Before I begin, a disclaimer. Any vitriol in this review is meant to be directed purely at the film under scrutiny – in this case, Sally Potter’s Rage, which premiered at the BFI Southbank last Thursday, and was transmitted live across the globe – and not the recent initiatives at the St James Cavalier cinema.
Having had their opening salvo with the Helen Mirren-starring Phedre, which was beamed down live from the National Theatre onto the Cavalier’s screen on June 25, the initiatives, set to continue throughout the autumn, augur extremely well for the general health of the local cultural scene. One cannot help but be excited by a genuine sense of international involvement, as we await in the darkened auditorium with trepidation, anxious to see whether the satellite transmission will carry across with no technical glitches, glad that we are experiencing every second of the performance in tandem with audiences in Europe and America. Coupled with the crisp, High Definition image, Phedre transcended mere ‘filmed theatre’ and fully justified the screenings as a worthy venture that can only extend the power of an already powerful production to a larger audience.
While the film itself is in no way a ‘live’ experience, apart from the fact that its first screening was transmitted at the same time all over the world, the premiere of Rage was appeneded by a Q&A session, with Potter and actors Riz Ahmed and Simon Abkarian being interviewed at the BFI Southbank itself, while Jude Law, Eddie Izzard and Lily Cole joined the fray thanks to Skype. Audiences were given the opportunity to ask questions via Skype and/or Twitter (sadly, only the latter was available at St James). By that point, I was personally too fatigued to pass any questions through the Twitter feed, and as the occupants of the St James cinema kept thinning out, it looked less and less likely that any questions from Malta were forthcoming. So what went wrong?
Largely, it’s the script. The setting is a New York fashion week, where Michaelangelo, a 12 year old (or so) school kid of seemingly ambiguous ethnicity interviews some of the key players (and a couple of ‘nobodies’ too) throughout the seven days of the festival. Among them is Middle Eastern designer Merlin (Abkarian), and his models Lettuce Leaf (Lily Cole) and Minx (Jude Law); the fashion critic Mona Carvell (Judi Dench), photographer Frank (Steve Buscemi), financier Tiny Diamond (Eddie Izzard), his bodyguard Jed (John Leguizamo) and others. The whole film is shot from the point of view of Michaelangelo’s mobile phone camera and made to seem as if it forms part of a school project (it doesn’t: trouble ensues as it is discovered that Michaelangeo is streaming his interviews on a website). All we get are face-to-face interviews shot under a monochrome background, which changes colour (as we eventually discovered in the Q&A session) depending on an item of clothing/facial feature of the character being scrutinised at the given time. As the fashion show gradually develops into a murder investigation, the pressure comes to bear on the fashionistas, and the previously shallow, vain and callous characters reveal themselves to be…even more shallow, vain and callous: only now, they’re allowed to overact.
A ‘talking heads’ film, done well, has the potential to be a cinephile’s feast: with an exceptional ensemble cast and a script to match, it could be a series of delicious monologues, each one to be savoured again and again. Unfortunately, Potter’s screenplay is so juvenile that it’s shocking for all the wrong reasons. It treats the idea that the fashion world is hollow as if it’s a new one, and the film never strays much further from this point – in terms of substance – and only makes things worse for itself by shoehorning a pretentious subtext on mortality and the ‘human condition’ in general. While noting early on that the satire would remain facile, I kept hoping that the vignette-like approach would at least yield to a few gems here and there, scattered amidst the woefully unoriginal monologues and hammy performances. To this end, Judi Dench does her best, having the best lines as the hopelessly cynical fashion critic. Her character is the only personality in the film who displays some tragic growth, as, half way through the film, her wings of vitriol are cut down as Diamonds purchases the publication she writes for. Other than that, Law is a fine sight as the androgynous Minx, sporting an Eastern European accent which we later discover is just part of the act. Potter is certainly a filmmaker of admirable creative energy (I feel nothing but complete and utter love towards her adaptation of Virgina Woolf’s Orlando), but it feels as if Rage was purely an attempt to jump on a bandwagon: it is the first ever film to premiere, in segments, on mobile phones. It was nice to have been there; at the premiere of this exciting new development in film which, with its relatively small budget and egalitarian distribution method makes for a timely experience, given the current economic climate. Pity that there wasn’t a better film to inaugurate it.