Eye For Film >> Movies >> Singapore Sling (1990) Film Review
Reviewed by: Chris
What happens to good films made totally against the grain? What if Botticelli’s Venus was painted urinating into an acolyte’s mouth?
In cinema, such works can find their way to late night screenings, safely past the bedtime of anyone who might object or find them too ‘off-beat’. Such was the birth of films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead. Or openly shocking works like Pink Flamingos. Late nighters may be rubbish – or they may be the last bastion of artists that are out of synch with popular and critical tastes. At the time of writing, The Filmhouse in Edinburgh runs seasons of ‘psychotronic’ film – one of the many sub-genres at the midnight masses of secretive cinephiles.
Our film was fittingly introduced by a masked man with a heavy European accent. “How many films,” he asks, “satisfy both your voyeuristic and artistic tastes?” He goes on to mention the awards Singapore Sling has won in its native Greece. The promise of kinky sex, even with vomiting, incest and torture, sounds so much more respectable if it has subtitles and a dialogue in Greek, French and English. And a cinematography award so we can make polite conversation about the nice photography.
But before we write it off as arthouse exploitation, let me add that the plot machinations and breakthrough acting devices alone (that blend character, voice-over, narrating to and rehearsing to the camera) put it in an exceptional class of movie. And the cinematography would be Oscar-worthy were it not for the subject matter.
Without giving too much away (Singapore Sling is basically film noir with other elements forcefully mixed), the story concerns a dodgy private detective (Panagiotis Thanasoulis) in love with a dead woman. If that sounds familiar, it’s meant to be. The woman is Laura – cue the plotline from the Otto Preminger classic – and she is hauntingly described by the wistful Julie London version of the eponymous song (from a cappella to romantic Glen Miller). Singapore Sling is just the nickname that the detective earns from a couple of female sociopaths, one of whom is worryingly like his dead Laura.
The black and white photography leaves us open-mouthed from the outset. Lush, atmospheric shadows are thrown together as our senses are pounded by a thunderstorm. Rain fights with the flora, ricochets off surfaces, drenches the faces and bodices of two women who, with Hamlet-like grandeur, dig a grave. You feel drenched. And each scene in Singapore Sling is composed with equally mesmerising beauty. Baroque magnificence and delicate taste insulate us from the nastiness to follow. Murder is a parlour game - in the old days, father would murder the servants... the girls would only have to plant flowers.
Our female protagonists are mother (Michele Valley) and daughter (Meredyth Herold). They re-enact murders as a refined sado-masochistic and incestuous ritual. Who is Laura? Was she just a serving maid? Who is in the picture hanging on the wall? Singapore Sling is drawn into their deadly web after knocking on their door, a bullet wound in his shoulder. He feigns a degree of distractedness to give himself time. At what point does the torture make his loss of mental capacity real?
While this is not a film to watch if you have a queasy stomach (think, Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover), our sense of revulsion is numbed by being drawn into the twisted aesthetics of the protagonists. I am not kidding – they tie him up, give him electric shocks, and use him for sex before urinating on his face. Later, his abuser realistically makes herself vomit over him as she orgasms. Are you okay with that? If you’re still reading, let’s get back to the cinematic technique...
Singapore Sling occasionally features a voiceover, stoically treating it as ‘just another case’. Our other two characters go further. They will narrate what is happening or about to happen to the camera. At one point, Mom (we never learn their names) rehearses dramatic lines in French and English. For a coming role play or for our benefit? Whichever it is, the barrier between audience, character and actor is broken down. When we are simultaneously being inundated with extremely visceral and unsettling material, the effect is challenging. Cocteau once said that film is a "petrified fountain of thought". We might want to analyse the plot, the Freudian symbolism, even the techniques. But we are helplessly frozen in the terrible vision, and swept along by a smorgasbord of extreme sexual fetish that makes The Story Of O look like Gone With The Wind. This makes it even harder work to piece together the mystery when 'all is revealed' (there are a number of interpretations to the central mystery). One of the first things I did was order a copy of Preminger's Laura from Amazon to re-examine the detailed references.
At the Thessaloniki Film Festival, Singapore Sling won a triplet of Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Director. Although as deliberately shocking as, say, Pink Flamingos or Thundercrack!, it oozes style in equal proportion to perversion. British censors promptly banned it. The director called it “a comedy with some elements of Ancient Greek Tragedy” but reacted to the ban by realising it maybe depicts an underlying malaise in all of us. A darker side we try to ignore. A side that inveigles without substance. The stuff hidden in dreams. Like Laura – ‘the face in the misty light... that you can never quite recall’, as our song says.
Love it or hate it, a policy of late night screenings of rare movies is something that keeps independent cinema alive. Singapore Sling may not be to your taste, but such willingness to dare keeps the doors open for a wider selection of films than can be found anywhere outside of film festivals.Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2008