Monday, September 25, 2006

Bent (movie review) 1997

Okay, I’m not the quickest person to review movies. I’m also a guy who has a tendency to review chick flicks when I do my occasional movie reviews.  So, here’s a review of a nine year old movie in which the most female cast member with a speaking role is Mick Jagger.  

Martin Sherman first wrote “Bent” as a play all the way back in 1979.  The Philadelphia born Sherman emigrated to London and the play itself was not only influential as drama, it catalyzed interest in the fact that the Nazi holocaust didn’t just focus on the Jews. After Bent opened on stage, plaques about gay persecution appeared in holocaust memorial sites and the symbol of the pink triangle (the Nazi emblem for its homosexual prisoners) became a symbol of modern gay political resistance. Richard Gere and Ian McKellen (who plays Uncle Freddie in the movie) both played Max in the London stage version to critical acclaim that furthered their stature as “serious” actors.  

Sherman, who happens to be both Jewish and gay, went on to write a one woman play “Rose”, with Olympia Dukakis,  about a Jewish woman who experiences the twentieth century in Europe, America, and Israel. Looking back, one of the most interesting things about the play is that it was written at an intriguing time in gay social history.  The play premeired right after Stonewall and gay liberation but just before AIDS.  

For various reasons, Bent was not made into a movie until 1997.   Sherman wrote the screenplay himself and chose his own director, Sean Matthias (who directed the BBC version of David Leavitt’s Lost Language of Cranes ).  This time, Clive Owen (for whom Mr. Pogblog has volunteered to be a love slave) takes on the role of Max, the bon vivant turned survivor.  

The movie itself has all the trappings of serious art project.  For one, they hired Phillip Glass to to do the score, also a variety of “names” notably Mick Jagger and Jude Law (who maybe wasn’t a name in 1997) signed on for minor roles.  The movie itself is built around a hinge.  The first third is a surreal, decadent, Felliniesque, view of Berlin art culture from just prior to and immediately after the Night of the Long Knives and the purge of Ernst Roehm from the Nazi Party.  (Roehm was a “socialist” national-socialist who also happened to be gay) The Berlin of this part of the movie looks still bombed out from World War 1.  The club is located in a warehouse that is equal parts rubble and champagne cocktails.  Max’s living quarters look like a cross between a French drawing room and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”  This first part of the movie is all atmosphere and set design with very little dialogue or overt character development beyond the fact that Max, the scion of an industrialist family, recognizes that he must flee the country now that the Nazis have identified him as someone who “tricked” with one of Roehm’s lovers.  

The second section takes place on the train to Dachau and the atmosphere of the first section gives way to a stylized set as Max decides to become a survivor.

The third and final section hinges into a Godot-like Dachau. Matthias uses an old cement factory as his set, in which Max and his new companion, Lothaire Bluteau, face their psychological/exsistential plight as Didi and Estragon confronting the Holocaust.  

Matthias’s progression works very well as it catches the way Max’s character is gradually stipped bare from being a carefree individual who simply exists for sybaritic pleasure at one point saying the thing he misses most is cocaine to being an individual forced to face an intertwined choice between survival and identity.
Unfortunately though, as the set itself becomes more stark and symbolic, I found myself becoming more aware of the “stagey” quality of the production.  There were definitely points where I told myself “this must have been incredible in the theater”.  Without getting into the aesthetics of turning a play into a film as in should it document or should it reimagine the original, the spareness of the last two thirds of Bent both made it more poignant and challenging to watch in a bad way.  The stage is a great medium for the eloquence of minimalism.  Movies somehow beg for clutter, detail, richer textures, and constant motion and activity rather than dwell on overt symbols. I suspect Sherman may have been a little torn between preserving his staged vision and conceiving the movie as a fully independent artistic creation.

In view of Mr. Pogblog’s obsessive worship of Clive Owen, it’s painful for me to say this but Owen is excellent in the role of Max.  Sherman’s dialogue often consists of single repeated words or phrases rather than long speeches.  The movie’s success depends on the actor’s ability to imbue each repetition with separate meaning and nuance, both verbally and through at many points finding ways to hold still for the camera.  Owen never fails.  Bluteau is arguably even better in his role than Owen as the more stoic member of the pair who understands that life is about making a statement of identity as much as it is about mere survival.

Perhaps the most interesting scene in “Bent” is the one in which Owen and Bluteau find a way to make love despite the fact that their Nazi captors torture/punish them psychologically by forbidding the two to look at one another or touch.  The scene itself which already was in the play takes on an extra dimension now that we have had a generation of the AIDS crisis.  It’s a fascinating counterpoint to Tony Kushner’s scene in Angels in America when one of the protagonist has involuntary heterosexual sex with a female angel in the form of a wet dream intended to notify him of his role in the age of prophecy.  Angels is written fully cognizant of and very much about the impact and meaning of the epidemic, Bent’s “sex” scene is written almost as a prayer, the ultimate dramatization of sexual civil disobedience.  

I’ve looked at some interviews with Sherman post movie and it’s never mentioned, so I’m on tenuous ground here especially as someone who never saw the play.  I’d say the most fascinating aspect of the movie is that as I watched it, the movie isn’t really about Nazi oppression or even homosexuality at all.  For one, all the actors in the movie almost pointedly have British accents.  The Dachau of “Bent” isn’t very German and although the plot does revolve around Max’s finagling a yellow star for himself instead of a pink triangle, I didn’t find myself thinking about World War 2 much at all.  The movie instead, intended or not, comments on the relationship between moral survival versus mere physical survival.  It is ultimately about taking pride in who and how we love as the ultimate act of survival in a world that’s inherently both mad and cruel.  

I suppose it’s a measure of artistic worthiness.  Sherman’s script seems more contemporary in 2006 than it did in 1979.

other Chancelucky reviews



At 9/26/2006 01:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is an utterly heartbreaking movie. Somehow the saddest and most wrenching of the holocaust movies. The most unbearable movie I've ever seen.

It so isolates the sadness that you notice you've stopped breathing.

Clive Owen is perfect. The little guy is even more perfect.

Because it so concentrates, distills the hopelesshorror and sadnessandbleakness everyone should be required to see it before they send one single human being to war. Somehow the sadness of their tiny fate makes it so clear what is lost.

I was lucky enough to see it knowing absolutely nothing about it whatever. Whew.

At 9/26/2006 11:16:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

The most interesting thing for me was that I really didn't experience it as a holocaust or a gay movie per se at the end. It felt that they were getting at even more universal issues.

There are some great holocaust movies....I wouldn't think of ranking them. This one was sort of a reverse version of the Pianist. Schindler was just way different from Bent.

I do know that with all holocaaust movies, I tend to wait a long time after the buzz before I'm ready to see them.

At 9/26/2006 05:41:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

Nice review Chancelucky, very interesting points and I liked the way you drew the distinctions between stage and film and how Sherman may have been torn.

I haven't seen the film but reading your thoughts on it and Pogblog's comments, I think I must find it and give it a look.

At 9/26/2006 06:34:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Dale,
It's not an easy movie to watch, but it's one of those rare movies that makes you think, but it's not entertaining in the traditional sense. For one, the main character isn't necessarily likeable.

At 9/29/2006 06:26:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

Because something may not be easy to watch is a selling point for me. So much of what's foisted is so dumbed down it's not worth the mention.


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