First The Phantom of the Opera starring the delicious Gerard Butler. I have been a Phantom fan since seventh grade, when I was introduced to the soundtrack by acquana back in the middle-school days in Texas. Good times. Anyone who has known me for more than a month and/or who has read my January 2nd, '05, entry on beast complex will not be surprised to learn that I immediately fell for the Phantom and just as quickly developed a strong distaste for Raoul. (I usually speak his name as if vomiting. It's very effective aurally, though not so much in type.) I was quite obsessed, to the point that I once staged the musical with dolls, and I once sang Christine's part to the song "The Phantom of the Opera" while my middle-school boyfriend ran around in a cape and mask, in front of the whole school. All this background is to point out my prejudice, as I've been taught, so that I can speak as opinionatedly as I like for the rest of the commentary.
I loved the film, saw it several times in the theater. The spectacle is truly astounding. I was already overexcited during the tame beginning, when le Vicomte de Chagny is bidding at the public auction. But once the chandelier is lit, Erik's (the Phantom's) theme begins to play, and The Opera Populaire is transformed into its former glory, I was positively giddy. Set, costumes, filming technique, all came together stunningly to make a great epic of the story of the inmates of the opera house. All the action takes place in, on, and below one building, yet the film seems to have an epic scope. The backstage and catwalk areas transform to stages of their own. There seems a vast distance between the moonlit snow on the roof and the candlelit darkness of the lake below, to mirror the great distance between the worlds of Christine's two lovers. "Masquerade" is fittingly spectacular. But it is the details that make the film. Erik's paper dolls and toy stage grant a pitiful charm to his obsession and scheming. The growing darkness, as light after light extinguishes after Christine's first vocal performance, works with the slow, crescendoing drum roll to herald the Phantom's first aria.
Christine is perfect -- haunting, ethereal, with a voice like crystal. One wishes sometimes that she'd had another take to stick a wavering note, but such thoughts are fleeting. Raoul is suitably dashing and textbook handsome. His is the most schooled voice in the film. This Raoul is slightly more sympathetic than in the stage musical, less Mighty Mouse gusto and more attentive gentlemanliness. But he is still Raoul, and I still despise him for his willful closed-mindedness in refusing first to believe the Phantom exists and then to see any good in him. Madame Giry is a fascinating mixture of prim ballet instructress and keeper of dark secrets. Her mellifluous French accent (spoken, not sung), the best in the film, superbly gives us Erik's moving backstory.
And then there's Erik himself, the Phantom. One could not ask for a better-looking, better-acted Phantom. I'd heard there was some criticism of the "GQ Phantom" when the film first was showing. I've done no research on the fact, but I would bet most if not all of this criticism came from men. Men don't understand beast complex, and they certainly don't want to admit that the Phantom is sexy. They can be very Raoul-like in their refusal to acknowledge that a woman may be attracted to a dark, sinister man. But I digress. Mr. Butler's sensual features and great physique, which looks incredible in the Phantom's pristine wardrobe, make his Phantom a consummate seducer. His oh-so-perfect face on the one side contrasted with the "distorted, deformed" other side serves only to enhance his mystery and otherworldliness.
But the Phantom is so much more than a pretty (half-) face, and Mr. Butler delivers. This Phantom has a commanding presence at the masquerade (though his Red Death costume is the most disappointing in the film). He is a sorcerer mesmerizing Christine and the audience during "Music of the Night." He's a suave, evil genius plotting Carlotta's downfall and Christine's stardom. But this Phantom steals my breath with his vulnerability. He can command and hypnotize Christine, wielding all his power; but when she touches him, he is powerless. When Christine first touches Erik of her own volition, while he is at his organ in his lair below, his aching joy floods his face. Even when he is threatening her as Red Death at the masquerade, she has only to come to him willingly, and he is disarmed, his response evident even behind his mask and makeup.
It is a shame that Gerard Butler cannot sing, but an even greater shame that the filmmakers did nothing about it. Such a beautiful, passionate, convincing Phantom opens his mouth and sounds amateur, like a night at a karaoke bar. I was thrilled by the lead-up to his first aria (as I mentioned four paragraphs earlier) but infinitely disappointed with its commencement. This is no voice of an angel or even of an opera ghost. I've heard directors or some such people say they were trying for an untamed, unconventional quality to the Phantom's voice. I say one should not scrimp on the most important quality of the most important character in the film. Erik is a musical genius who can't stand Carlotta because her voice, trained though it is, hurts his artistic sensibilities. He teaches Christine and "make[s] [her] song take wing." Such a superhuman requires a superhuman voice. (And it isn't that the film disagrees with hiring singing voices. Minnie Driver didn't do Carlotta's singing, though her acting is fine, and the part was none the worse.)
My one other significant criticism of the film is the conclusion of Raoul and the Phantom's sword fight. I have no problem with the idea of a sword fight, though it is not in the musical. I was rather charmed by this film's take, that Erik's powers are not supernatural (there is no magical lasso) but technical and mechanical. He is an architectural genius who makes a door of Christine's dressing-room mirror and passages within the walls. This take is a nice hat tip to the original Leroux novel. What bothers me is not the sword fight; it is that Raoul wins.
The parallel scene from the stage musical has the Phantom shooting fire out of a skull at Raoul, whom Christine tries desperately to drag away from peril. Her pleas convince Raoul to flee and save him from Erik's wrath. In this film, just the opposite happens. The Phantom's trickery and psychological fighting style intimidate Raoul at first, but it ends with Raoul's sword at Erik's throat and Christine's saying, "No, Raoul, not like this." What? I was flabbergasted when first I saw it. I'm not (much of) one for conspiracy theories, but I have wondered seriously if there isn't some covert plot to try to redeem Raoul and to undermine my position that Raoul is a distant second, that he can never measure up to the Phantom. The Phantom is unquestionably cooler than Raoul. Such a legendary being as he, who writes an opera in six (or three) months, who once built a maze of mirrors for a Persian princess, who kills the strong Joseph Buquet with only a rope, would never be bested at swords by a spoiled rich boy like this vicomte.
(I haven't yet mentioned the occasional line changes between the stage musical and the film version, mostly because the majority of these changes are minor and, to my view anyway, entirely inconsequential: "It's really not amusing. He's abusing our position" becomes "It's nothing short of shocking. He is mocking our position," for instance. With the moving of the falling chandelier to Act II, the chandelier-referencing lines in "Masquerade" are tweaked. But one line change in which I see clear motive to redeem Raoul's character is his first sung sequence, during "Think of Me." His original line on seeing Christine on stage is "What a change! You're really not a bit the gawkish girl that once you were." His new line in the film is "Long ago, it seems so long ago. How young and innocent we were!" With this line change, the film makers cast Raoul as sentimental rather than superficial, as his original line would indicate. There may be something to my conspiracy-to-redeem-Raoul theory here.)
But Christine recognizes the Phantom's greatness, though Raoul and others may not. Yes, with her love she teaches him that love is selfless so that he lets go her and Raoul, but that isn't what I mean. I mean that in the end, she is sorry to go. One may, if one wishes, attribute her tears on giving back the ring to her pity for Erik's sad fate and not to her own pain. But what can one do with her final, longing look back over her shoulder as she and Raoul sail away? Raoul, prince of the mundane (as I have dubbed him), never once looks back. He is already trying to forget the Phantom, as such a being shakes the foundations of his narrow worldview. He will not acknowledge Erik. But Christine is not looking ahead at the life that lies before her, the prospect of a blissful marriage and of becoming Contess de Chagny. (Neither does the audience. The only thing we know about her life with Raoul is that she predeceases him.) She is looking back at what she is leaving behind, the great and tragic Phantom of the Opera.
I know I said "films," but that was lengthy enough for one post. I'll try to get to the others later, as I know my opinion is so important to my readers.