Of all the movies in Dario Argento's filmography, "The Phantom of the Opera" seems to be the one that consistently comes in for the most trenchant criticism, indeed, outright derision! One or two of his films have had their detractors in the past ("Phenomena" and "Inferno" come to mind), but they've also attracted a loyal coterie of fans who are quite unashamed to declare them masterpieces. "Phantom" though, has come to be seen as being almost emblematic of Argento's supposed "decline" during the nineties, with the film being touted as the absolute nadir of his career. Well, forget all that: Argento's "Phantom" is a great movie! OK, It's not a groundbreaking piece of work like some of those produced by the Italian maestro during the seventies (eg:"Profondo Rosso", "Suspiria"), but the verve and originality of it -- and the gusto with which Argento renders his own particular version of the Gaston Leroux story -- makes sure of it finding a place very high up on my list of favourite Argento movies.
Leroux developed the idea for the novel after being told about a maze of passageways and chambers beneath the Paris Opera House. Although much else has been changed, this idea is central to Argento's reinterpretation of the story. We are told at one point in the narrative that there are four basement levels beneath the Opera House: the lowest level being the dark, rat-infested catacombs where, at the beginning of the film, a baby is abandoned but rescued and raised by the rodent inhabitants. This fantastical, fairy tale opening -- complete with a narration straight out of a children's storybook -- immediately signposts the fact that we are in for a radically different experience from what we're used to from an Argento film.
The different levels beneath the Opera House seem to have multiple symbolic meanings that inform and enrich each other in interesting ways: the catacombs where the Phantom was raised, symbolise the isolation and alienation of those who find themselves excluded from society (in the Phantom's case he was abandoned and neglected as a child); simultaneously though, the Phantom and his subterranean realm are presented as representing a kind of purity of 'spirit', while the upper levels of the Opera House are shown to be increasingly corrupt and hypocritical by Argento's depiction of the shady politics and power struggles in the day-to-day running of the place. The Opera House's polite sophistication is seen to mask a pedophile ring, organised by the Opera Director and his cronies, who pray on the young ballerinas that train there. The Phantom, on this interpretation, is a kind of avenging angel who stands up for innocence and punishes greed and inequity.
These public dramas and oppositions are also played out in the private lives of the main characters in the film. The main focus of the story is the burgeoning romance between Christina Daee (Asia Argento) -- understudy to the arrogant and untalented Carlotta -- and the Phantom (Julian Sands), who falls in love with her when he hears Christina singing to herself while he lurks in the shadows of the auditorium. Although surrounded by damp and darkness in his underground hide-out, the Phantom still has a fascination and appreciation for beauty, and festoons his lair with props, art and furnishings taken from the Opera House. He falls in love with the beauty of Christina's voice and sets about engineering her rise to prominence and her eventual replacement of Carlotta as the Paris Opera's star attraction.
The metaphor of the Opera house and it's hidden levels is put to use again here: Christina is torn between her life among the glitterati (and the romantic but conventional upper-levels), and the appeal of her "dark side" (in other words: her sexuality). The theme is crystallised in the main plot strand which sees Christina unable to decide between the gentle wooing of the aristocratic Baron Raoul De Chagny (Andrea Di Stefano), who represents order and conventionality; and the dark, passionate charms of the Phantom. The conclusion of the film sees Christina battling with her own conflicting needs and desires, alternatively repulsed by the Phantom's world (especially by his rather intimate relationship with his beloved rats!) but unable or unwilling to reject it completely.
Argento has created a powerful and rich tapestry with "The Phantom of the Opera"; stylistically the film reflects the thematic concerns of the script: torn as it is between the depiction of fairy tale innocence and the macabre and gruesome. The opulent set design and gorgeous cinematography of Ronnie Taylor (who also worked on 1987's "Opera") lends an authentic period feel to the movie but the director also isn't afraid to shoot outlandish fantasy sequences, shot with "MTV" style photography that emphasis the fact that this is no traditional interpretation of the story. The tone of the film alternates between the aforementioned children's story feel (with its electronic rats and the pantomime comedy of the house rat-catcher Ignace and his hapless assistant) and the full-on gothic-horror mix of sexuality and death -- both of which Argento isn't afraid to portray fairly explicitly. This has led some to consider the film a bit of a mess and certainly the comedy element turns a lot of people off -- but to me it works perfectly, and sums up Argento's theme of the conflict between human desires.
At the end of the day, it seems fundamentally a good thing to me, that a director such as Dario Argento should still be trying new things at a stage in his career where he could so easily rest on his laurels. This is indeed very different from any other Argento film, but that doesn't make it bad and its reputation is unfortunate. If an unknown director had produced this piece of work I doubt it would have received quite the bad press that it has, but I feel confident that in the future "Phantom of the Opera" will be revaluated and will begin to be seen as a one of Argento's more interesting 90's movies rather than his most embarrassing.
The Italian region 2 PAL DVD from Medusa furnishes the film with a gorgeous anamorphic transfer and the choice of Italian or English 5.1 audio and removable English subtitles. The extras sound rather impressive on the cover but actually don't amount to that much. What looks to be a full "making of" documentary turns out to be just a five minute promotional feature (probably for Italian television). The stars of the movie give brief sound bite interviews, but there are no English subtitles for this segment. Beside the usual biographical texts (all in Italian of course) the most interesting extra is what looks like raw video footage shot behind the scenes and on the set of the movie. Here we get to see Argento at work. Interestingly, he seems to direct in both Italian and fluent English and seems very hands on -- flitting about the set like some impish magician.
As you can probably tell I'm a big advocate of this movie! View it with an open mind and you could be in for a surprise.