From King Kong to Beauty and the Beast, films have often grappled with romances between pretty women and males who, well, let’s say, fail to adhere to cultural standards of attractiveness. The latest is writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s meta Chained for Life, set behind the scenes of a campy horror flick featuring half a cast of what Tod Browning would have called freaks. The film’s leading man is Rosenthal, played by Adam Pearson (previously seen in Under the Skin), an English actor who has neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow around nerves. Rosenthal’s leading lady is Mabel (Jess Weixler), a friendly and earnest actress without any such condition.
The wacky genre movie they’re making is overseen by Herr Director, played by Charlie Korsmo, who sounds like he’s doing a Werner Herzog impression throughout Chained for Life. (In one wonderful scene, Herr pretentiously expounds on the wonders of cinematic craft by way of a close analysis of Orson Welles’s appearance in The Muppet Movie.) Mabel stars in this film within a film as a blind woman who falls for Rosenthal’s character; her co-star, Max (Stephen Plunkett), plays a radical surgeon who operates on disabled and deformed patients. Max restores the sight of Mabel’s character, and she’s horrified by her lover’s appearance. And for her inability to accept him, she receives an ironic comeuppance straight out of Freaks.
But Chained for Life isn’t usually so over the top. Schimberg’s cast is prone to just sitting around the set of the genre movie they’re making, gently interrogating cultural concepts of beauty: how we define said beauty, and what we do to improve our own. Throughout, they explore such topics as chemical disfigurement and cosmetic surgery, raising questions such as what might drive a woman to augment her breasts. There are subtle suggestions that, say, “beautiful” people, the sorts who put special creams on their faces, are their own kind of cultish freaks. But Schimberg mostly avoids advocacy. Chained for Life isn’t much of an argument, just a provocative discussion.
That it focuses on the movie industry is, of course, no accident. Hollywood has produced a racket worth billions of dollars by commodifying beauty. Chained for Life underscores the point by opening with a lengthy epigram by Pauline Kael, about how actors are better looking than the rest of us, and that that beauty both aids their craft and pleases audiences. “Actors and actresses who are beautiful start with an enormous advantage,” she writes, “because we love to look at them.” Schimberg’s film doesn’t seem to ask for much from its audience—just to confront this fact, and get a conversation going.
BAMcinemaFest runs from June 20—July 1.