First off, this is not a film review. If it were, I’d write about the performances, production design, music and all all the other factors that make or break a movie. Also, I’ve met the director and co-screenwriter, Joel Schumacher, who is every bit as nice as his reputation. So I don’t want it to be weird next time I say hello to him at some event. Rather, I just want to point out some story issues that stuck out to me — things I’d want to tackle if I’d gotten the script before it went into production.
I saw Phantom of the Opera last night. This was my first exposure to it — I never saw the stage musical, nor read the book. I can say I’m glad I saw it. There were things that really worked, and things that didn’t. What was interesting, and frustrating, is that a lot of the film’s biggest issues were on the page.
Be advised that everything from this point forward is full of spoilers.
Phantom is essentially a love triangle. You have Christine, the gifted chorus girl. Raoul, the unaccountably hot viscount. And The Phantom, a deformed genius who lurks around the Paris opera house where the story is set.
Christine is an orphan, natch, who was raised by Madame Giry in the opera dormitory. Before he died, Christine’s father promised an Angel of Music would watch over her. And in fact, that’s what the Phantom has been doing. He’s the voice in the darkness who’s been giving her singing lessons. So far, it feels like Beauty and the Beast.
Here’s where the movie gets into some very un-Disney territory. The Phantom has been essentially a surrogate father to this girl, and in fact pretends to be the spirit of her father at times — and yet he wants to marry her and, well, ravage her. Don’t get me wrong: I love that it’s kind of sick and twisted. But the movie never really does anything with this idea. No one calls him on it, or points out that Madame Giry has essentially been pimping out Christine to an evil lech who lives in the sewers.
I can understand the urge to downplay the Lustful Father angle — it makes the Phantom less sympathetic. But by letting it dangle there, you leave the audience frustrated that no one on-screen is acknowledging just how creepy it is that the Phantom wants to bone his pupil.
Half-Developed Idea #2 is the darkness in Christine’s soul. In “Music of the Night,” the Phantom presents his case for living in the shadows, and how she’ll be living there with him. Christine becomes less innocent girl and more slutty vixen during this and a few other moments: you see it in her performance, and her eye make-up (I swear).
This is quite a good idea, to look at how the sweet and chaste virgin maybe doesn’t want to be sweet and chaste, but Christine’s never given anything to say, or sing, that lets the audience get inside her head. On the rooftop, she sings with Raoul about the sunny life they’ll lead together, but we don’t know if she’s conflicted or not.
In fact, Christine never really has to choose between her suitors. Whenever she’s with the Phantom, she’s a captive.
Obviously, these are pretty significant things to address, and are probably evident to some degree in all versions of the story, on stage and screen. But there were also some smaller things that clunked in this version which wouldn’t have been difficult to address:
A. Time Lapses
It’s really unclear how long Christine stays underground with the Phantom when she first visits his lair. It feels like only one night, but when we meet up with the opera managers, enough time has passed for them to open an entirely different show and woo back their former diva.
Likewise, there’s a three-month gap between the rooftop number and the masquerade ball. The Phantom has evidently been writing his Don Juan opera during this hiatus, and Christine has become secretly engaged to Raoul, but all the tension we’ve built up is deflated when we learn that things have been inexplicably peachy for the past 90 days.
B. Convenient exposition
Yes, sometimes a character has to explain something just so the audience knows it. That’s exposition, and as a writer, you do everything you can to make it feel natural. Christine is saddled with an impossible burden when she has to quickly explain how she knows Raoul in the opening scene. She’s given two or three lines to spurt out to a friend we’ve never met.
Later in the story, Madame Giry explains to Raoul how the Phantom came to reside at the opera house. The story itself is interesting, and does a lot to explain various characters’ motivations. The timing, unfortunately, feels forced. Madame Giry has spent twenty years hiding this secret, but she’ll gladly tell a near-stranger who asks. (One can imagine a better version in which Madame Giry tries to reason with the Phantom to back off, and that becomes the impetus for the flashback.)
C. Let him go! Set a trap!
Near the end of the second act, Raoul defeats the Phantom in a graveyard sword fight, but spares his life at Christine’s pleading. Fine. It’s a movie. But instead of, say, tying him up, the happy couple simply rides off on their white horse.
Yet in the very next scene, Raoul plots with the opera house managers to trap the Phantom. The very same Phantom he could have caught, say, thirty seconds ago. Grrr. What’s worse, Raoul’s ingenious plan to trap him is to stage the Phantom’s Don Juan opera, with Christine in the lead role. That’s like trying to catch an arsonist by dousing your house with gasoline.
There are certainly other nits one could pick. Horseback rides? Romantic. Underground horseback rides that go twenty feet, before climbing off to board a gondola? Less romantic. But a fair amount of this stuff just comes with the territory. If you believe a guy with a mask and cape can mysteriously stalk around a Paris opera house, and live in dismal splendor beneath it, you have to take the short horse rides that come with it.
Again, this isn’t meant to be a proper review of the movie, which had many good points I’ve neglected to mention. But just as a cinematographer would notice poor lighting choices, a screenwriter can’t help but recognize moments where the movie he’s watching isn’t all it could be.