Phantom of the Paradise ★★★★★

The common rap against De Palma, other than his being a Hitchcock imitator, is that he’s a cold stylist who is more interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking than in his characters. I’ve never agreed with that at all – though De Palma’s films share a pessimistic worldview, and though he’s often preoccupied with subverting the expectation of his audience, I’ve always found him to be one of the most empathetic filmmakers. I’ve always pointed to Carrie as the best example of this, but after watching the gorgeous new Blu-ray, Phantom of the Paradise also strikes me as proof that De Palma is at once analytical and very emotionally sincere in his approach to making movies.

On the surface, Phantom of the Paradise is one of his most cynical movies, a satire of the music industry that could just as easily be about Hollywood. It’s a world where fame is both arbitrary and ephemeral, where Paul Williams can be a rock god because why not. The protagonist is doomed from the start – the first twenty minutes are hilariously economical in ruining Winslow Leach’s life, and it only gets worse after he starts stalking around the Paradise in a cape and a plastic helmet. You can’t help feeling sorry for the poor guy, but for a portrait of an artist by another who had already been put through the wringer by Hollywood, it’s remarkably free of self-pity. Winslow signs a contract with the guy who’s already stabbed him in the back, because he basically doesn’t have another choice – sharing his work with the world means dealing with the devil, literally in this case.

So the music industry is like high school, the military, the government or any of the other systems De Palma depicts as impossible for his heroes to exist separately from, which seals their fate. It’s a downbeat message, to be sure; so why, then, do I feel so sad for Winslow when the sap did it to himself? For a movie populated with cartoonish characters with names like Swan and Beef, that final scene is surprisingly emotionally moving. It’d be almost too depressing if it wasn’t for that exuberant end-credits montage of the cast, still the best of its kind. And Phoenix’s two songs are exhilarating, and free of any sense of ironic distance – Jessica Harper is terrific here, De Palma’s camera loves her, and for a few minutes, the movie forgets about the corrupt music industry and its casualties and delights in the pure joy of performance. De Palma may be one of cinema’s great technicians, but anyone who says he doesn’t have a heart simply isn’t paying attention.

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