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Easily the artiest queer stroke movie of the year, Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues’s debut, O Fantasma, attempts an improbable triangulation, drawing boldly from Bresson, Feuillade, and Genet. Young Sergio (Ricardo Meneses), a sultry Lisbon trash collector who lives in a flophouse, dotes on his pooch, but his other relationships are less straightforward. He carries on a rancorous flirtation with a female co-worker (Beatriz Torcato) and seeks out rough sex with anonymous men, including a role-playing cop perpetually on the night shift. Almost silent but for an infernal chorus of howls and barks, O Fantasma is best understood as an anatomy of animal lust. Sergio’s voracious appetite for debasement takes on increasingly feral manifestations: bared-teeth snarls, nocturnal rooftop prowls, an intense sensual curiosity undaunted by hygiene concerns (lots of sniffing and licking). Stingy as the movie is with dialogue and backstory, its unironic tag line, “No one can live without love,” bespeaks the underlying psychology: He wants to be your dog. He wants to be adored.
Sergio’s behavior becomes more erratic—and the movie more surreal—when he meets a strapping lad with a big motorbike. Fishing out a pair of shredded Speedos from the guy’s garbage, he decides it must be love. He cruises him at the swimming pool, and when rebuffed, dons the stolen bikini and vigorously soaps his groin while choking himself with a shower hose. Marking his turf, he then pisses on his intended’s bed. Upgrading to a black latex bodysuit, he finally retreats into a fantasy that starts out like Irma Vep meets Tom of Finland but culminates in a fate not dissimilar to Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly. The longueurs are sometimes undermotivated and the odd elliptical cuts tend to disrupt more than enhance the transgressive trance. Still, Rodrigues and Meneses (a nonprofessional actor giving a remarkable pure-id performance) pull off an impressive distillation: Their vision of squalid heat reduces narrative to a state of permanent, abject arousal.