really loves him, so Eve offers herself to the Phantom for Rick's love in the same way that Christine remains with Erik in order to save Raoul's life. Of course, Rick is a horrific asshole here, unlike Raoul, but Eve's sacrifice is nevertheless just as valid because she loves him. The Phantom (whose name is Christopher in this version, by the way, another hint that it was largely based upon Lloyd Webber's musical, in which the Phantom is never named) is pretty gentlemanly about her proposition, and unmasks for her prior to any physical shenanigans, stating that he wants her to know him as he is before she engages in anything; the desire to be loved for himself is concomitant with Erik's heartfelt desire for the same in Leroux's original novel.

 

Then, of course, silliness. Christopher unmasks and we get to see his deformity. Or, at least, we can try. It's... wait... I think... aha! If you squint a lot at this one spot on his cheek, you can see a little beveling of the skin. And that's it. It's so slight a deformity that it's extremely difficult to even SEE, much less panic over. I was all ready to get into a discussion about hypersensitive definitions of beauty, until Eve freaked out and said that she couldn't stand to look at him and continued to talk about how hideous he was until he put the mask back on, shamed. The characters all continue to behave as if he's unspeakably ugly for the rest of the film.

 

Pachard is, effectively, trying to have his cake and eat it, too; he wants to have the ugliness be a serious factor affecting the characters' relationships (especially in an adult film, where having one character be disfigured in some way might appeal to specialty audiences), but he knows better than to make it actually seriously ugly for fear of turning off his viewers, so he is forced to compromise by watering down the deformity but not the characters' reactions to it. Tellingly, Eve makes him put the mask back on but engages him in sexual activity anyway once that's accomplished; she is representing our usual reaction to the Phantom, once again. It's not the hideous face that we love, as an audience, but the mask and the mystery attendant on it. The modern audience wants to pity the character and enjoy having sympathy for him, but not actually have to suffer through the ugliness that spurs it. We want the emotional catharsis without the ugliness along with it, and Pachard supplies that here.

 

Eve's encounter with the Phantom is characterized as the first encounter she's had in which she has all the control; again, since the Phantom is the very lowest of the low when it comes to social class, Eve is discovering the sudden empowerment of being, for once, in the superior social position. She takes as much advantage of it as possible, maneuvering the Phantom into plenty of degrading acts that he doesn't seem to want to engage in before giving him what he wants, but as he's a very downtrodden character, he accepts all this without protest.

 

The film ends here. This movie was released as a two-part production, and Part II is an entirely separate volume. The shakiness of the plot leaves little to recommend this from a story standpoint, and if we're being honest, the story really isn't the purpose of this film. It is, after all, "adult entertainment", and it's intended for titillation, not profundity or edification. However, the complexity of the power struggles and class boundaries explored, even if they are presented without the conscious knowledge of the filmmakers, elevate the piece enough that I cannot give it a failing grade. The lack of real attempts at plotting and development might, in fact, be what allows those social lines to appear with such impressive clarity, especially in the accidental examination of power dynamics within the world of stripping and the abuses managers put their performers through.

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