A parable for our times or a director out of his depth?
On returning to the college to deliver son number one back to his room, I pulled up and stopped the car in the lane at the back and switched off the engine. Coming towards us in the road were four young people, three men and a woman, students probably. The woman was wearing a white mini dress that covered no part of her legs. It was almost a Tarantino moment. She looked both confident and strangely vulnerable. As the four approached the car, she passed by on the driver’s side and tapped on the window. Slightly apprehensively, I wound it down.
She smiled and said, “This road is a dead end, do you need any help?”
“No thanks” I said. “I am dropping my son off at the college.”
“That’s OK then” she replied and gave me a drunk high five.
On Saturday evening I took the tube to Leicester Square for the European premiere of Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Face of an Angel’. In my pocket was Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’. I am slowly ploughing through it. So far, nothing in it comes close to the scrambled, unbelievable story that kicked off in Perugia on November 1st 2007.
A reviewer should not only measure a film (or other work of art) for its power, beauty and ability to provoke a response in the audience; he or she should also make an assessment of whether the artist achieved the intended aim.
This is a tough call with ‘Face of an Angel’. As Winterbottom admitted in the Q/A session after the screening and as the ‘Winterbottom’ character in the film, Thomas (played by Daniel Bruhl) states, he had no clear idea where he was going when he started. This lack of clarity and lack of a clear central message is the film’s fatal flaw. Is it about human frailty, triumph over adversity, the perils of indecision or a man with a mid life crisis who fails to get his life on track? It might be about all these things and none. It is a sprawling, annoying, incoherent unfocused ramble through the mind of a troubled man. It fails to hit any clear targets, probably because the director did not choose any.
The project started in real life and in the movie with the director reading Barbie Nadeau’s book about the Meredith Kercher murder and Amanda Knox. He buys the film rights, the names of the protagonists are changed and the location is moved from Perugia to Sienna. There are few other departures from the story we know so well and they seem to happen by accident rather than design. Exactly why Winterbottom bought Nadeau’s book is a mystery. It remains by far the least satisfactory and most superficial account of the case and reads more like a penny dreadful pamphlet than a serious analysis of the crime. It is merely used as a starting point for the project and for all the use it is, Winterbottom could easily done without it.
The central conceit of the film is the story within a story, behind a story. Like the cover of the 1969 Pink Floyd album ‘Ummagumma’, it is all about recursion, or the Droste effect. The record sleeve depicts a scene in which the four members of the band strike separate distinct poses. On the wall is a picture of the same scene, but the band members have changed places. Within that picture is another picture where the pattern is repeated. And so on ad infinitum. Aptly enough, according to Wikipedia, ‘ummagumma’ is Cambridge slang for sex, also a recurrent motif in the story. Everyone in the film is pondering life and looking for love or sex, while they observe death and suffer loss. Just like the rest of us, really.
From behind the camera, Winterbottom is making a film about making a film. Bruhl plays a director in a mid life crisis, cocaine addicted, fascinated with an Italian murder, divorced from his wife, desperate to remain close to his daughter, looking for love, down on his luck and with cinematic failure behind him. Bruhl captures the bewilderment and aimlessness of Thomas well, reminiscent of Jackson Browne’s ‘Pretender’, “Who started out so young and strong, only to surrender.”
He has moments of action and clarity but he is a hero who is driven by events outside his control and he makes only feeble attempts to direct his own life. He imagines that in the film he wants to make he can somehow re-engineer Dante in a contemporary setting by using the student murder story.
Behind the film within a film, we have a journalistic rat pack, befriended by Thomas, courtesy of Simone (Kate Beckinsale), the hard as nails Nadeau character. Despite the fact that they are covering the story, none of the journalists seem to understand what happened and why; who is really responsible for the murder and who has been railroaded. This is because they don’t really care. As long as the story continues, they can write about it and get paid.
Thomas decides to observe them as fodder for his unformed project which is turning into an expose of gutter journalism instead of an analysis of a crime. It is soon evident that the journalists inhabit an amoral world of casual sex and thoughtless slander that is several notches below that of the students they write about. We learn that Simone is separated from her husband and has no problem reconciling sex with Thomas along with a tryst with another journalist who is modeled on real life freelance hack Nick Pisa.
Enter Frank Sfarzo, or Francesco (Corrado Internizzi), his hirsute equivalent on film. This Francesco not only writes a blog and realizes that the students are innocent of murder, he also seems to own most of the student accommodation in the city and furnishes Thomas with lodgings. He is contemptuous of the journalists and impatient with Thomas, who is reluctant to accept Francesco’s version of events and is ambivalent about a draft script that Francesco is peddling. Thomas decides to investigate the hedonistic student subculture that he believes may have framed the murder.
He meets Melanie (Cara Delevingne), a student who works in a bar (just like Amanda Knox did) and she becomes his conduit to student life. She is smart, engaging, appealing and confident, everything that Thomas is not and she takes him under her wing. Unlike the cynical and calculating Simone, she embraces life and soon becomes a composite child/mother to Thomas. She is the wife he has lost, the daughter he struggles to connect with and she personifies the open and trusting nature of the student who is on trial for murder because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Interspersed with Thomas’s journey to nowhere, we are offered clips of news coverage about the murder, so that we can understand his latest obsession. We are transported to London where he lives in a chic apartment overlooking Smithfield Market and meets with his production team and backers who are as bemused by his unfocused film project as we are. We share his nightmares which include stabbing and being stabbed, as well as being attacked in a dark street by a horror movie lizard. Confused? You may be, as were the members of the audience who walked out half way through.
Although Winterbottom and Thomas claim that the murder mystery is unsolvable, doubts about the credibility of the investigation and the validity of the evidence predominate, with the notable exception of the interrogation ‘confession’. Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt) is the surrogate Amanda who delivers the script in a flat, deadpan manner, devoid of emotion, straight to camera as if she is reading the telephone directory. There are no shouting police officers, screams, or slaps on the head – she is more Stepford Wife than terrified student.
The film recreates cameo scenes from the 2011 appeal and acquittal, culminating in a hostile street demonstration in which Jessica leaves with her family from the front of the court building through the mob, rather than by car at the back.
Thomas then departs on an excursion with Melanie, first visiting Dante’s tomb and then going on to the seaside. Melanie fails to persuade him to join her in the sea. One reviewer of the Toronto screening describes this scene as a pointless excuse to show Delvingne in her underwear. This misunderstands its purpose. It is the pivotal scene of the movie – if it has one. Melanie embraces life with an instinctive maturity that Thomas lacks. He is unable to follow her into the sea just as he is unable to climb out of his own slough of despond.
He lacks the courage to join her and start a new chapter. Their ambivalent relationship seems unconsummated and we see her sleeping in a hotel room while Thomas sits in a chair beside her and ponders. By then he has been told that his film project has been junked. Do we care? Will Thomas find happiness? Will he ever see his daughter again? These questions are unanswered.
If the film has any message it is that youth, trust and hope should triumph over corruption and cynicism. Delvingne is a breath of fresh air and her warmth and natural charm infuse the film with an optimism that transcends Winterbottom’s unfocused and confusing jumble of images.
The movie is dedicated to Meredith Kercher and includes scenes from a funeral service for the film’s fictitious victim. Winterbottom makes the point that the real life victim has been sidelined, but his film pays only a token nod to the memory of Meredith and this is awkwardly placed.
Meanwhile, the character playing Amanda Knox’s co-defendant Raffaele Sollecito is almost completely airbrushed out of the film.
At the Q/A session afterwards, the last question fell to me. I asked whether it was appropriate to release a film of this type when the real criminal case is still ongoing and two innocent people continue to have their lives hang by a thread. Winterbottom and his cohorts seemed slightly defensive at this and he said that because there are so many books, articles, documentaries and another film, it is OK; he is not doing anything that others have not done. He also said that he had taken the time and trouble to get the approval of the Kercher family, though what they will make of it if they see it is hard to tell.
There were no follow up questions, or I would have asked him why he had not approached Knox and Sollecito as well. While claiming that the film is not really about the Meredith Kercher murder, but is really about the people who cluster around tragic happenings, Winterbottom ducks the fact that without the circus that surrounds Amanda Knox, nobody would notice his film at all.
Who might want to see it? Followers of the case, to see what he has done to it – and Carla Devingne’s mum.
On my tube journey home I was accompanied by three young women and a man, students probably. They were drinking vodka or rum and coke from mineral water bottles. The women were dressed in skimpy tops. They were drunk and happy and pretty and loud and asked a black man who was travelling with three children if they could take a photo of his cute son. He smiled and agreed, though the boy seemed less enthusiastic.
Amanda Knox could be loud and happy, just like Cara Delvingne and the students in the tube or in the street. Cara and the students have the advantage of youth and optimism and a clear horizon. Amanda Knox does not. Her youth and her future and that of Raffaele Sollecito have been stolen by an ongoing nightmare, while people like Michael Winterbottom monetize it.
When Francesco offered to sell his film script to Thomas, Simone criticized him for trying to make money out of a tragedy. “Why should you be the only person to make money out of it”, was his riposte. And so it goes. Winterbottom, Thomas and the journalists have all lined up, one behind the other to exploit somebody else’s misfortune: the Droste effect.
There is a good film to be made out of this case. But this isn’t it.