Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) Directed by Brian De Palma

A deranged hybridization of gothic literature and Mephistophelian tragedy on high doses of cocaine. An audiovisual mutant that could only have been spawned in the sociocultural irrationality of the 1970s. After terrifying us with the formal frenzy of 1972’s Sisters, Hitchcock’s number one fan director returns with an idiosyncratic and scandalous product; the kind of film that would not define his career, let alone his eclectic style, but would elevate him as an adventurous filmmaker. The insubordinate artistry of Phantom of the Paradise is thought-provoking, befuddling and visionary, a transgressive piece of postmodern art that can be scoffed at for its kitsch proclivities and disruptive enthusiasm for camp aesthetics, some might say its subversive beauty is apocryphal and its bombastic entertainment pretentious. Paradoxically, in theory, I agree with those statements to some extent. While it is true that the film foolishly plays at being a satirical caricature of music industry bureaucracy, it is also true that it is narratively incoherent and gratuitously absurd, yet its paradoxical wit refutes its detractors. The story, directed and written by Brian De Palma based on the classic myth of gothic romance, The Phantom of the Opera, and the folkloric horror of Faust, mingles theatricality and literature in a pompous cinematic scenario, where over-the-top music is interchangeable with euphoric imagery. Loosely, the bizarre storytelling reminiscent of classical literature also echoes the philosophical tragic themes of Oscar Wilde’s works, it is admittedly a dense mélange. Enjoying its bombastic eccentricity as a festive and heterodox musical can be challenging; I must admit, perhaps it requires a hyperbolic suspension of disbelief to feel part of this carousel of audiovisual excess. However, once inside this extravaganza it’s hard to get out whether you like it or not, it’s magnetic.

William Finley with his lanky, nerdy appearance fantastically plays our beloved tragic anti-hero, the talented composer Winslow Leach. He is too naive and too idealistic to believe in the malevolence that dominates the music industry. The famous music magnate, the corrupt and lecherous Swan, played by Paul Williams, astonished by Winslow’s magnificent music decides with Machiavellian trickery to purloin Winslow’s masterpiece and use it as the theme music for the inauguration of his new operatic show. Once Winslow accepts the fact that he has been tricked by this treacherous character, he decides to put all his efforts into recovering his magnum opus. In the process, he has a ghastly accident that leaves him with half of his face disfigured and without a voice. Now without his innocence, and without his idealistic grace, he is left with only a relentless desire for vengeance and an irrepressible rage that will be consummated by ruining the perfidious Swan’s innovative show. The plot impressionistically conjures more the mood of Phantom of the Opera than Faust, yet much of the meandering narrative is guided by the latter. Winslow is the quintessential tragic character, his romance truncated by his nemesis, his passion destroyed, and his pride crushed, and to top it all off he makes a pact with the devil, with Swan. The blood with which Winslow signs a musical contract with this cruel character leads him to be bound in life and death to an ominously decadent destiny.

The electrifying music with the rock n roll flair that constantly drives this comedic satire forthrightly declares itself to be a musical. Nevertheless, Phantom of the Paradise is more than a musical. Its frontal critique of the nightmarish bureaucratic modus operandi of the elite music studios doesn’t simply stay within the musical spectrum. Brian De Palma is too sophisticated in film erudition to just venture into the realm of acerbic commentary against the music industry, in fact I think that’s only on the surface, but the real critique is in its cinematic depth. Whenever I see this film, it is clear to me that it is unfolding a provocative and surreptitious critical analogy. The severity, and equally the hilarity, with which it depicts a Kafkaesque and tenebrous corporate world, a quasi-biblical battle that seems to have been narrated since immemorial epochs, the dispute in creative power between producer and author; is nothing less than an apologia for auteur theory, instrumentalizing comedy as a burlesque but conscientious device to transfer the academic conception of auteurism into practical domain, a richly cinematographic one. It is refreshing to see how one of the most discussed concerns of film scholars is materialized in an acid journey that does nothing more than prove, at least hypothetically, that the author is a kind of omnipotent being and the ultimate creator when it comes to the creative process of a film. Arguably, this is one of the snarkiest critiques on the medium, it strikes two blows in one, that of the music industry and that of cinema. The best and worst of both worlds. De Palma makes a mighty catharsis and simultaneously proclaims himself a staunch defender of cinematic auteurism. Curiously, though not by mere coincidence, in the 70’s the new rebels of modern cinema advocated the preeminence of the filmmaker as the ultimate creative engine in the industry and minimized the rapacious producers. De Palma decidedly joins them with this rhythmic critical exploration of that legendary battle and symbolic debate.

Among all its absorbing structural components, this last one I mentioned is probably my favorite. Although there are many others that are strikingly protruding in the kitschy magnificence of this rock opera. One of them is the grotesque amount of humor in a phantasmagoric atmosphere that assaults the norms of a physical reality. Elementally, the horror is more metaphysical than the opposite of it, the comedy on the other hand is invasively palpable, conspicuous and irreverent. This dynamic that goes from elegant and tasteful to crude and bad taste, creates a very entertaining vicious cycle, where we watch every absurdity with the same silly principles of the characters. Each character is funnier than the other, the movie surpasses itself with a high degree of gross-out absurdity. But no character in the plot is as droll and fabulous as Beef, played superbly by Gerrit Graham, who exhibits a buoyant queer revelry and an uninhibited melodramatic persona that invigorates the film’s aesthetic sensibilities with an unprecedentedly infectious bliss. Although unabashed comedy commands nearly every minute of the film, the romance is perennially pervasive, thanks to Winslow’s darkly tragic figure. Jessica Harper’s splendid performance as the sweet and ambitious Phoenix also helps to accentuate the gloomy ethos of the evocative sentimentality.

It’s a great film, and the grandiloquent music that permeates every frame of this picturesque story composed by Paul Williams is exhilarating. The unbridled pace of De Palma’s camera and Paul Hirsch’s avant-garde editing are a brawny audiovisual stimulant that never ceases to astound me. Not everything in voyeuristic filmmaking has to be tense and visceral; it can also be exquisitely illogical, jubilant and melodious. An amorphous expressionist entertainment, bonkers and impassioned, neither of these dull. The iconic voyeurism that distinguishes De Palma’s cinema here does not exist with the luscious suspense and Hitchcockian tinges that vibrate and flow in pure terror, here everything is more theatrical and hyperbolic. There is an unapologetic delight in witnessing the musical tragedy of these doomed characters that I find wickedly mesmerizing, an irresistible and luridly vicious schadenfreude.


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