“Why should we be deprived of the pleasure of beauty?” So asks the film critic Pauline Kael in the quotation that precedes writer/director Aaron Schimberg’s latest work. In a luxuriant opening shot that tracks through hallways of old wood and warm light, we are introduced to a blonde woman, dressed in red. She turns to face the camera, revealing her face. She is, in fact, quite beautiful, and the sensations that play across her face remind us of Kael’s words. But is Schimberg in agreement with the critic, or posing a retort? Is this why we go to the movies? To reflect upon the beautiful? To luxuriate in their aura?
We soon realize that Frida, the woman in red, is blind, and confined to a hospital where a slightly crazed doctor hopes to restore her sight. But with an abrupt cut, Schimberg reveals something else: Frida is actually Mabel (Jess Weixler), an actress playing a role. For the duration of Chained for Life, we roam with her and her filmmaker colleagues across an old New York medical campus, repurposed as a set for a haughty European auteur’s English language debut.
Mabel and her fellow actors are deeply concerned with the preservation of appearance. Yet these Hollywood types are soon thrown into stark relief against a busload of people with various physical differences who have been brought to set in order to portray the other patients in this fictional art-house horror film. The basics of the horror film’s plot revolve around Mabel’s character of Frida falling in love with a patient who has a scarred face that she cannot perceive due to her blindness. This character will be played by an actor named Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), who is afflicted with neurofibromatosis. Schimberg has gone out of his way to cast real people with real physical differences in all these roles, and that sets this film apart.
The awkward but charming friendship that develops between Mabel and Rosenthal forms the challenging thematic spine of Chained for Life, an otherwise loosely structured work. Unlike her character Frida, all of Mabel’s interactions with Rosenthal are heavily charged by her perception of him. The inherent cleverness of Schimberg’s conceit emerges during these encounters between the two sides of the cast.
In the pretentious art-house film being shot, the cast with physical differences and disabilities are treated as frightening, hidden in shadowy lighting, and utilized as metaphorical symbols for the darkness within humanity. But then, ‘Cut!’ is called, and Mabel and her fellow actors fall all over themselves trying to project as much empathy as they can onto their new cohorts, in a competition of kindness and acceptance that never quite loses the subtle flavor of condescension and pity.
In one brilliant sequence early on, Schimberg frames a conversation between Mabel and Rosenthal in alternating, full-on portrait shots. He asks us to examine each performer’s face, as these characters do the same with one another. While Mabel is mostly concerned with treating Rosenthal in a considerate way, Rosenthal just wants tips on how to act. As Mabel performs various reactions for him, Schimberg spends just as much time on Pearson’s face as he does on Weixler’s. While Pearson’s expressive range is limited by his condition, a surprising effect is generated in those extended close-ups. Schimberg gives this highly charismatic actor the space to truly inhabit Rosenthal’s character.
Adam Pearson is best known for his highly memorable turn in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, yet even that 2013 stunner falls into the trap that Chained for Life illuminates. In that film, like in many others of lesser quality, those with physical differences and conditions are utilized almost as tools in larger morality tales. They are bridges for protagonists, often played by traditionally beautiful stars, to reach some new level of empathy. Yet there is a fine line between empathy and exploitation in cinema, and Schimberg constructs the fictional film production within Chained for Life to expose just how fine a line that can be.
However, don’t take this to mean the film is preachy or holier-than-thou. It achieves a darkly humorous and entirely human effect without judging any of these characters. Neither the more buffoonish Hollywood types nor the actors of physical difference are elevated or denigrated. Unlike many before him, Schimberg wants neither to construct an obvious morality tale or an expressionistic exploitation film. Instead, those actors who would usually be staged as a symbolic sideshow are suddenly pushed to the forefront. The clear divisions that Schimberg has set up within this world take on greater meaning and ramifications as these characters are allowed the space to tell their own stories.
Although Chained for Life appears to be shot on celluloid, there are frequent references to the emerging freedoms offered by digital filmmaking. Like he does elsewhere, Schimberg gently pokes fun at the more simplistic forms of this argument. While digital tools can surely aid in production and distribution, the creation itself must also be open and forward-facing. This entire effort seems to be a case of proof-in-the-pudding when it comes to more egalitarian cinema. This isn’t driven by an idealistic pursuit of changing people’s minds by tugging at the heartstrings. Instead, it follows a materialist strategy, where the content of the film addresses the many divisions in life and art that we often try to disguise or forget.
Through it all, Schimberg and his collaborators manage to juggle an artful touch and a comedic edge. It is not a mean film, nor is it a nice or comforting one. In a mirrored final set of sequences, Schimberg asks us once more what it means to consider others on screen. How in this changing world, with more democratic media access and means of production, it might be long past due to finally evolve our conceptions of the possible, the pleasurable, and the meaningful. It is time to relegate the tired art-house cliches of physical difference to the history books. It is time to imagine that there is new and fresh beauty still left to be seen.