Opens Friday 6 March in the US
Don’t be put off by the title; it’s not an exposé of the current occupant of the White House, but an adaptation of the 1971 Charles Willeford novel of the same name. I went to a special screening thanks to the Woodstock Film Festival folks with my pal Peg Aloi AKA The Media Witch. There was a Q&A with producer William Horberg after.
The film stars the very tall pair, Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki, in the primary roles (I never noticed during the BBC Dracula how long Bang’s torso is) with Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland in small pivotal roles. Scott Smith, who wrote A Simple Plan, scripted the film from the novel. He reduced the overwhelming misogyny of the book somewhat (‘Really?’ Peg asked). Horberg mentioned how his pal Neil LaBute was interested in filming the novel at one point. I shudder to think.
Art, grifting, theft and criticism: the book is a lot more deliberate about the last. Smith’s script takes the central themes and turns them into plot decisions. It’s more efficient and dramatic. I’m immersed in stories of art forgery at present for a project (yeah, there’s some Ripley in it, too) so this story has been swirling around in my head. Smith focuses on how the stories we shape in turn shape who we are, but the devil is in the details.
Bang and Debicki are excellent as Figueras (the Puerto Rican identity that’s a linchpin of the novel is dropped) and Hollis. Immediately drawn to each other but infinitely wary, too; he, because he has no authenticity—she, because she has too much. As an art critic on the make, he’s easily exploited by Jagger’s smarmy art dealer Cassidy to get an exclusive: one for each of them. Per Horberg, Jagger asked for rewrites of his part. Possibly just a power move, but the character is much more clever than in the books. It’s not giving away too much to say that he send Figueras to interview reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Sutherland) and to steal a painting from the man who’s only ever had one work displayed.
Berenice exists in the novel as an excuse for Figueras to ramble about his opinions on art and criticism at length (something I have an interest in though most noir fans may skip over the pages on Becket, Dada and Surrealism quickly) and as a plot point. It’s to Smith’s credit that she’s more than that in the film. It’s to Debicki’s credit that she makes her a believable character. The sweetness of her scenes with Sutherland is delightful (Horberg’s account of how he got him for the role spells out the importance of who-you-know-Hollywood). Smith has the elder artist spouting Yeats and Shakespeare not pretentiously, but as naturally as someone with a huge store of words hoarded over the years.
But I’m not sure why they changed the frankly even cheerfully sexual character into one who’s guiltily ‘whoring around Europe’ [cue eyeroll]. Ah, modern American puritanism. She’s ‘punishing’ herself by hanging around Figueras. He’s much more desperate and on the edge. In the novel he’s grafting as well as grifting. In the film, you get the feeling he’s scraping bottom more, thus easier to manipulate as Cassidy is more than willing to do. The transfer to Italy pays off in beauty (Visconti’s villa and grounds stand in for the collector’s summer home) what it loses in the seedy specificity of Willeford’s Florida. But in what world is this a ‘romance’ spiky or not? Only the Hollywood Reporter. Beautiful cinematography (David Ungaro) and music (Craig Armstrong) help build the neo-noir ambiance.
The guilty revelation at the final unveiling works well dramatically. In the novel the resigned self-sacrifice comes because Figueras realises he’s peaked. His confession to the crime is specifically to claim a false motivation. It’s a cover-up of the other crime that’s much more important to him and his legacy as a critic. He feels triumph.
The breakdown of the murder into two parts makes it that much more horrible. In the book Berenice is barely more than a cypher, so her only purpose on the road trip is being knocked off. In the film the first attempt is a heat-of-the-moment thing; Figueras seems shocked by his own violence and when he talks her back up the stairs to the flat, you almost believe that he regrets it. But the anger is deep; his own fears of failure. When she taunts him with the buzzing fly sound, his move is violent, sudden and final. But he is consumed by guilt and when the fellow critic points him to the ‘Mark of Cain’ the painter left—or rather, the fingerprint Berenice left on the canvas—he’s obviously stricken. There’s no triumph. Not for Figueras anyway; Berenice’s posthumous triumph hangs from the humble refrigerator door of her mother’s house.