Perhaps I’m becoming silent-filmed out, but I just can’t do Metropolis yet. At least not all 148 minutes of the restored version on Netflix, so I decided to jump ahead to Phantom of the Opera.
Basic premise: rising opera star Christine gets some training and even a little help eliminating her competition from the Phantom, whom initially she only hears as a dreamy voice outside her room. At first, she seems just fine accepting this leg-up and is even willing to give up her beau, Raoul, for it. However, once taken captive by the Phantom and discovering that though he may have the musical talents of an angel, he has a hideously deformed face and a disposition to match it (of course they must match), then Christine suddenly decides Raoul
‘s moustache ain’t so bad after all and that she’s a-okay with giving up her career for marriage as long as Raoul can get her the hell away from the creepo who haunts the lower levels of the opera house.
During the 90s, going to see Phantom was a big romantic thing for couples to do, a legitimizing ritual. I don’t know if it still is. I never went, never wanted to, and so never really knew much about the story. I assumed it was a romance and that the love interest was the Phantom, he of the dreamy voice and unfortunate face. Sure, he was a bit stalkery, but when the stalker is attractive, then, according to Hollywood, stalking becomes romantic. Perhaps I got the impression that the Phantom was simply another version of this figure from images like this:
I mean this guy you can deal with, right? Just keep to his left, and things will be FINE. But Lon Chaney in all his hideousness is another matter (see the featured image), and his choice of mask decidedly less sexy.
Another surprise: a Poe reference. In the middle of the film, a title card lets us know that every year Paris has a big masquerade party in which all the classes (“castes”) mingle indiscriminately (Bahktin’s carnivalesque, anyone?). The Phantom, aware that Christine has betrayed her promise to never again see her former lover, shows up dressed in a skeleton mask and wearing some feathery red outfit. The scene is an obvious reference to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and apparently the reference goes back to the original 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux.
But I don’t quite get the reference. In “Masque,” the Red Death shows up because a bunch of rich jerks hide themselves in a castle and party while outside the poor die of the plague. To take revenge on the unfeeling upper classes, the disease appears at the party in human form, then disappears when accosted, leaving behind only a pile of clothes (in a sort of Obi-Wan-struck-down-by-Vader-kind-of-moment). Poe’s moral: even the rich cannot cheat death, especially when they’re such dicks about it.
There’s some sort of class critique going on in Phantom, fleshed out more in the novel than this adaptation, I’m sure. After all, the setting itself–a fancy opera house built above “medieval torture chambers” and “hidden dungeons, long forgotten”– literalizes the view that the luxuries of the rich always rest upon the sufferings of the less fortunate. And the Phantom even makes this point directly; dressed as the Red Death, he says ominously, “Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men–thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment.” But the party at which he appears in Phantom is of mixed class. Maybe the point is to point out that the lower classes are now participating in their own exploitation? But no–because no one gets punished at all except for Christine and her lover (and a nice helpful detective named Ledoux), and their suffering is only temporary. The moralistic punishment inflicted by Poe’s Red Death is replaced by the Phantom’s own selfish motives and the potential for any larger political/ethical statement eliminated.
A few more quick observations:
1) While she is prisoner, the Phantom guarantees Christine her safety as long as she does not touch his mask. The first thing Christine does, of course, is go for it. What I find interesting about the unmasking scene is that we get to see the Phantom’s monstrous face before Christine does. Then, when he turns, see her reaction to him. I’m not sure what to make of this except that it seems to me to place us in a point of view separate from both Christine and the Phantom. I thought this might mean that our sympathies are supposed to be divided, but the film does not allow us to sympathize much with this Phantom.
3) The Phantom of the Opera has convinced me that ballerinas are terrifying, even un-Whedonized ones.