Dir/scr: Sally Potter. UK-US. 2009. 94mins.
It’s just as well Jude Law looks good as a transsexual. Because there’s little else on offer for the audience in Sally Potter’s amateurish and self-indulgent fashion-industry satire and murder mystery, except perhaps the emotion that gives the film its name. Consisting almost entirely of interviews given to camera by various characters either employed by or orbiting around a fictitious fashion brand, from the pizza delivery boy to the boss, Potter’s film has a sharp and initially striking HD look, but the story that spools out in the course of the interviews is all out of focus. And the ensemble delivery does not disguise the crude, soapbox didacticsim of Potter’s message: that the fashion industry is, uh, superficial and exploitative.
One hopes that the UK Film Council did not sink too much of its precious funding into this vanity project, as Rage is unilkely to be seen by many, even on home territory. After its unfortunate Berlin competition premiere it seems destined to tour a few more festivals but theatrical sales, especially in these straitened times, are difficult to envisage.
The action, or rather inaction, is narrated from the point of view of a teen geek called Michelangelo who has decided to film backstage interviews at a fashion show with his cellphone, ostensibly for a school project. The first implausibility, as we see eager pizza delivery boy Vijay (Ahmed) talking to the ‘director’ and nervously explaining his job, is that such glorious resolution could be achieved on a mobile phone camera; but at least the visual switch and bait gives us something decent to look at. After Vijay, we see ‘invisible’ Latino seamstress Anita (Barazza), keen marketing intern Dwight (Adams), old-style brand manager Edie (Wiest), babydoll model Lettuce Leaf (played with some dramatic bravura by model Lily Cole), posturing John Galliano-alike designer Merlin (Abkarian) and a host of other fashion insiders and hangers-on.
These include the film’s two best turns (alongside Cole): Law as purring, savage femme-fatale transsexual model Minx, and Judi Dench in fine acerbic form as peroxide-cropped fashion critic Mona Carvell. Each subject is filmed close-up, against a bluescreen backdrop which changes colour according to the interviewee. Sometimes the camera tilts its subject, sometimes it zooms in or takes its distance. Michelangelo’s voice is never heard - so characters are forced to repeat his questions, or stiltedly invent their own; and everyone keeps namechecking old Michelangelo as they talk to him, just in case we forget.
What Potter is clearly trying to do here is to fuse a swingeing satirical attack on an exploitative industry with a quirky thriller. But the satire is limp and generic and the offstage murder mystery poorly conceived. The characters are stock - a designer who compares himself to Christ, or Steve Buscemi’s Frank, a war photographer who now does fashion shoots, and whose hardbitten, adrenalin-junkie, morally-paralysed character is pure, unaldulterated cliche. For all its lightness, The Devil Wears Prada had a much sounder grasp of the fashion world, and was much better researched than the underdeveloped Rage.
So it’s basically a solo acting lab, a more Method version of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Backstories emerge, generally to do with unhappy childhoods, and characters pontificate about fashion (‘brutal and amoral, but therefore refreshing’ says Carvell/Dench) or simply expose their lives to the camera, Big Brother style.
Around a third of the way in, the first tragedy occurs - offscreen - when a young, motorbike-mounted model is strangled on the catwalk by her scarf, a la Isadora Duncan. For some reason, the characters are still compelled to come and sit in front of Michelangelo’s camera and bare their souls, joined now by jive-talking, Shakespeare-quoting Detective Homer (Oyelowo). And even when ambitious PR Otto (Cedergren) discovers that the teenager is posting his video-interviews on the web, the obvious solution - just ban him from the premises - doesn’t seem to occur to him.
There’s no music until the very end, just a soundtrack of offscreen noises that emanate from the catwalk and from outside, where an anti-exploitation demonstration is building up, fuelled partly by Michelangelo’s web postings. The costumes at least, and of course the make-up, are fabulous. One should be thankful for small mercies.
Vox 3 Films
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Patrick J Adams