Chained for Life opens with a quote by late critic Pauline Kael about actors being “more beautiful than ordinary people”. Kael made a good observation on how the purpose of actors for our visual pleasure on-screen. In a superficial society; we worship beauty and desire it, so therefore it only seems natural that actors portray this unachievable beauty standard. Already, director Aaron Schimberg is asking the viewer to challenge their perception of beauty and their admiration of actors. Actors, are after all, people too.
This is Schimberg’s second feature, and his follow-up from 2013’s black-and-white Go Down Death. Chained for Life is a fascinating meta-narrative involving a film crew making a quasi-horror movie about physical disabilities keeps viewers at a deliberate distance. Schimberg asks the viewer to challenge exactly what they are witnessing on-screen and to come to their own conclusions.
Blind, blonde Freda (Jess Weixler) walks the halls of a sinister private hospital circa 1940, interrupting a cosmetic surgery procedure by her Teutonic doctor-lover (Stephen Plunkett) and his stereotypically severe nurse Olga (Sari Lennick). But a noise interrupts the scene, which is indeed taking place at a hospital — but being acted out by performers working on a film. The viewer discovers that this is the first American film by a pretentious European auteur referred to Herr Director (Charlie Korsmo), who is channeling his best Lars Von Trier impression.
The film that Herr Director is making appears to be an homage to the 1970s B-picture, the European horror films which dominated the market in the era. There’s a vaguely Nazi-like doctor conducting secret genetic experiments in which all human abnormalities can be eradicated — but at what cost? Mabel (Weixler) is an up and coming film star who has taken on a role in the strange production to boost her reputation as a serious actor. Mabel is constantly fending off attention from her vain leading man Max (Stephen Plunkett), who comes across as desperate and insecure.
She’s more interested in getting close to her other co-star, Rosenthal, a man who like the actor playing him (Adam Pearson) has neurofibromatosis, a condition that results in non-cancerous but disfiguring nervous-system tumors. Within the film that is being made, the character of Rosenthal is presented as a ‘monster’ and we witness retakes of the same scene where he steps out of the shadows. Rosenthal questions Herr Director about his character’s actions: ”Why am I hiding in the shadows?” Only to be told it’s because it looks good on camera. When they’re not filming, Rosenthal is simply a friendly, self-deprecating, rather ordinary bloke in every way save appearance. His down to earth nature is a pleasant addition to the film set where people seem to talk non-stop about cinema to the point that it becomes obnoxious.
In any event, Mabel/Freda is attracted to him. Although, it’s difficult to tell whether her interest is sincere, or whether Mabel is simply getting into character. Mabel is the beauty among the ”freaks”. Herr Director has cast other “freaks” beyond Rosenthal, including such carny favorites as a Bearded Lady, conjoined twins and a burned woman who seems to be cold towards Mabel. Perhaps the burned woman can see past Mabel’s persona, and senses the young woman’s insecurities. Mabel professes not to care about image, but has her own beauty hang-ups (for example should she be worried about not smiling enough or smiling too much?) and is conscious about her intellect.
Schimberg’s script weaves unpredictably between scenes within the film-in-film, and the crew’s activities on location during off-hours. Schimberg seems to delight in playing with the viewer’s perception and testing their patience as he includes sequences that might turn out to be dreams, or rushes, or of ambiguous origin. Chained for Life plays around with the concept of reality in a way that is very reminiscent of Berberian Sound Studio; there’s even a facially scarred killer purportedly running around in the vicinity of the film shoot. It makes for an interesting viewing experience, which may annoy some other viewers who prefer a more rigid and chronological narrative. With strong leading performances, Chained for Life is a unconvential but rather charming romantic film with dashes of horror, mystery and satire. Todd Browning would be proud.