Heralded even before its arrival as the film scandalo of the Venice competition, “Phantom” is an initially compelling odyssey through a cold and emotionless nocturnal realm whose exploration of the darker side of gay sexuality at times makes “Cruising” look like “Driving Miss Daisy.” But this drama of a Lisbon trash collector’s descent into an increasingly surreal world of bizarre sexual encounters doesn’t add up to enough to be either scandalous or truly provocative. Portuguese director Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ debut film will find its most viable prospects in gay video markets.
That commercial avenue may be slightly hampered, however, by problems of visual quality, given that the film is shot almost entirely at night, with a moody, tenebrous look that undoubtedly will suffer on small screens. Censorship could also create an obstacle in some territories, particularly in a scene featuring one of the most graphic depictions of fellatio ever seen outside a porn film.
At first, the drama seems to be about a young man struggling to define his sexuality. Sergio (Ricardo Meneses) drifts through each day, living in a shabby, rented room, indulging in anonymous sex, brushing off the advances of co-worker Fatima (Beatriz Torcato) and only really becoming animated when he plays with the rubbish-depot guard dog. His taste for sexual extremes is conveyed when he finds a cop cuffed and gagged in a car one night and roughly proceeds to pleasure the captive man. Both menacing and alluring, the cop’s vigilance figures repeatedly in the drama, as do the equally ambiguous attentions of a depot foreman.
Sergio remains unfulfilled by these encounters, emerging from his trancelike state only when he meets a hunky motorcyclist (Andre Barbosa) and becomes immediately obsessed by his unattainable beauty. He starts stalking the guy, spying on him, going through his trash and removing his old, torn underwear, eventually breaking into his house and urinating on his bed like an animal marking its territory. Trapped by desire and rejection, he dons a black latex suit and becomes the motorcyclist’s captor, taking his revenge and then vanishing into the night to prowl the city’s rubbish dumps like a ghost.
Thematically, Rodrigues’ principal inspiration appears to have been Genet in this dreamlike, hallucinatory tale of sexual obsession and brutality. Visually, the film evokes imagery from Louis Feuillade’s “Fantomas,” as well as classic horror like “The Fly” and “Cat People.” But there’s too little here in the way of narrative muscle or psychological grounding to allow for Sergio’s retreat from the real world to be taken seriously, let alone to crank up the raw poetic force the director aims to conjure. Making the trash collector’s transformation even harder to grasp is a sudden narrative leap forward that will have many audiences wondering about lost reels.
This is not to say the drama doesn’t exert a certain weird fascination, a considerable part of which is due to Meneses’ focused, almost silent performance and lithe movements. The character’s feral, animal-like qualities are constantly underlined, whether sniffing, panting or growling like a dog, scampering like a cat over rooftops or stalking like an insect through piles of discarded trash.