In the modern age of endless selfies, we are hyper-aware of how we look; or perhaps more accurately, how we want to look, and how we want the world to see us. But what if it is impossible to hide out physical ‘flaws’, and how much is our identity dependent on a certain filmed reality?
Director and writer Aaron Schimberg (Go Down Death) examines these questions through this complex, darkly comic, and frequently frightening sophomore feature. The metanarrative takes unexpected twists and turns as it investigates the limits of beauty, the importance of the camera’s interpretation of ourselves and our lives, and how we can fall victim to prejudice and hubris.
A pretencious Italian film director is making what he sees as an ‘elevated’ genre film in the vein of Eyes Without A Face via Freaks. So he hires a group of people with physical deformities to play said freaks at the film’s fictional hospital. The main actress Mabel (Jess Weixler) finds herself in a somewhat forced but increasingly close friendsheip with Rosenthal (Adam Pearson, Under the Skin), a kind and funny man with a facial deformity. As a mad murdered is apparently wandering loose in the woods nearby, things on the set get stranger, as layers of performance and reality mingle.
The film opens with a quote from famed film critic Pauline Kael, extoling the virtue, and as she say it, necessity, of casting beautiful people in film. We then are taken on a short journey with a beautiful young blind woman, as she wanders the halls of a hospital, only to come across an operating theatre and the rather macabre procedure taking place. But this quickly is revealed as a scene from the B-movie, and the young woman indeed is Mabel, an actress chosen more for her beauty than her faked disability or much else.
Indeed, even in the opening credits, at least one character is referred to simple as ‘asshole’, meaning we have to search for his identity, much as the characters as searching for theirs. When the ‘freaks’ arrive, there is much fuss over them (a fuss they are sadly likely used to with ignorant people), and they are all dormed in a single room, as their their overarching identity of being ‘not normal’ means that any privacy they might like is unnecessary. As Mabel growns closer to Rosenthal, a man whose facial deformity belies and clever mind and gentle nature, the inner and outer films bleed into each other with experimental consequences.
And so these films within the film within the film get deeper and darker, as each actor seems to take on multiple characters, or really, multiple versions of themselves. For the ‘freaks’, this is a smooth transition, as they are likely more used to having to put on different masks in social settings and the world at large, to people who are either too curious, overly gracious, or too mean to deal with. Mabel is increasingly bewildered at where the line is not only between herself and her character, but also her relationship to Rosenthal as person and characters, and the limits of both her talent and her natural intelligence to understand those boundaries.
The indie, DIY style of both Chained for Life and the various films within belie its nuanced and subtely complicated visual and aural environment. Cinematographer Adam J. Minnick takes us on long, languid journeys in which we are encouraged to look in every corner, and the sound design by Schimberg, wonderfully mixed by Gillian Arthur, gives the film both its air of creepy mystery and its covert irreverance for the metanarrative.
Both a commentary on the joys and pains of indie filmmaking, and a sly and deviously funny look at perceived identity via physical appearance, Chained for Life plays a discordant yet strangely sweet song, one where the meaning is just under its less-than-perfect yet beautiful skin.