Film Review of Phantom
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/3/13
One of the downsides of having a popular website is that one is inundated with offers to review this or that book or film. While this may seem a boon to your typical arts site, more interested in lowest common denominator fluff, for one devoted to higher pursuits, this can often mean being flooded with numerous and repeated requests to review things to the point where one need merely report such requests, however personalized, as spam. The most unfortunate thing is that most of the review offers are for palpable garbage- stuff that simply could NOT be remotely good. However, once on a spam list, other possibly better fare never even gets a looksy. I sometimes have wondered if the 9,999 requests from doggerelists or bad novelists or worse filmmakers to review Attack Of The Ninja Lesbots From Ramadan, or some such, has caused me to miss out on the next John Cassavetes or Herman Melville, and what, if any, great work of art I may have missed out on because of the onslaught of bad artists desperate to get some form of recognition granted them.
Hence, I opened up a recent email from something called Ganko Films:
I contact you after I found your mail address on IMDb and since you made it public, we thought you wouldn’t be bothered to be contacted about reviews. (If this mail annoys you somehow, please forgive us.)
Since you paid attention to highly unusual movies such as Sans soleil or The Tree of Life, we thought that you could be interested in Phantom, an art house film shot in Tokyo (Japan) and edited in a dream-like style with only off-screen dialogues. Phantom was released in France and will be released in US soon.
And we think some reviewers on the web are sometimes better than professional critics. So we wanted to contact some reviewers who seem to be interested in original and artistic movies in order to allow them to watch Phantom as professional critics, and if you think it is worth it, to write a review about it.
If you are interested in knowing more about Phantom you can check the IMDb page or its website www.gankofilms.fr/phantom-en.htm for trailers.
And if you want to see the full movie before its release in US, the online screener is here:
To thank people who will review this movie, we will offer a DVD of Phantom for the 15 first reviews posted on IMDb. If you are among them, let us know it!
The email was to a website called Vimeo, and included a password to watch the screener edition of the film (the words FOR SCREENING PURPOSES ONLY occur every few minutes in translucent text over the imagery).
That film was the debut feature film of a French filmmaker named Jonathan Soler, and is called Phantom, shot in Tokyo Japan, and featuring just two actors, in unnamed character roles: a female (Yuki Fujita, in her debut) and a male (Masato Tsujioka, with a more extensive acting credits list) who spend a night in conversation- not unlike Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. The film displays many influences and experimentation- the hallmarks of a young director.
However, Soler does not fall into many of the pop cultural traps of a young director, and the two most immediate predecessor debuts that this film most reminds me of are David Gordon Green’s George Washington and Steve McQueen’s Hunger. Hopefully, as Soler matures as a director, he emulates the arc of McQueen, who seems well on his way to being the chief rival to Nuri Bilge Ceylan as the world’s greatest living BIG IDEAS director, rather than Green, whose early promise gave way to one of the most depressing and shocking cinematic sellouts of the last few decades. Like Green’s debut film, Soler uses shadow and light, canted angles, and disembodied voices, as well as an odd score, punctuated with silence and ambient noise. Like McQueen, Soler’s film dares not to follow conventional narrative flow.
Before I get to the meat of the film, first let me get the few negatives out of the way. At 76 minutes in length, the film is not too long, and nicely mixes in realistic dialogue spoken by the twentysomething leads. Their descents into philosophic sophomorism is perfectly natural, and nicely juxtaposes some of the literary references they plumb (Fumiko Hayashi and Kobo Abe). However, because the dialogue is never synched with the actors, even in the scenes we see them speaking, which makes one wonder if this is all a memory, and the beings we see the title’s reference, it would have been nice to have had an English dubbed track. The subtitles, themselves, are all white, but bold, and thus not washed out, given the bulk of the film is set at night. But, the usual excuses that pro-subtitle apologists give, here, simply don’t fit, and Soler and Ganko might be wise to pioneer a 21st Century renaissance of the great dubbed masterpieces of the 1950s and 1960s world cinema that work so well to dispel the myth that dubbing ruins films, especially when subtitles actually cover the visuals. Also, it’s clear that neither the director nor film company speak English well, as numerous English language spelling and grammatical errors (missing articles) occur: at least 3 times, as example, the word lose is spelt as loose.
But, that’s technical stuff. There are two major miscues in the film- although major is a relative term. This is a very good to excellent film, made on a shoestring budget, after all. The film’s opening goes on for five minutes before a word is spoken, and, while this could work, in the general, the specifics do not. The opening follows the woman as she eats, looks in a mirror, showers, and sees a lizard outline on her window. This all leads one to believe a slasher flick is to occur, and while it’s a relief one does not break out, it almost invalidates the rest of the film. Here is where a nice long opening monologue, or scene like the one that opens Cassavetes’ Faces could have worked better. The other major error in filmic and directorial judgment comes about two thirds of the way into the film when we see a major steal from the film American Beauty. There is an extended shot of a plastic bag blowing in the wind- and this shot and puerile symbolism was trite even before Sam Mendes, and is way out of sorts in an otherwise mature film.
Other than those two moments, the film proceeds along well, as does the protagonists’ conversation, which veers in sync, then contrapuntally, with other, far more interesting images. The talk, at its best, emulates some of the depth of My Dinner With Andre, and, at its worst, sometimes ends too abruptly, with the silences seeming a bit forced. The subjects under discussion are the woman’s temp jobs, including holding placards, whether or not one would forget one’s name if others did not use it (and that names are things others assign one), zombie dreams, materialism, and others. But, the talk itself, while often good, with offhand poesy slipping in, is often buoyed by the seeming offhand poesy of the imagery it juxtaposes: at loftier thoughts we get a shot zooming up a skyscraper- possibly a bow to Michelangelo Antonioni (as well as the film’s detachment from the human), and at pauses we get more diurnal shots. This does two things: 1) it manifests that the plastic bag shot was a lapse in judgment- likely owing to affection for the shot from the Mendes film, and 2) shows how ineffective the technique in Terrence Malick’s last film, To The Wonder, was. Malick’s dissonance between the relentless probe of his visuals and the utter laziness and banalities of his voiceovers. While Soler’s visuals are not as intense and probing, his dialogue and narrative are far better, and Phantom is a better film than To The Wonder.
Other subjects the conversation (a sort of Dialogue Of Selves And Souls) goes on to include self identities, such as the shrinkage of individualism in Abe’s works, possible human extinction, why understanding a problem is not consonant with its resolution, why silent farts are smellier than loud ones, the relativity of experienced time (a week as a child seems long while a year in adulthood seems quick), the divorce of the woman’s parents (and the man’s claims that his family knows each other the way dogs know each other by smelling their asses), how the word ‘someday’ means ‘never’ in one’s dreams of the future, and a few other things. There is no real end to the film, and one might believe the film’s title refers to the viewer, who is a phantom ear in to the film’s body.
Other influences in the film (or accidental references) include Godfrey Reggio’s Quatsi films, in a tunnel sequence; Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, in blurred pans of room include mundanities- clothes, books, etc.; Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss in some shots involving mannekins (as well as shots of city streets at night). Other less obvious influences include the email’s claims for Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Alain Resnais’s Last Year In Marienbad, and Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls- one of the underrated films that deal with loneliness- also shot on a next to nothing budget. Soler not only wrote and directed the film, shot in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but produced, shot, edited, and (presumably) scored it.
In short, Phantom is a very good, to excellent film, and a noteworthy debut. It makes me feel guilty that, had the email arrived at a different time, I might have, due to the ego suck of so many bad artists, missed this promising work of art. If Soler can make the leap up from creative pastiching of excellent forebears, and inject more of his own vision- and potential and vision are the two key words here- then his next film could put him in the McQueen-Ceylan range. But, as I don’t wanna jinx him into a fate as the Continent’s David Gordon Vert, let’s just all keep quiet (as a phantom?) about those two words, and wait, and see.
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