Chained For Life


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Chained For Life
"Chained For Life finds a rich vein of comedy in the awfulness of many people's reactions to disability."

Should film stars be beautiful? Chained For Life opens with a quote from Pauline Kael arguing to that effect. Her contention is that it adds to the pleasure of the experience (not so useful for those of us not attracted to the standard Hollywood look); and, furthermore, that it enables them to express themselves in a wider variety of ways (in the age of Botox, one wonders if she was joking). Beauty has been a bone of contention in the world of entertainment for centuries, and Hollywood has thrived on oppositional narratives that pit it against the beast: the disabled villain, the dangerous mutant, the tragic deformed man. Disabled people know the cost of this form of entertainment all too well, and occasionally cinema has commented on it - most famously in Tod Browning's Freaks - but what is often overlooked is its sheer absurdity. Aaron Schimberg's film is saturated with that awareness and finds a rich vein of comedy in the awfulness of many people's reactions to disability.

It's centred on the making of a horror film, The Undesirables (a title that sounds like a direct up yours! to Channel 4). In this film within a film, a shady plastic surgeon keeps a house full of disabled and disfigured individuals (plus, obscurely, someone who seems to be intersex or genderqueer but perfectly healthy) whom he has promised to save, but panics when his blind daughter, whose sight he hopes to restore, falls in love with one of them.

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It's a classic exploitation narrative, but what Schimberg is interested in is the parallel drama developing around its cast, whose studiously liberal sensibilities seem only to make it harder for them to recognise and resolve their prejudice. The disabled actors can barely be considered part of the cast themselves - they were hired because they were cheaper than 'real actors' and would save hours of make-up, The Undesirables' producer explains. They can't even stay in the same hotel because nobody bothered to check that it would be accessible.

Jess Weixler (who herself played a mutant of sorts in lurid horror satire Teeth) is here positioned as the beauty, Mabel, opposite Adam Pearson's beast, Rosenthal. Moving from curiosity to resentment to tortured self-consciousness as she strives to treat her co-star like anybody else, Weixler delights in contorting her features to show us how easily conventional beauty can be warped into something else by the expression of troubling emotion. Rosenthal's endless affability and willingness to put up with the shocking behaviour he encounters from others makes him the perfect foil. One scene in the film within a film gives Pearson the chance to show the forcefulness he can deliver as an actor, but the actor he plays is meek almost to the point of provocation. Because he has no use for her pity and offers no easy penance for the rest, Mabel finds him increasingly frustrating, and becomes increasingly fixated on him as their characters are falling in love, leading up to a hilarious sex scene where, rather than the usual minimal crew, the whole cast is on set.

Themes of voyeurism are complicated by the way that many scenes play out without letting us know until the end whether they belong to the 'real' story of the film or to the film within it. Sometimes it's not entirely clear, and we seem to see different possible futures played out from a static point within the narrative. There's a good bit of additional humour based around parody of low-budget filmmaking, which works better than is often the case thanks to the film's attention to detail, with the set design and lighting particularly strong. If there is a certain bitterness underlying the script, it makes it no less delicious. And then there's Charlie Korsmo's Werner Herzog impression as Herr Direktor, which is inconsistent but still a lot of fun.

Brilliantly observed, technically skilful and not afraid to be cruel when occasion calls for it, this is a film with plenty of wit, a lot to say and absolutely no fear of saying it.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2018
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A starlet finds herself in unfamiliar territory when she appears in a film about disfigurement that features real disabled people.
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Director: Aaron Schimberg

Writer: Aaron Schimberg

Starring: Jess Weixler, Adam Pearson, Stephen Plunkett, Charlie Korsmo, Sari Lennick

Year: 2018

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US

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