Phantom of the Paradise is an alien in the Cinema world. The bomb exploded in 1974 and was directed by Brian de Palma. The commercial flop it made at that time does not match the quality of the movie. Phantom of the Paradise is a surrealist musical. The music was written by Paul Williams. His beautiful voice was recently heard on the magnificent track “Touch” on the new Daft Punk Album “Random Access Memories” whose ambiance is severely derived from that movie. Roughly based on the old German tale Faust, Phantom of the Paradise represents a severe critique of the music production system based on major and greed.
The story is supposed to also take place in 1974 even if the sets, buildings and ambiances will make you believe it’s the near future. The surrealist sets are omnipresent. Brightful colors, absence of space. In a world surrounded by security cameras, wires and huge buttons evolves Winslow Leach. He just wrote a cantata names Faust and want to be produced. Here is an artist truly living his art. Winslow is not interested in money, he just wants to play his music as it is. You can see it by the way it is shot, for Winslow, Brian de Palma offers us beautiful panoramas, making a complete turn around him and his piano, the camera follows smoothly the music to reach the perfect balance.
In order to reinforce those effects, Brian de Palma heavily relies on the droste effect. The point of views are never one sided. No secrecy, eyes are everywhere. Mirrors and security cameras screens are omnipresent and not used for the greater good. They make you as well as some of the characters completely lost. This is reinforced by the surrealists sets where space is a mere product of the mind rather than something you can rely on. It closes around you, it appears and disappears.
Winslow is a lonely man, but luckily for him, Swan the biggest and most famous producer wants his music, just the music. Here the tale begins, as Faust himself, Winslow will have to sell pieces of his soul and a lot more to Death Records, the company that owns him and his music.
It begins with Swan stealing Winslow’s cantata. The author soon discover that Swan wants to use it for the opening of his big club : “Paradise”. The tragedy begins. He will try to fight against Swan and will lose almost everything.
Swan is the Devil opening Paradise, he owns Death Records and make his artists signed their contract with blood. The first shot on him, you can just see his hands and hear his voice, he is the man behind everything. He embodies the wrong side of the music industry. Him and his henchmen would do everything to stay in power. The main band produced by Death Records is “The Juicy Fruits” which can be translated by cash-cows. From the very first scene, the violence and absurdity of this band contrast with the Invitation to the Voyage incarnated by Winslow’s polished music. The songs from “The Juicy Fruits” are shot like video clips, they are made to make money. Swan keep them under his influence by giving away lots of drugs. Every man and woman under contract with him is, in the movie, constantly high, underlining the fact that you need special substances to integrate the commercial music world. It takes courage to sell your soul.
In the studio the military ambiance is permanent as well as the casting couch for the girl singing the main piece of the cantata. That’s when we know how to learn Phoenix, the lead singer of Faust. Winslow falls madly in love with her and after his transformation, his only goal will be to stay with his loved one. The problem is that in the meantime, Winslow became a true monster, a freak, “The Phantom of the Paradise”. His transformation is related through a first person sequence shot that makes the spectator see through the Phantom’s eyes. His mask makes once more a reference to a bird, but he is in cage and may never get out.
The bird mask can also be found in Interstella 5555, the first Daft Punk Movie which has the same views as Phantom of the paradise. No need to say that De palma’s masterpiece profoundly influenced the two French Dj’s, particularly on their last album.
The main idea of the movie is that greed will keep you from everything else, fame, truth, love…
Even the angel of the movie, the singer the Phantom loves is named Phoenix. We all hope that she will rise again from her ashes. At the beginning of the movie, she is the angel came from the sky, as Winslow, she does not want to be corrupted, she thinks her art is beautiful enough. There are no angels in Paradise and she will slowly take Swan’s side instead of following the Phantom. The fact that she signed her contract (with blood) while being high shows us that Swan wants to corrupt everything he touches and everyone he knows. He makes people like violence.
In “Paradise”, the shows are very violent, in one scene, the band “Beef” randomly cut limbs in the crowd while people are cheering. Even death on stage does not stop this crazy audience.
They always want more, sex and violence and “Paradise” will give it to them, willingly or not.
Phantom of the Paradise can be considered as a dystopian film where love and true success without cheating can’t be achieved. It’s a world where money and greed are very dominant. Like in ours. Brian de Palma was a visionnaire. He saw what our world will become, surrounded by security, screens and video cameras. Swan controls everything and enjoys it. His power can’t be taken. You realize that with the birth of the Phantom. His voice is broken but thanks to Swan and his complicated machines full of wires, he can sing again. Winslow does not have a choice if he wants to sing, he will have to sing for Swan.
He even makes a queer statement with the singer of the group “Beef”. High hills as well as high pitch voice. Beef is a queer symbol. His short career will know a tremendous success, he embodies an idea of the angry artist, ready to do everything for his art.
The format and the way of filming are also noteworthy. Even if we have a musical-tragedy, the transitions and some of the effects can be associated with deep comedy. There are accelerations within the scenes and sudden ellipses make the spectator’s head going round and round. The split screen is also often used to underline the dichotomy between different characters within the same scene. As i said earlier, this film is an alien.
Phantom of the Paradise depicts a world where being honest and true to yourself never pays off. It’s a scream in the night. It all revolve around the main character and make a point on every grand subject there is. Love, Freedom and Revenge makes the spine of the film. Violence is sparkled here and there transforming this tale into a dark masterpiece, into a must seen.