'Phantom Of The Opera' Is Just Your Average Love Triangle — With A Disfigured Ghoul

Film shows the romantic side of murderous, dangerous masked mentor.

Like a lot of movie adaptations, "Phantom of the Opera" — which opens wide Friday (January 21), after a limited release last month — has a story that's familiar to anyone who's read the book or seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tony-award-winning Broadway musical. But for those who are wondering just what the gothic horror-romance is all about, the cast and director break all the melodrama down into a simple love triangle that anyone can understand, no crib notes required.

"I always say, Patrick Wilson [who plays Raoul] is the guy your mother is thrilled about when you bring him home, and if you bring home Gerard Butler [who plays the Phantom], she locks you up and calls the police," director Joel Schumacher said. "It's a nice dilemma for a young woman."

The young woman in question is Christine (played by Emmy Rossum), a young chorus girl poised to be the opera's next star, thanks to her tutoring by her seductive but dangerous masked mentor, the Phantom.

"She has this complex relationship with a guy who's been kind of a father figure to her," Rossum said, "because they're both people who are alone and who've lost parents and they share this musical passion. They're kind of kindred spirits, and as she grows up, the relationship evolves, the boundaries begin to blur, and it becomes a bit more darkly sexual in nature, because he is that father figure to her."

Fancying himself a theater critic, the Phantom stops at nothing to make sure Christine gets center stage, whether it's writing his own opera and demanding the company perform it, luring Christine to his underground lair, or murdering those who get in his way. Gaston Leroux's original novel emphasized the serial-killer aspects of the Phantom's actions, but in the play (and now the movie), the disfigured musical genius who haunts the opera house is turned into more of a sensitive, romantic figure.

"It's so shamelessly romantic that I told my friends they wouldn't believe I made it," Schumacher said, "but it's dark and edgy, too. The Phantom's got enough psychotic problems to be right up my alley."

"He's the dark side, all the dark fantasies you have, and at the end of the day it will all end in tears," Butler said. "And yet, he's such a pure, passionate, creative, tragic human being that he would break a woman's heart for different reasons: the superficial and tantalizing ones, and the inalienable and primal ones. He just has so much passion that in so many ways goes unanswered. How could I not want to play this role?"

"Everyone identifies with him," Wilson said. "The loneliness, the tortured soul. And no one wants to play the other guy, Raoul, the perfect boyfriend, the Prince Charming. He's boring, two-dimensional. But I liked what they did to the role, to make him more active, to give him some guts, to become the swashbuckling action star. He's a real guy."

But if this were real life, there would be some crucial unanswered questions, such as: Doesn't the Phantom know that hanging stagehands is no way to impress the girls? He's got the rest of his act down — lots of candles, red roses and long gondola rides. Schumacher jokes that the reason Christine ultimately doesn't stay with the Phantom is that it's just too darn impractical.

"She'd have to blow out all those candles and light them every day," he laughed. "And he's burned down the theater, so where would they live? In a tent? Dr. Phil would have to come and visit them in the [gondola]."

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