CHAINED FOR LIFE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: AARON SCHIMBERG / STARRING: JESS WEIXLER, ADAM PEARSON, STEPHEN PLUNKETT / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 25TH
Opening with a lengthy quote from Pauline Kael about our fascination with the beauty of actors, Chained for Life takes a twisting, twisted, multi-layered meta approach to deconstructing cinema’s relationship with perceptions of beauty and the treatment of those not defined as such to achieve something remarkable in this day and age - originality. And if that sentence is leaving you a bit confused, fear not, because Chained for Life is not an easy film to describe, define, or explain.
Plot-wise, a pretentious film director is making a horror movie he seems to think has something important to say about disfigurement. Jess Weixler plays a beautiful actor playing the lead role in the said film, Mabel - a blind woman promised the gift of sight via a doctor who is experimenting on deformed or disfigured people. Into the world of this film within the film, a bus-load of people with real disfigurements or deformities arrives to play those being experimented on. OK so far? Well, it gets more complex as relationships between people shift, various realities are revealed, the ‘extras’ borrow the film equipment and make their own film, fantasy moments are played out and the layers of what’s actually going on become increasingly blurred.
And yet, somehow, writer director Aaron Schimberg holds it all together and makes it work, allowing each layer to have something to say or reflect upon a previous one. Indeed, there are so many layers in Chained for Life it’s hard to know where to start unpicking them. Borrowing its title from a 1950s exploitation film about conjoined twins, it riffs on Freaks, on all manner of schlocky horror, on Cronenberg, on Truffaut even, but it never falls into the trap of sentimentalising the experience of the differently-abled performers we’re watching.
The film is filled with references to appearance - the able-bodied actors are obsessed with some miracle anti-aging cream and there are references on the news to a killer on the loose with a nasty scar, but things are never too simplistic. Is it commenting on the way ‘beautiful people’ see and treat disabled people? Yes. Is it commenting on how cinema has treated people not seen as traditionally beautiful, as both characters and performers? Yes. Is it funny and creepy at the same time? Yes.
As the male and female leads, Adam Pearson, so good in Under the Skin, and Weixler are fearless, particularly in an intimate love scene between them, their previous conversation about it saying much about what we as viewers are feeling.
It’s one to watch with people as diverse as those represented on screen. The post-film conversations might reveal a lot about how lived experience brings different perspectives to bare on some of the things most of us take for granted and, if for nothing else, that alone makes Chained for Life well worth seeing.