The Phantom of the Opera
Many film critics – and I have been among them – proudly align themselves with the cause of popular culture. This means that they passionately leap to the defence of trashy comedies, outrageous melodramas or sensational action-horror exercises. Usually implicit in such a stance is a profound identification with the mass audience of “the people” and their immediate, unpretentious taste for what is visceral and emotive.
Such critics sitting among the target audience of Joel Schumacher’s film version of The Phantom of the Opera run the risk of having to face an uncomfortable truth. The so-called pop culture that critics tend to love is, finally, a rather intellectual, avant-garde, even sometimes elitist construction – and, personally, I have very lttle trouble with that. Real popular culture, however, is the middlebrow œuvre of Andrew Lloyd Webber – and it is a very, very bad thing indeed.
Since the early teenage experience of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (written in the late 1960s), I have miraculously managed to avoid almost all contact with Webber’s peculiar brand of pop artistry. This incarnation of his 1986 The Phantom of the Opera caught up with me like a slap in the face. I have never felt so utterly alienated from the mass of average moviegoers as during this endless, lifeless epic.
At least it gave me the impetus to discover Gaston Leroux’s original novel. Webber’s version is merely one in a long line of transformations of the basic plot material. (Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise  remains, for me, unassailably the best.) The kernel forever remains in place: the Phantom (Gerard Butler) is a disfigured composer – regularly described as “a genius”, although it is hard to appreciate why – who haunts the owners and staff of an opera house. His frustrated passion fixes on the ingénue Christine (Emmy Rossum), who swiftly displaces the earthy diva Carlotta (an amusing Minnie Driver) from front and centre of the stage.
Anyone who takes on this story has rich material to work with, including the design-concept of the Phantom’s subterranean, seemingly infinite lair, and a range of diverse characters – including, here, the benevolent, all-knowing Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) and Christine’s wholesome beau, Raoul (Patrick Wilson) – who have various, starkly different investments in the Phantom’s fate.
But do the theatrical productions of Webber’s Phantom maintain the same turgid rhythm as this movie? A slowly circling camera tracks actors who might as well be walking underwater, singing songs that grind on implacably. This triple layering of lethargy is truly unbearable, and makes the film feel like a five-hour stretch.
Even when songs in musicals halt the storyline, they usually open up an expansive lyrical parenthesis for certain moods or emotions to be amplified and explored. In this Phantom, however, the mood is always the same mushy, murky, faux-baroque fantasy – and one song is interchangeable with the next. For Schumacher, this film marks a terrible decline since the lean, earthy, inventive days of Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill (1979) – and that‘s one piece of pop culture I do strongly advise you to catch.
As a screen musical, The Phantom of the Opera is beset by the Broadway-inflicted tendency also evident in the weird film version of Chicago (2002). Every number has to be not only spectacular and show-stopping, but also, somehow, vaguely ennobling – even when the subject of the song is vulgar, perverse or grotesque.
Most of the scenes involving the Phantom himself fall into this less-than-noble category. This so-called “Angel of Music” is a curious figure and, symbolically, his relationship with Christine has a strongly incestuous undertone. This is, indeed, the unsubtle subtext of horror master Dario Argento’s adaptation of Leroux’s novel in Il Fantasma dell’Opera (1998). That director intensely identified with the “unrecognised genius” of the Phantom, and cast his famous daughter, Asia Argento, as the leading lady.
The Schumacher/Webber version, however, seemingly has no clue as to how to handle this intriguing psychosexual hint, and proceeds in a state of implacable denial. How else to explain the fact that Christine – after having almost offered her body up to this Phantom who croons “Touch me, trust me” – later rushes happily forth into a crypt to embrace this same man whom she now believes to be the spirit of her father?
Nor does this film have any idea what to with the social and historical dimensions of the tale. During the worst song sequence, “Masquerade”, Schumacher briefly mimics James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) - cutting away from the prim bourgeoisie with their elegant masks to the lusty proletariat in the basement enjoying a good, old knees-up.
But no further trace of the real world intrudes, as this tragic romance crawls to its morose, bathetic conclusion.
© Adrian Martin December 2004