Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Very mild spoilers.
It’s understandable that independent, assertive, intelligent women might have trouble identifying with most female characters, because these traits are traditionally seen as ‘masculine‘, and as such, given to men. For this reason, I more often identify with male characters than female ones. Aside from Ana in Cria Cuervos, it’s usually pretty hard for me to think of any on the spot—but now that I’ve seen Dario Argento’s Phenomena, I have another.
I saw it in a theater with a large group of friends, which provided me not only the focus and intimacy of a big screen and darkness, but the ability to see, and judge, the reactions of others. Despite the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of Argento films, I usually take them pretty seriously, because they’re so danged beautiful to look at—chiaroscuro lighting, contrasts of pinks and blues, timelessly gorgeous scenery—and I hoped the others would too. For the most part, they were respectfully quiet, except for the fact that, during the parts where heavy metal would play, everyone would laugh and ironically headbang and make devil horns with their hands. They got so into it that, during the third metal scene, the row in front of me created one huge devil horn using the fists of about six people and the pinkies of the people on either end.
I wish I had a picture of that—it was a rare sight to see such a hilarious silhouette over the backdrop of a painterly-lit girl walking around slowly, because that’s a screen image that, if silent, one wouldn’t expect to see people rocking out to. The reason they reacted this way is because it amused them that metal was being played during parts where no fast action was occurring. For instance, one ‘metal scene’ was of a girl walking through an empty house with a candle; another was of the main character sleepwalking; another of her following a firefly to find a murder victim’s glove; another of her locked in a room, and instead of fighting her way out, using a long object to try to reach a telephone in the other room and call for help. The unconventionality of this may seem arbitrary and silly to some, but I found it quite moving.
By making the protagonist female, and utilizing metal, Argento calls attention to the inherent metalness of what she is doing. Had it been a male protagonist, the soundtrack wouldn’t carry the same weight—it’d be seen as cheesy, sure, but not out of the ordinary. Here, we are forced to either try and understand what it is about what she is doing that is metal, or simply turn off our brain and giggle. (Either way, we of course have a good time.)
Rather than facing a situation by fighting (like a male trope) or running away screaming (like a female trope), this character often takes a more realistic and reasoned course of action. Almost every scene with metal as a soundtrack is of her exploring or problem solving—carefully, intently, curiously, instinctively, and above all else, rationally. While the things she’s doing may seem slow and not very ‘metal’ at first, she’s actually very tough, because it takes serious willpower to keep your wits and morals about you in a dangerous situation rather than just blindly do what would get most movie characters killed (and deservedly so).
This theme gets carried into a few of the more quiet parts of the movie too, such as when when she’s hooked up to an IV and needs to escape. Unlike in most movies where they’d just show a split second shot of her taking it out, here we see her carefully remove it as fluid and blood dribbles onto her arm. The painful-yet-necessary tediousness of this shows not only how reasonable she is, but that she treats flesh as something that’s serious and not to be taken for granted. She’s even a vegetarian, which, like being a woman, is a noble thing that can be seen as a weakness in dire situations because it’s not the easiest way to live.
This character’s uncompromising nature is admirable. We see her at her most afraid, but she does the right thing despite her fear, which gives her self-esteem—when no threats are present, she’s composed and confident, not afraid to point it out when others are wrong. She is a true badass, and deserves every note of metal she is given.