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Standard story of the Phantom does have one major variation - The phantom is not a disfigured individual, but rather is an unwashed orphan abandoned in the sewers under the Paris Opera & raised by rats. The Phantom invokes death upon anyone who dares harm his beloved rats. In fact, The Phantom's nemesis is the chief exterminator who develops a rat-catching machine. Written by
John Sacksteder <email@example.com>
'The Phantom of the Opera' is one of those books that is impossible to film. part of this is to do with the grandeur of the set-pieces - in one scene, a massive chandelier is dropped on an opera audience; the book's setting, the Paris Opera House, is full of completely realised floors and basements, with a near-magical world of tarns and rocks as its substructure. That Dario Argento, working on a relatively low Euro-budget, cannot approach the novel's visual audacity, is not his fault, as his attempt is always inventive and entertaining.
A more difficult problem lies in the story's magic, in Erik's musical genius, and his bestowing on Christianne a voice of unearthly beauty - this can be easily imagined when reading, but is impossible to realise on screen
one good opera voice is as good as another, not helped here by having to
sing what sound like hyper-ventilating scales; while the Phantom's organ-musings are more reminiscent of Sesame Street's The Count than tragic Baroque strains.
The most serious gap between book and film could have been averted by Argento. The book is called the 'Phantom' of the Opera, and although the anti-hero is revealed to be all too human, the first half compellingly records the subversive effects of this ghost, his inexplicable immateriality and omniscience. As the book goes on, the spirit becomes a body, and what was horrible becomes understandable, even sympathetic. Julian Sands is a body from the off, even given a bizarre back-story involving rats, and is thus robbed of his power, just as the narrative is denied its power to chill. There is no transformation, no sense of the body becoming a body, or conversely, no sense of the magic inherent in the real.
I say this could have been averted by Argento. The fact that it wasn't is surely a deliberate directorial choice. Because this is a very strange version of Leroux's tale, rescuing it from the mawkishness it has drowned in since a certain musical. Although constantly alluding to his previous work, especially 'Suspiria' (the ballet girls, the chases, the gynaecological interiors), the film is rarely scary, as if Argento is deliberately working against horror. Just as the film is at its darkest and most gory, Argento deflates the horror with his recourse to pantomime, Grand Guignol, farce, grotesquerie; alternating, as in a Shakespeare play, the high-flown love story with earthier nonsense. The rats bare more than a close resemblance to Roland, and yet, with gleeful viciousness, feed on the rat-trapped hand of a yokel ratcatcher.
Argento is attuned to the political ironies of Leroux's text. The film never leaves the world of the Opera, and still offers a rich, comic microcosm of contemporary French society, including Degas repeatedly sketching the little girls, and Verlaine and RImbaud hilariously brawling at a sauna-orgy. More seriously, the chasing of a gluttonous servant-girl by the Phantom is mirrored by the much more disturbing chase of a young ballerina by a paedophile bourgeois.
The Opera was built as the supreme edifice of bourgeois France, a monumental erection to vulgar taste, which the affronted Italian director mockingly exposes; it was a demonstration of prosperity, pretension, but above all positivism, the progress of science, the idea that the world could be empirically known. Like all great Gothic novels, this modern hubris is in conflict with lingering residues of the past, a material building haunted by phantoms, its very materiality (the chandelier scene) vulnerable, the modern architecture on a prehistoric substructure, like a palimpsest, home to a man raised and pleasured by rats, an affront to contemporary Darwinism.
This breadth was taken further by Leroux into the realm of the metaphysical, avoided by the strictly somatic Argento, although the opening scenes brilliantly play with the idea of absence and presence that form the thematic basis of the book. This is by no means vintage Argento, but his use of interiors and light and shade remain quite inspiring, and there is a hilarious scene involving the ratcatcher and the fate of his dwarf assistant.
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