Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Phoenix is Vertigo in the Holocaust, where obsession is replaced with devastating loss of self. The protagonist, disfigured beyond recognition in the final moments of the concentration camps, struggles to restore her previous identity, finally finding her voice in the destruction of her former life. Like its vaunted ancestor, the plot is contrived, the metaphors obvious, but the film is executed with such taut skill and precision that it's impossible to avoid being sucked into its world. This is one of the great films of the 2010s.
It would be difficult and ill-advised to discuss Phoenix and not mention The Best Movie Ever Made. The scene where Nelly tries on her dress (which her husband does not know is her dress), desperate for him to recognize the truth and accept her as she truly is instead of searching for a ghost, has an odd funhouse quality to it because we as viewers are watching a film behaving like another film. We see echoes of the past in this present viewing, and Nelly's longing (and the shadow of death) is deepened by the connection.
Post-war Berlin is of course not 50s San Francisco, and Johnny does not have the conflicted psychosis of Scottie (though note the similarities between the two names). But there are more significant differences between the two films than the setting and reverse quality of the secrets being kept. For one, if Phoenix mirrors Vertigo then we only get one side of the first film's mirror - we never see Nelly and Johnny married and happy before Nelly is taken (even in flashback, which would have been an extremely easy and expected device for a less mature filmmaker to use here). If the second half of Vertigo is an extension of the fever dream Scottie has before being committed, then Phoenix is all fever dream, a theory extended onto Criterion's beautiful cover where Nelly emerges from what is either train smoke or the wreckage of Berlin, haunted by (or haunting) the nightclub where she encounters her husband.
Just as the structure diverges, so too does the central mystery. Nelly does not hesitate to unload her identity because of a crime committed, but because she is afraid her husband will not accept her (because she does not accept herself). In both films, it is a secret being kept by the woman that keeps the couple apart, but in Phoenix the betrayal is being kept by the man. These comparisons could continue long after they have outlived their usefulness, and Phoenix ultimately needs to be taken on its own. In this regard, the film's central connection to the Holocaust is most notable.
Obviously the Holocaust is well-worn territory for film in general and specifically within the Collection. Just as American music as both an artform and a cultural signifier is fundamentally tied to slavery and its aftereffects, I don't think it's unreasonable to link European film after World War II to the Holocaust as the towering and defining historical event that the artform is forced to grapple with. Phoenix manages to deliver a story unlike most (though The Night Porter came to mind) but the various details seemed overly plotted. The idea that her husband would betray her, she would survive but in unrecognizable form, though close enough to lead her husband to think it was conceivable that their friends would think it was her after she tracks him down and calls out his name and he doesn't put two and two together seems almost ludicrous. Yet this convoluted logic hardly matters when Nelly is standing across from her husband who has no idea that she is the woman he is teaching her to become. The beautiful rubble of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the war gives the film a post-apocalyptic vibe. In fact, the movie has an odd science fiction feel to it, as if the world has been fabricated around it. When Nelly returns to a bench she used to linger on with her husband, he quickly pulls her out of the fantasy back into this fabricated fever dream of a world. She must never stray back into reality, at least while he has her under his spell.
Phoenix works on its own as both a literal story of survival and a metaphor for the larger guilt both survivor and perpetrator felt in the aftermath of the war. It's noteworthy that the film never shows any actual Nazis, it even makes a point of mentioning that the landlady where Nelly finds an apartment never liked them. This isn't a movie about the enemy of World War II, but about the collateral damage inflicted on Germany. It's also a way of exploring a deeper and more universal sense of self, however, and this is where the film becomes most intense and overwhelming to watch.
The final scene is the one that everyone talks about - it's even mentioned in the brief description of the film on Criterion's listing. It's a scene deep with symbolism and unspoken emotion. It comes as unexpectedly as it goes and hits you hard in the gut. It absolutely wrecked me for about 24 hours. Yet it's also cathartic, a final release from the intensity and heartbreak of the previous ninety minutes. This one scene makes the film worthy of its praise, but the moment would not be nearly as effective if the rest of the movie wasn't so hypnotic and haunting. Phoenix and its central figure appear in the night, still cloaked in the smoke of the greatest crime of the 20th century, and before you are able to wrap your mind around them they are gone.