Films about filmmaking are nothing new. From Truffaut’s visionary Day for Night to The Disaster Artist, film adores observing the magic of moviemaking. However, a lesser-explored area of filmmaking is the depiction of disability and specifically neurofibromatosis on screen.
Aaron Schimberg’s second feature, Chained for Life, hones in on the representation of facial deformity, going against the grain of indulging the audience in beautiful images of actors. Before any action appears on the screen, the film opens with an iconic quote from Pauline Kael on “one of the greatest pleasures of moviegoing”. Kael outlines that “watching incandescent people up there, more intense and dazzling than people we ordinarily encounter in life, and far more charming than the extraordinary people we encounter, because the ones on the screen are objects of pure contemplation.”
Whether it is watching the gracious Isabelle Huppert or dashing George Clooney, Kael’s statement does ring true to the gratifying experience an audience gains from watching stunning actors. Still, in placing this quote before any images have appeared, Schimberg underlines the need to challenge heteronormative images. This is not to say, however, that the film lacks any beauty. Through Adam J. Minnick’s cinematography and the lush mise-en-scene, Chained for Life possesses a tangible quality in its 16mm film footage.
Mabel (Jess Weixler) walks through a seemingly abandoned hospital in a vivid red dress. Seemingly a sequence taken from a low budget Dario Argento giallo film, the environment possesses a great gothic veneer. Upon arriving into a surgical room, she is acknowledged by a surgeon (Stephen Plunkett). As the camera pans left and right in an unbroken take, the room feels ghostly in the shadows conjured in the lighting. Quickly, one releases that Mabel is blind as she stumbles into the arms of this man. Seconds later an Anglo-Germanic accent cries out “Cut” and the actors break, with assistants darting to their every need. Out from the background appears Herr Director (Charlie Korsmo). Conducting himself in a rather abrasive fashion, he informs Mabel she needs to inhabit her character in a more convincingly manner.
Acting as a pivotal touchstone, George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face works as the template for Herr Director’s indie film. However, Mabel’s character is written to fall in love with Rosenthal (Adam Pearson) who’s face is deformed due to neurofibromatosis. Forcing the viewer to truly look at all forms of faces, Schimberg’s adopts tight frames and close-up lens when shooting his actors. Absent of any sadism, the images are imbued with tenderness towards their characters, in part thanks to a blossoming relationship between Rosenthal and Mabel.
Cleverly deceiving and toying with the audience with its film-inside-a-film premise, the initial scenes create a constant blurring of reality in the film. Whether it is a scene of Mabel simply walking around the outside grounds, the scenes possess a self-reflective and hyper-awareness to them. Chiefly in this cunningly deceptive technique, Chained for Life leaves you second-guessing whether you are in reality, surrealism or witnessing a dream. Further, the film goes to great lengths to imbue background characters with self-referential moments too. Exemplary in lengthy discussions between crew members on set upon Orson Welles’ blackface in Othello or his appearance in The Muppets Movie, cinephilia is an aspect the film revels in.
Poignantly reflecting the intimate connections humans can create in a short space of time, Chained for Life is a rich and rewarding experience. It is a film that keeps the audience constantly second-guessing everything on the screen. Primarily in the balancing of self-referencing moments, nuanced character interactions and collectively playful tone, Schimberg and his creative team achieve an intricate blend of fine indie filmmaking, one that is proudly humane towards correct representations on screen.