Italian Phantom films and sex: 1964-1998

Italian Phantom films and sex: 1964-1998

1964 - Il mostro dell’opera by Polselli

Opera is, of course, all about sex: desired but not achieved, achieved but ill-advised, and all sorts of misunderstandings in between. Le Fantôme de l’Opêra is also full of sex, at least implied, and many of the adaptations set about making those implications explicit. Of all the regional and national traditions that together constitute the Phantom on Film phenomenon, though, it is the Italian ones that tend to be most explicit of all.

This aspect of the tradition begins in 1964: released in the same year as Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore, which was a kind of cinematic Kinsey Report, Renato Polselli’s Il mostro dell’Opera gives a very different (but perhaps no less illuminating) insight into Italian sexual mores and how they interact with cultural production. Though not an opera buff, Leroux tried to find newly compelling ways of illustrating what he genuinely felt to be the almost supernatural power of opera. Half a century or so later, a clutch of Phantom films relocated the narrative from opera to lower-status genres, with an equivalent aim. Il mostro dell’Opera is one of these, as well as one of the clearest examples of the cross-genre susceptibility of the scenario, and also one of the most musically and theatrically progressive of any of the adaptations. It is an extremely loose retelling, owing something to Ma-Xu’s 1937 version in that it tells the story of a theatre troupe re-opening an old, apparently haunted theatre, but features a Phantom who looks and behaves like another much-adapted literary figure, Dracula.

Now rare, this film gave a new twist to the already familiar theme of a male sexual predator lurking beneath the theatre and feeding off (the art of) a young female performer. The film follows a troupe of performers rehearsing a radical new kind of wordless spectacle. Just as in 1937, there are love affairs among the bright young things of avant-garde theatre, but this, being the sixties in the decadent West, goes a bit further: although lesbian scenes in vampire films have since become common, this must have seemed quite racy at the time: see 43.15-45.49.

As with all mash-ups, the film also points towards interpretative readings that might otherwise go unnoticed: to take one obvious example, the Cyrano citation recalls—and inflects in interesting ways—the Leroux original in the sense that it is also about a male lead whose face is hidden, or masked, in intimate situations, and about the romantic and sexual potential of talent that is disfigured. In addition, the one textual quotation, which comes from the famous soliloquy ‘Un baiser, mais à tout prendre, qu’est-ce?’ (‘what, after all, is a kiss?’), and which is visually recalled at numerous moments, takes on a very different meaning in the context of a vampire film.

And, stepping back a bit further, though the Dracula story post-Bram Stoker (with its accrued ‘I have crossed oceans of time to find you’ theme) is certainly symbolic of the unexpected afterlife of the Phantom story and its capacity for regeneration and reincarnation, it also turns out to be a metaphor for changes in musical fashion (not to mention sexual mores) being resisted by institutions—in this case the abandoned theatre and its conservative resident critic, the vampire. In other words, it looks back to, and enriches, the institutional canonic discourse of the original novel.

Fast-forward to 1998, and not one but two Italian Phantom films set the bar rather higher than just ‘racy’. Like most popular culture narratives to have achieved a certain degree of mediatised traction, Le Fantôme de l’Opêra has also featured in pornography. In fact many times, in many countries, according to the Russian phan website ‘The Opera Ghost’ (see But by common consent the most elaborate adaptation in the genre is Italian, by the cult director Joe D’Amato.

What’s operatic about pornography, you may ask? Well, there’s the apparent exploitation of women, to start with: opera very often makes them die for our pleasure, and pornography, well… In the 1990s, though, critics had started to assert female power in both areas; see for example Carolyn Abbate, ‘Opera, or The Envoicing of Women’, in Musicology and Difference, ed. Ruth Solie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 225-58 and Susan Faludi, ‘The Money Shot’, The New Yorker (30 October 1995). Then there’s the sense of alternation between the real singing and the recitative, and in pornography, between the sex and everything else; Umberto Eco wrote entertainingly about the tediously long time it takes to do the ‘everything else’ in pornography in Six walks in the fictional woods (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

But most intriguingly, there’s the fact that both rely on formulaic scripts designed to produce set-pieces, and that those set-pieces are often differentiated by the number of participants, what in opera are called duets, trios, choruses and so on, and in pornography threesomes, foursomes and, er, gang-bangs. In both cases, the variation of these nodal plot-points is a way of understanding the production and star systems on the one hand, and the dramaturgy on the other. For all that it is often very silly, and no doubt offensive to some, Fantasma addresses these parallels in interesting ways; see for example the multiple phantoms at 01.07.14-01.07.55.


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