Phantom Love is a dream of reality, from which we are woken up, wonderingly, by a telephone call at the end of the film.
It is one of the greatest examples of film being deservedly called work of art, and of film as auteurship. Nina Menkes has exercised total control over every aspect of the film’s making, and chipped away like a sculptor until not a single unnecessary frame or unit of sound remains. The result is a pure, lofty, formal, classical cinema with individually crafted shots and intricately engineered sound.
Marina Shoif plays Lulu, a croupier at a casino in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, alienated and withdrawn from everything and everybody around her, waiting, crouching inside herself for something or somebody to make a difference for and to her, to draw her out of herself and the stagnant pool of her life. (Her historical continuum is at the juncture where the US has initiated the Gulf War and has turned its surgically precise bombing into a public spectacle.)
Her sister, Nitzan (Juliette Marquis) is under enormously abused medication and on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Lulu also has a lover, but she has nothing in common with him except the hours she spends in desiring and encouraging and absorbing protracted rounds of his mechanistic impassive uninspired piston-like metronomic thrusting into her.
To evoke and highlight the animalistic aspect of human “love”, Menkes makes reiterative use of an octopus, a python and a pair of black Great Danes (or were they mastiffs?). The menace and abhorrence in the spectator’s mind are real.
This is the skeletal characterization interred in a surreal physical setting which Menkes fleshes out in awe-inspiring black and white with Christopher Soos. For a substantial portion of its length Phantom Love progresses like a silent film. It wouldn’t be amiss to say it is for all purposes a silent film, since the few spoken words that are there are not used as transmitters of cerebral meaning, but as sounds that add to our understanding and absorption of the film as a specific emotional and intuitive experience. The truth here is of mood and not of fact.