Invited to an unexpected gathering, a woman must face her demons and see just how far she will go to re-visit her tragic past in Mathew Ouzounis’ A Dust of Phantasm.
The film opens with a sultry jazz score, soundtracking a smoky background, through the mist a 40’s style Cadillac drives into the shot. When it pulls away, we are left with the striking image of our protagonist Elizabeth, as she elegantly walks across the street. From that moment we know we are in noir territory. Elizabeth, played by Melissa Taylor, has been invited to a private party, and our senses tingle at the fact it must be an incredibly special occasion because at the door, before they even say hello, the first people she meets congratulate her for being invited. As openings go it is a strong one; it immediately sets the tone and arouses our curiosity, becoming a successful way of introducing the audience to the style of film they are watching.
Filmed in luscious black and white, there is a lot of memorable imagery in A Dust of Phantasm, but like every form of experimentation, some of the imagery works and some of it doesn’t. But even when the film doesn’t work, it manages to keep things interesting, even the more confusing aspects of the short’s 20-minute runtime remain watchable. Take for instance the masks that many of the party-goers wear, some are merely eye coverings that don’t really disguise their wearers, while others are full-on face masks usually of the animal variety, as if the costume designer had raided the props department of The Wicker Man. There is no real explanation given for these masks, but it does help to create an unusual look at the class system as the people wearing them tend to be in the service of others. Even the odd performances of the main cast are fascinating to watch. Usually, the type of stilted and mannered characterizations that we see during A Dust of Phantasm would be a result of poor acting, yet there is something compellingly strange about the way each actor chooses to deliver their lines, use their props, or interact with each other.
As well as being the writer and director Ouzounis is also responsible for his own cinematography and he manages to frame the film as a dark parable. There are moments where he intentionally lets the camera focus on Elizabeth’s misery for as long as possible, convincing us there is a good reason for everything she is experiencing. The look of the film is essential for its success with his shot sequences enhancing the sense of paranoia that permeates the film. There are also a lot of close-ups, mid-shots, and some first-person perspectives that help us get into the mind of Elizabeth as she is pushed further into the nightmare. The deeper we go, the more we feel we too are being watched, and it’s that sense of unease that manages to keep us engaged throughout the film.
In his notes director, Mathew Ouzonis mentions that he wanted to create a 1940’s sci-fi drama similar to Casablanca and Eyes Wide Shut. In his choices as a director, he has certainly managed to invoke Kubrick, the shot of two similar-looking people at the door is the most obvious nod, but the party scenes do remind us of the Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman vehicle, while the music by Julian Del Grosso does conjure up memories of classic film noir soundtracks
However, A Dust of Phantasm is more of a surrealist melodrama than a piece of science fiction and that suggests it will appeal to a particular niche audience. But even though it’s a film that takes you out of your comfort zone, it’s a film you won’t be able to ignore.