Phenomena. 1985. dir. Dario Argento. Starring: Jennifer Connolly, Donald Pleasance, Daria Nicolodi.
This is an astonishing film and there are many extraordinary things about it. Perhaps these choice tit-bits of dialogue:
"They call this the Swiss Transylvania."
"Your insects won't help you now."
"It's an established fact that all insects are psychic!"
"Help! I'm lost and foreign!*"
Then there's the oddness of seeing Bill Wyman's name pop up in the credits of a film starring a 15 year old girl or the incongruity of Motorhead soundtracking lushly photographed Alpine landscapes.
Phenomena is the story of Jennifer, the sleek and confident new girl at a Swiss boarding-school. She's confident because her father is an internationally famous film-star and because her hair shines like a wet, black sun. Throughout the film this confidence is never shaken, whether she's dangling from some guttering, having posters of her father confiscated or treading water in a pool of maggots and bobbing human skulls. She retains the sort of composure, in fact, that suggests some sort of pathological disorder; she remains as unruffled as that perfect hair. The source of this serenity may be her peculiar affinity with insects. Insects love Jenny. To the point that one of them attempts to get off with her. Right there in front of people, he starts secreting his lusty bug juice! Get a cocoon! Or whatever it is you people use.
Not only is Jenny plagued by sexified love-bugs she is also troubled by sleep-walking. And when this sleep-walking means falling endlessly down a series of white tunnels to the sound of Iron Maiden you know no good can come of it.And indeed little does, barring the intervention of a kindly ape and a chair-bound Scottish etymologist, certain that the Greeks were onto something because their word for "soul" is the same as their word for "butterfly" (he's an entymologist etymologist!).
This is classic Argento territory. The wind howls constantly as a pathetic fallacy. Girls, fleeing for their lives, look for shelter in unexplored caves. There's the remote school setting, the abandoned child, the pounding Goblin soundtrack. And maggots. More maggots than you will ever need. It's maggotty in there.
Then there is the plot. There is a murderer and we do sort of find out who it is at the end. The murderer does explain why they're doing the murders. But it doesn't make any actual sense. The murderer doesn't really have any motivation, or screen time (though given the casting fans of Argento will have sussed out who it is immediately). And yet, within its cloistered, hyper-real confines, it makes absolute sense. When the stunning double-punch ending is delivered (and believe me it is an audacious denuement - even if you have sat through the rest of this film under duress you will sit up, eyes a-poppin' over the finale. It's astonishing!) it does make a certain amount of sense. Once you have refurled your tongue and peeled down your eyelids you will sit back thinking, yeah, that is a satisfactory resolution to this film - I can now go about my business.
At bottom Phenomena is a fairytale. Connolly is Snow White throughout; the raven hair, the ruby lips, the unstained whiteness of her dress but she also has a certainty, the sure-footedness that comes from being an exemplar of good. That she doesn't actually do anything good, that she's smug and aloof throughout, makes not a jot of difference - she is symbolically good, just as, and rather more difficultly, a deformed child and his obsessive mother are symbollically evil. Outside of Argento's world this would be troubling indeed but in this environment the child is a troll, an imp; he's Rumpelstiltskin. In fact, in purely transliteral terms, he's Grendel, the mummy's boy monster.
Which is a roundabout way of getting Argento off charges of disabilism; the equation of physical difference with mental abherrance. I don't think that's really what he's doing. After all if we literally accept that Argento equates disability with evil, then we also have to accept that insects are psychic, monkeys roam the streets tooled up, and that a Scottish Academic could afford a studio flat in the Swiss Alps! Oh and HE'S disabled - and he's a goodie.
*I've used that one myself.