Saturday, September 15, 2012

PHENOMENA

A region just outside Zurich (known by the locals as "the Swiss Transylvania") is beset by both ominous, ever-present winds and a mysterious killer who is stalking young girls. Into this quietly fraught liminal zone comes Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous film star. Very much an innocent abroad, Jennifer's loneliness and alienation increase alongside her peculiar affinity with insects, which, under the knowing eye of a kindly entomologist (Donald Pleasance), seems to be turning into a kind of supernatural power. And the killer strikes again. And again.


This is what you get when Dario Argento makes a coming-of-age story. PHENOMENA straddles a strange middle area between his more realistic (if stylized) mysteries and the truly out-there supernatural fantasia of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. In some ways, it's my favorite of his films. There's a strange quiet that grounds it beautifully, a gentleness and patience we don't see in Argento's other work. It's the first of his films to mine mystery in a natural world, with the buzzing of insects, the whisper of the wind, and the presence of a chimpanzee juicing the story's fantasy. He makes the familiar unfamiliar and eases us into his story in a way that we don't get with any of his other films. And Argento's trademark bursts of stylized violence are all the more jarring as they dispel this strange, engrossing quiet.

For all of the film's overt fairy tale stylization, Jennifer is Argento's most fleshed-out, tangibly human protagonist, and Connelly (in her debut) depicts her teenage alienation and growing supernatural affinities more than credibly. (An acquaintance suggests that PHENOMENA is the best X-MEN movie that isn't made by Marvel, and she's dead-on.) Her humanity holds center no matter how gruesome or bizarre the action, whatever Argento throws into the story. I love her in ways I don't feel for any of Argento's other protagonists, and I suspect he does as well. She's the strongest of his Innocents, and scenes such as the one in which Jennifer teams with the Great Sarcophagous to hunt for clues (and the truly bizarre deus ex machina that comes to her rescue in the final moments) are exactly the thing for which cinema was invented.

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