Film of the break between Dario Argento and some of his admirers, phenomenon has often been perceived as the beginning of a decadence, although it has ended up being fairly rehabilitated over the past twenty years. Beyond the critical judgment, it is necessary to note obvious changes of approaches at the scenario writer. After the less general reception of Infernos and Darkness, phenomenon, from a purely scriptwriting point of view, has already chosen to work in a more frank fantasy: the heroine, the filmmaker’s youngest, is this time herself explicitly endowed with supernatural powers. As part of the lineage of characters seen at this time with Stephen King in Carrie and charlie (Firestarter) it also recalls the figure of Regan, the heroine of The Exorcist revisited in The Heretic by Borman. First film where the director masters the production from start to finish, phenomenon is also fed by an original soundtrack in the form of a compilation which, in addition to the titles of Goblin and Simonettioffers an opening to a wide range of metal and hard-rock artists then in vogue: this aspect will also earn the film one of its controversies, in particular that of yielding to the sirens of “MTV” commercialism practiced by the productions Hollywood artists of the time in search of “hits” (while the film obviously thinks of each music used narratively and absolutely not as a commercial veneer).
We can consider that with its precedent,Darkness, Argento engaged in a brutal and definitive introspection on the filmmaker seen as a giant “Puppet Master”. What basically Argento had liked to be since the beginning of his career: a brilliant filmmaker but also inclined to certain theoretical and psychoanalytical demonstrations. Work on concepts above all even if the sensory and the experimental are there, and many breaches and impurities present. phenomenon opts for her part for a certain pantheism (which may explain her great success in Japan), and also for a real humility in the vision of this adolescent psychically in contact with this vast animal “network” of insects. The human being is at the heart of a nature that goes beyond him, even if the latter remains fundamentally connected to it. The character of the film is more open and contemplative, less linked to the mere return of the unconscious.
The interest of the film for somnambulism and the ambulatory figure rather than for an investigation and a game of enigmas goes hand in hand with a more circular and ultimately brutal narrative progression: no mental labyrinth or complex architectures, it is a beyond the looking glass leading to pure chaos that guides the fake neo-Alice that is Jennifer Corvino. Argento was inspired by the laments of his own daughter to create this child character of an invisible on-screen movie star, finding himself subscribed to luxury boarding schools and left to fend for himself in his solitude: with adults and his peers. As such, we can also judge that the filmmaker is in his characterization much more human, sketching a touching and more compassionate portrait of his protagonists. The depressing souvenir monologue about Christmas delivered by Jennifer, delivered the same year as that of Phoebe Cates’ character in Gremlins, is eloquent, just like the friendship which is born between the heroine and the character of Donald Pleasance, also the first avatar of a certain melancholy of the genre in Argento. This figure of a scientist confined to an armchair, strongly dependent on his friendship for his domestic chimpanzee, is particularly touching, Argento staging between him and Jennifer a meeting of two solitudes, never paternalistic.
However, a resentment is still expressed in this film which is also the expression of the family disarray of its author, then in the middle of a divorce, this slump being embodied in a monstrous superego. The spells reserved for Fiore Argento and Daria Nicolodi evoke a strange catharsis for the Argento tribe of the time (for the anecdote it is Asia Argento who also does the voice of Paulo, the monster child at the end of the film). We will never really know what led to this turning point in the work of the director and his inspiration: an autobiographical side, difficulties in carrying out certain projects (the third part of the mater)? This inspiration between “futurism” and “nazism” whose phenomenon still has the echo in its contours? Many frustrations?
In the heart of the 80s, phenomenon remains a poetic, ecological and morbid trip that retains all its bewitching and mysterious charm: we are entitled to think that the filmmaker gains in metaphysics, abandons a certain distance, even if it is at the cost of a more implacable style. A price to pay which results perhaps in the most beautiful and essential film of its author.
phenomenon is benefiting at the end of 2022 from a new 4K restoration, available in a limited edition Collector Blu-Ray box set including six feature films by Dario Argento (The Bird with Crystal Plumage, The Nine-Tailed Cat, Deep Rosso, Darkness, Opera) as well as a 252-page book written by Olivier Père.
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