Chained for Life
Jess Weixler, Adam Pearson, Charlie Korsmo, Sari Lennick, Stephen Plunkett
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As a meditation on our perception of beauty and how much it infuses our psyches, Chained for Life is an intriguing effort; structurally it’s playful and enthralling…
Introduced by a quote from critic Pauline Kael, opining on the topic of actors being “more beautiful than ordinary people”, Chained for Life opens with a scene set in a creepy hospital in the 1940s. Freda (Jess Weixler) feels her way through unfamiliar surroundings, stumbling into an operating theatre where an all-too-Germanic sounding surgeon performs cosmetic surgery on a patient.
Suddenly, a loud noise distracts them outside, a film crew member yells ‘cut’ and it’s apparent we’re watching a film being shot, on location at the very same huge, creepy old hospital.
The Werner Herzog-esque filmmaker overseeing the production is referred to only as ‘Herr Director’. He’s portrayed by Charlie Korsmo (who starred in Dick Tracy and Hook as a child but hasn’t acted on screen for twenty years). His strangled Bavarian accent impatiently berates performers as they struggle through take after take.
The film Herr Director is making seems to be something of a B-picture that features Nazi-type doctors performing weird medical procedures on patients, while prattling on about how aberrant human deformities and afflictions can be fixed by his amazing surgical expertise.
Mabel/Freda (Jess Weixler) is a well-established actress who’s taken a role that’s beneath her talents, solely to work with the lauded and (apparently) talented ‘Herr Director’. We follow Mabel as she prowls the set in her downtime, relaxing with cast and crew members, overhearing conversations about actors ‘getting facial work done’ or lamenting her own superficial shortcomings as she languishes in the make-up chair before a scene.
This concern towards performers’ perception of their appearance and indeed, people and their perspective of ‘beauty’ and symmetry in the world at large, is the primary concern of the entire film.
These sequences feel very Altman-esque in their sound design, as conversational chatter overlaps in waves. Mabel contends with the unwanted attention of sleazy co-star Max (Stephen Plunkett) but is enthralled and fascinated by an indefinable attraction to her co-star Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a man afflicted by neurofibromatosis, which is a condition that causes non-cancerous but highly deformative tumours, much like ones John ‘The Elephant Man’ Merrick endured.
Rosenthal has been hired, along with a cast of other people born with natural deformities, to perform in Herr Director’s film because the filmmaker desires ‘authenticity’.
Seemingly influenced by Tod Browning’s Freaks, it’s this ‘carny’ infused element of the film that lends the most pathos. One scene in the film-within-the-film is lifted completely from David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, further emphasising the tonal shifting and referential trickery deployed by Writer/Director Aaron Schimberg in order to subvert audience expectations, playfully throwing a wrench into the mechanics of cinema and revelling in wrong footing us as viewers.
Whether Mabel’s feelings towards Rosenthal are genuine is open to interpretation, she could well be ‘method’ acting as part of her performance as an actress in the film’s production but it’s another layer of interpretation on top of the metaphor already in play.
As a visualist, Schimberg’s stylistic leanings tend towards a seventies-inflected surrealism bordering on dread-laden psychological horror. He’s unafraid to deploy a zoom lens for dramatic intensity and experiments with sound design, which recall UK auteur Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy.
As a meditation on our perception of beauty and how much it infuses our psyches, Chained for Life is an intriguing effort; structurally it’s playful and enthralling, though ultimately falls short of being greater than the sum of its parts.