It’s a film of strange contrasts and concordances: the striking presence of the dancer’s body set against the Winchester rifle’s unseen destruction of flesh; modern and classical musical forms; the gold opulence and chandeliers of the theater and the modern machinery backstage.
Coming Events Cast Their Shadows
— Winchester Rifles and Winchester Ammunition advert, 1895
You can’t finish a work of art if it doesn’t exist—let alone abandon it, cultivate it, revise it, retrieve it, breathe it, respond to it. The same goes for a human life: what to say to, what to do with, a person who is no more, a body that you never touched, or an existence of which you never personally knew? This is the open-ended thesis of Bertrand Bonello’s Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera, a terrific 24-minute film about an unworkable opera production in modern-day Paris and a curious, ill-fated account of the real-life heiress of a firearms company in nineteenth-century Connecticut.
Reporting last year from FIDMarseille, where it received its world premiere and where I and two other jury members (both critics) had given the film a prize, I enthused
: “It’s a beautifully controlled, tonally seductive short with a straight-up three-act story on the one hand and a teasing, tantalizing, expect-anything ambience on the other. It’s a stimulating hybrid of historical essay, ghost story and site-responsive text.”
At first appearance, Bonello’s film seems to be perfunctory in its storytelling. A text card begins: “1862 – MARRIAGE.” At the end of summer that year, it tells us, in New Haven, Connecticut, Sarah Pardee married William Winchester, the gun manufacturer and inventor of the repeating rifle. Only, Bonello’s expository inscription is written in present-tense prose, which makes it somewhat disorienting to read against the image over which it appears: a wide shot of the proscenium and empty stage inside the Bastille Opera House—the choice venue of the Paris National Opera since it was built in 1989, more than a century after the Winchesters married. Bonello adds another layer to his anachronistic mix: a soundtrack of electronic synth (which he scored himself), whose balance between syncopated momentum and appreciable silence expresses a tension of some kind, between, on the one hand, a wish to proceed with a natural storytelling rhythm and, on the other, to hold back and wait, as if unsure about the consequences of following through with its vision.
Bonello builds tensions through irony and contrast. Sarah, we are told, is a “sensitive young woman, four feet nine inches tall, with a mysterious Victorian face. Her somber and melancholy eyes reveal nothing of her present happiness.” Alongside this, the director develops his other scene, inside the theater: we see a composer (Reda Kateb), working from a Mac (whose illuminated logo is about as recognizable a signifier of contemporary living as one might imagine), and a ballet dancer (real-life ballet extraordinaire Marie-Agnès Gillot) readying herself for a rehearsal.
And then, in the same punchy, matter-of-fact manner with which his text-cards appear, Bonello cuts to a different theatrical space altogether: a practice room inside the Palais Garnier—another venue used by the Paris National Opera, which was built between 1861 and 1875. As members of a choir take their places, more onscreen text: “1861-1865 – The Civil War will claim 617,000 lives, for the most part, killed by a Winchester.” Though the reason behind this sudden shift between spaces isn’t yet known, the key word here is will: the mathematics of wartime tragedy is inscribed with a sad inevitability. Of course it will: it did.
Bonello, master of mood, advances through several tonal and conceptual registers simultaneously here. Showing us figures entering and filling up one physical space while bluntly acknowledging a death toll from the history books might seem a simple enough juxtaposition, but when we cut back to Kateb’s Mac-bound composer inside the Bastille, and the camera tilts up from him to the gods, there’s a palpable sense of something grander at play. Revealing at once the impressive size of the auditorium as well as its emptiness, the camera’s upward tilt both advertises the venue in question (the film was commissioned by the Paris National Opera) and suggests that, in spatial terms, the setting requires some dramatic filling.
Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera is shaped around the parallel architectures of an opera house in need of a performance and the eponymous figure’s mansion in San Jose, California—known in real life as the Winchester Mystery House. Inheriting $20 million and a daily annuity following her husband’s death of tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah Winchester had the latter home constructed—and constructed, and constructed—from 1884 until her death in 1922. As Bonello’s film tells it, she had the house built in response to a medium through whom she had tried to contact both her late husband and their only child, Annie, who had died of marasmus as an infant in 1866: “You are responsible for us,” the medium tells Sarah. “You will build a refuge for us, for all of us.”
Annie’s death is revealed in macabre fashion: “The child doesn’t ‘retain’ anything.” The accompanying image, a half-finished ink and watercolor drawing, emphasizes the incomplete physicality of the child, while the use of quotation marks for “retain” suggests a lack of linguistic or medical precision—which is countered shortly after by another inscription regarding the Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s contribution to the rifle market in 1876. The Winchester 76, we are told, “has the precision and firepower to take down a bison.”
Is Annie’s death meant to provide some kind of retroactive karmic realignment, in response not only to the hundreds and thousands of deaths caused by Winchester’s munitions trade, but also the unthinkable fortunes that he accumulated from it? In the Garnier, the choir sings beautifully: “We, the souls of the thousands of the dead, demand recompense.” Bonello juxtaposes these lyrics with Gillot, who falls to the stage in a dead heap before convulsing to life again: as if the choir is communicating with her, as if she is beginning to embody Sarah Winchester’s own torment. We cut to another eerie ink and watercolor illustration, of the real-life Sarah Pardee: like that of Annie, it is half-finished, with no shading in the eyes. Like it might have leaked through the paper, or in some way faded: to take up corporeal form elsewhere.
History bleeds. “America’s evolution of firearms and the present state of its ordnance industry is the stuff of true horror,” I wrote last year
. “The director’s own electronic soundtrack, a suggestive synth of bullet-point malice, blends with the choral harmonies of an in-house choir to lend a truly operatic sense of doom to the tortured movements of Gillot—a remarkable performer whose bodily convulsions find their visual metonym in a bare back resembling an atlas of taut, shadowy wires.”
Gillot’s intense, immense performance gives physical expression to the film’s central tensions: between stasis and action, of being here and not here. Hauntologies, history’s undead: the stage as a spirit realm. “Dance but don’t move,” Kateb tells her. “Do the solo in your head.” Like Sarah Winchester’s own attempts to will her deceased daughter back into existence, Gillot’s bodily contortions seem to connect and bring life to a backstage model: a three-dimensional, uncolored figure that looks like it might have been based on the same ink and watercolor studies that have punctuated the film’s fabric until now. Indeed, once Bonello suggests that the dancer’s movements are in some way in dialogue with the choir performing in the Garnier, we get that always-invigorating sense that anything can happen. Such is the risk when identifying with the dead: you build a home to share with ghouls.