Rage (2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Sally Potter

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The only film I have watched twice in a row, waiting only 30 minutes for my mother to show up for my second viewing after I rousted her with the order to come over NOW, was Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997). As tango and art lovers, Mom and I were mesmerized by the dancing and Robby Muller’s evocative black-and-white cinematography. But we were even more thunderstruck by Potter as a self-assured, determined woman romantically involved with a younger man. Because so few films provide women over 40 with positive images of women like themselves, I took it as a personal attack when critics called Potter self-indulgent for casting herself in the lead and showing off not only her dancing skill, but also her fantasy of seductive power, capped by a grandly over-the-top sequence where she is dancing with three men. (Strangely enough, another reviewer has yet again pronounced Ms. Potter to be “self-indulgent,” oh, and also “silly,” with her latest creation, Rage. It seems to me that some reviewers are becoming self-indulgent with that default pronouncement themselves.)

Rage represents an experiment in accommodating the cellphone viewer of movies. It was shot in seven episodes, uses actors delivering monologues to a cellphone camera against individually color-coded backgrounds, and premiered on mobile phones around the world. An intertitle introduces each episode, typed with mistakes that are deleted and retyped as though being texted on a cellphone. Rage is also directly linked to The Tango Lesson as the film Potter was working on when she changed her focus to tango and romance. Gestational scenes of Rage in the earlier film feature three high-fashion models wearing statement designs of different primary colors, with epic-length wigs to match, created by a legless fashion designer. One by one, they are gunned down during a photo shoot in Paris. Potter pitches this film unsuccessfully to some Hollywood honchos, and then later declares that she doesn’t care because she wrote a film she didn’t want to make. I’m glad she reconsidered.

Rage is the shortened title the fictitious director of the film, Michelangelo, decides on instead of “All the Rage”; the earlier title would have been fine for a film about the preparation and staging of a fashion show introducing a new fragrance called M, but not for what Michelangelo, a high school student doing the film as a school assignment, witnesses over seven days of shooting. To wit: The show is first derailed by the accidental death of a weepy model who gets her scarf caught in the wheel of a motorcycle driven onto the stage by Krishna-colored Vijay (Riz Ahmed), the personal pizza delivery boy to the show’s self-dramatizing designer Merlin (Simon Abkarian). Then, the second attempt to put on the show is cut short after the shooting of another model. Third time’s certainly not a charm, as workers protesting the unfair labor practices of the fashion house’s owner, “Tiny” Diamonds (Eddie Izzard), and the young people who have been following Michelangelo’s coverage on his website, converge to destroy the show and anyone connected with it.

Rage has a large cast of types. Among the more memorable is Dianne Wiest as the sweet former owner of the fashion house who pines for the good old days when the company belonged to her parents and clothes were made in America, not China. Diamonds reminded of me of a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, buying businesses of every type just because he can and offering his unsolicited business advice to the pubescent filmmaker. Otto (Jacob Cedergren) is a self-important public relations flunky who consistently mispronounces Michelangelo’s name and thinks everything needs to be kept secret and under his control. Merlin himself is a caricature of dancer Pablo Veron, Potter’s costar in The Tango Lesson, amusing in his abstractions and down-to-earth exasperation over designing to marketing department specifications. Jude Law is a revelation as a drag queen supermodel called Minx who employs a fake accent and brings a genuine poignancy to the proceedings with his coming-out saga while undercutting it with the supremely narcissistic notion that he caused the mayhem because he wished the two unfortunate models dead. Judi Dench as fashion critic Mona Carvell is the height of cynicism, offering a critique of Merlin’s aesthetic to Michelangelo, knowing that she can circumvent traditional media through Michelangelo’s website when Diamonds ensures that her opinion will be censored by her publisher.

It’s interesting to see how Potter’s ideas about Rage have evolved. The original setting in Paris would have highlighted the economic and social importance of fashion to the French capital, making the killings both more significant and more dramatic. Moving the show to New York and highlighting a fragrance as the center of the supposedly provocative show reduces fashion to just another commodity, a fact driven home by the interchangeable marketing personalities played by Bob Balaban and Patrick J. Adams and their miserably uninspired ideas, as well as by the cellphone format itself. Talk about cutting fashion down to size! Potter tries to maintain a relevant edge by bringing in off-screen protesters heard along with many of the wonderful sound effects and asides that contribute to an insistent and lush sound design, but having talking heads relate the dramatic events undercuts any gravity Potter may have been going for. Bringing a complaining, over-the-hill war photographer (Steve Buscemi) on to shoot the fashion show further trivializes the event, even though it does, in fact, become a massacre worthy of his talents.

Several of the characters question themselves about why they are talking to Michelangelo, but the new technology and the ubiquity of reality TV has accustomed just about everyone to displaying their egos for an audience. Some of the characters, like Carvell, see how to work this technology to their advantage, while others never even seem to consider that their interviews are public domain as soon as they open their mouths. Seamstress Anita de los Angeles (Adriana Barazza) says little, refuses to carry on her life in front of a camera, and seems to be the only one completely in touch with the outside world, though anime-faced Lettuce Leaf (Lily Cole) hides out with Michelangelo until she can get out of town, very sensibly not wanting to be the next assassinated mannequin. The challenge to Michelangelo that he has blood on his hands for revealing so much to his Internet audience is laughable, and yet tracks with ideas about cyberbullying. Movements can indeed be launched and sustained on the Internet, but in Rage, the bastards have hung themselves.

In general, Rage is a comedy filled with great performances and superb writing to flesh ideas and observations that are rather obvious. Like most information we access on the Internet, Sally Potter’s film is ephemeral, but well done and a lot of fun.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    26th/05/2011 to 10:38 am

    Marilyn, this is certainly the kind of work that will severely polarize viewers and indeed a quick scan of the responses online have confirmed a severely split response. I have not seen this, but am usually drawn and/or fascinated by films that are unique, almost singular in their approach and require much more than just a knee-jerk reaction based on unconventional style. I know Sally Potter is attuned to changes in the popular culture, and this seems like a work that takes into account the subtle changes in the mainstream. I’m definitely with you on THE TANGO LESSON though.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/05/2011 to 11:36 am

    Sam – Potter’s take on these characters would seem very stereotypical if 1) they were not meant to be comedic and 2) if they were not so deadly accurate. I have met these people – Otto especially is dead on . The writing is exceptionally good, which I think is why the performances are so great. The film is more theatrical than cinematic, of course, with the use of monologue until the very last couple of minutes. It’s amazing how much information comes through in a natural way without deserving the” show don’t tell” criticism that films like Inception have fallen victim to. And really, this format was specifically designed for cellphones, and I think she pulled it off beautifully.

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