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Blu-ray: Chained for Life | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Chained for Life

Blu-ray: Chained for Life

A welcome though never preachy satire for the age of narcissism

Getting to know you: Adam Pearson and Jess Weixler in 'Chained for Life'.Anti-Worlds Releasing

The crass Disneyfication of the Beauty and the Beast tale crumbles in the face of Chained for Life. Starring Jess Weixler and Adam Pearson, writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s Altman-esque US indie – a low-key autumn 2019 release now available on a limited-edition Blu-ray – mordantly satirizes the universal act of judging people by their appearances, along with patronizing attitudes to otherness. Its moments of tenderness, however, are stirring.

Weixler (star of the 2007 vagina dentata horror comedy Teeth) plays Mabel, the neurotically woke star of a cheap modern-day “mad scientist” movie whose character, operated on for blindness, sees on waking that the man she has fallen in love with is facially disfigured. The film-within-the-film, which is being shot in a disused hospital, is the first English-language work of an irritable Werner Herzog-like auteur (Charlie Korsmo). He might not be German at all, production members gossip, but he was reputedly raised in a circus – a nod to the showbiz apprenticeship of director Tod Browning, whose 1932 shocker Freaks is a major touchstone here. Browning's cast of disfigured and disabled sideshow performers included conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who also starred in Harry L. Fraser’s Chained for Life (1952).

Mabel, the insecure thesp (Stephen Plunkett) playing the doctor, and the vain actress (Sari Lennick) playing his nurse have been privileged with nice digs and have already started work when – in a wonderfully offhand medium shot – the hospital-turned-studio receives the leading man Rosenthal (Pearson, the English actor-activist with neurofibromatosis who shone in 2014’s Under the Skin) and the other outsiders in the cast. They include a bearded lady, a small person, a giant, a person of dual gender, and conjoined twins. “I thought Siamese twins had been phased out,” observes the unworldly Mabel.

Disarmed by Rosenthal’s look but anxious not to appear so, and seeking to befriend him, Mabel gives him acting lessons. She teaches him how to express sadness and happiness, but doesn't realize he’s mocking her when he asks her to evince empathy, a task beyond her. The testy director meanwhile demonstrates his insensitivity by repeating takes of the introductory shot in which Rosenthal must “step out” of the light – to maximize shock value – as opposed to “walk out” of it.

Forced to live in a hospital ward, away from the “elite" cast members, the self-possessed Rosenthal and his amiable colleagues grab a camera and start making a home movie, but it transpires that the scenes they shoot are part of the film-within-the-film. Some critics have suggested that Chained for Life is “meta”, rather, it self-deconstructs itself around the monolith at its centre: prejudice, both facial and, as it turns out, racial. Mabel’s beauty avails her nothing, except social maladaptiveness. In her final conversation – with a new character who’s heard but not seen – she shows she’s as ill-equipped to deal with one kind of “other” as she is with another. And Mabel is us.

The extras on the disc include an audio commentary by Schimberg; revealing video interviews with Weixler, Pearson, and the plesasingly blunt Lennick; priceless outtakes; and Schimberg's 2009 documentary short Late Spring: Regrets for Our Youth, which includes images of him during a hospital stay for one of many surgeries he has had to fix his bilateral cleft palate. It’s a first-rate package from the young distribution company Anti-Worlds, which has simultaneously released Summer and Relaxer on Blu-ray.

Mabel doesn't realize Rosenthal is mocking her when he asks her to evince empathy


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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