At its base level, Nina Menkes’ “Phantom Love” draws a line between introspective art and unbearable pretentiousness. Although the rich visuals and beautiful photography may create a vivid cinematic world, there are no real characters to fill it. Although the heavy visual metaphors are designed to provoke thought, the complete lack of story provokes nothing but boredom. In aspiring towards Lynchian weirdness, the filmmakers somehow forgot to make an enjoyable film. Despite all its artistic flair and panache, “Phantom Love” is essentially a bad film that fails to justify its 84-minute running time.
To try and conventionally review this film is an exercise in futility. There is no real plot to speak of, and due to the lack of any narrative structure, I had to visit IMDb to find out the lead character’s name. I’ll try to explain the storyline as best I can: Lulu (Marina Choif) is a rather reclusive woman, who slips into a deep depression due to her sister’s poor mental health. She works as a croupier in a Koreatown casino, and each night she is visited by a very hairy lover, with whom she has vacant and emotionally distant sex.
Yep. That’s it.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this film sets the characters up for something to happen. However, if you’re expecting something other than pensive gazes and moody shadows from “Phantom Love”, you’ll be sorely disappointed. There is little to no characterisation, which kills this film as it is essentially a character study. And as for the subtext that “Phantom Love” is precariously balanced on, Menkes seems to want the audience to interpret what they are seeing in one specific way, rather than
leaving a blank canvas for viewers to project their own meaning onto.
The overall effect of these two factors is that “Phantom Love” feels purely vacuous. Yet, despite this, the film is still quick to point to itself and say “look at me; I’m profound”. While it’s easy to mistake the artistic style of “Phantom Love” for self-importance, the film’s pretentious air is not the result of style, but rather that of a fault: there is no point to anything that happens in “Phantom Love”. Characters never have any motivation for their actions, some of the visuals are largely incongruous to the rest of the film and everything feels like it was made up ad-hoc. One would think this would baffle the audience, however from what I saw at the screening, very few of the audience were actually paying attention.
I can’t blame them. Anyone could be forgiven for falling asleep during this film or simply walking out of the theatre (there were plenty of walkouts during the screening too). Possibly my biggest gripe with “Phantom Love” is that it utterly bored me. This is the kind of movie where the shot lingers on for at least double the amount of time necessary, even when nothing is happening in the frame. This is not the fault of the DoP, who (in my opinion) did a very good job on “Phantom Love”. Instead, the blame can be placed on the editor (perhaps unsurprisingly it was Nina Menkes herself that cut this film). Maybe it was Menkes’ intention to give the audience a bland, boring experience, to help us empathise with Lulu’s depression. If this was the case, then Menkes did far too good of a job, as, come the halfway point, the viewer is put in such a state of ennui that it’s hard to care about anything happening on screen.
However, this laboriously slow cutting was probably not by virtue of artistic flair, but rather Nina Menkes’ own inability to cut her film down to a necessary pace. Watching a woman file her nails for minutes on end is inevitably going to be boring, no matter how well the shot is composed.
Which leads me to “Phantom Love’s” only saving grace: the cinematography. Making good use of the black-and-white spectrum, the classic frame composition gives the film an expressionistic feel, and makes modern-day Koreatown seem almost otherworldly. Honestly, some of the shots are so striking that still frames from “Phantom Love” could probably earn a place in an art gallery. And, although extremely influenced by films such as “Eraserhead”, “In the Mood For Love” and “The Exorcist”, the rich visuals easily compensate for the film’s shortcomings.
Yet, there is a lesson to be learned from “Phantom Love”: visuals don’t make movies. When an 84-minute long film feels like a 3-hour epic, then someone has done their job wrong. Perhaps the most annoying thing about “Phantom Love” is that it creates such a powerful visual backdrop, yet fills it with nothing but wooden characters and pseudo-emotional subtext.
Nina Menkes (director) / Nina Menkes (screenplay)
CAST: Laura Liguori … Fairy Princess
Juliette Marquis … Nitzan
Bobby Naderi … The Lover