Argento’s funniest film, it is also most sensitive to the bonds that form between caring people against a backdrop of power and apathy. Where we might expect another doomed marriage of convenience orchestrated by unseen forces, Phenomena has friendship as a positive, naturally occurring force that exists for its own good. Its scenes of reciprocity are isolated above the chaotic mix below, and come imbued with this tender strength the film believes could save the world. This is not to say that it is a comfortable experience — as usual it is stilted and alien, it’s just that within this context trepidation appears on the threshold of trust rather than persisting into it as an enduring facet of being.
Phenomena is also peculiarly cold and sad, with a reliance on chance and open spaces over cosmic conspiracy. A tension is cut between smooth open roads, rolling hills, and mountain ranges, which all appear scenic from the perspective of a moving car but suddenly become unbearably ominous once the camera stops moving. The little houses by the woods, the lonely paths and streams and waterfalls, lose their impressionistic blur and materialise as really existing entities that stranded people must physically encounter and negotiate. The sense that the landscape is somehow guilty runs through it as the empty, artificial spaces of Mussolini’s unrealised future city staged Tenebrae‘s routinised violence. It’s always the same death, Argento has only one way of ensuring things move, murder for him is what saints were for so many artists working centuries before. The format is only the mutually agreed upon starting point, what moves us is the expressive variables.
The changing space is what counts and it’s also the one thing his films avoid giving words to. It cannot have its own motive (in his world a psychosexual or diabolic imperative), it is only a receptacle for the things it witnesses and the layers of meaning inscribed (and indeed erased) by its inhabitants. In Phenomena it is given agents of remembering in the form of insects. This opens it, a girl is lost and is murdered when she looks for help and the case is closed eight months later so everyone can forget about it and go home but eight months later a girl without a home who won’t forget she was murdered goes out so she can remember what happened. When Pleasance tells her she’s the best detective in the world there’s a fragility in the air she carries as she wanders down the path alone with the mountains behind her and there is only sadness in the fact she knows women died here. It’s just so personal, so mortal; even when murder happens in front of her she can only witness it later in memories, buried in the visions collected when she walks the grounds at night.
Its threads never connect for any enduring statement, but they do manifest in a strange, chilling film where violence exists in ruins strewn throughout the landscape — nobody had any plans for the victims and nobody has any plans for you. As a coming of age thing Phenomena answers back to this through the microcosmic view that insects allow, salvaging life from the annihilation of a pointless death by ensuring that nobody ever goes forgotten. Above all then it is a ghost story.