Face to Face
By Susannah Gruder

Chained for Life
Dir. Aaron Schimberg, U.S., Kino Lorber

From the start, otherworldly harp music and a tracking shot of the back of a blonde head walking tentatively through a midcentury hospital recall the camera work of “Eye of the Beholder.” And as in that canonical Twilight Zone episode, our focus is momentarily taken off the human face—a choice that seems antithetical to film and television, which are traditionally reliant on the guiding force of actorly expression. Of course, in not displaying an actor’s appearance, we’re left guessing what they could be hiding. Like Rod Serling, director Aaron Schimberg is eager to expose our own biases, and here he thrills at luring us into a vertiginous series of alternate dimensions, seeking to unravel our ideas about the nature of beauty captured on camera.

Someone yells “cut!” and the actors drop their painfully exaggerated German accents. This opening scene is quickly revealed to be part of the film-within-a-film, in the first of many of Chained for Life’s disorienting twists. The blonde is Mabel (Jess Weixler), an actress who signs on to play Freda, a blind woman in a period hospital drama overtly pilfered from horror movies of the past, like Freaks and Eyes Without a Face. Chained for Life involves a group of actors with physical differences (including conjoined twins, a half-man/half-woman, and a bearded lady) who have come to the hospital to be treated by a dictator-like doctor (Stephen Plunkett) with a vision to “eradicate aberrations.” Among the patients is Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a severely disfigured man who, to Mabel’s surprise, intrigues her as much as he is meant to intrigue her character. Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis, will be familiar to some viewers from his role opposite Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). Like any movie about moviemaking, the film straddles two worlds, shocking us awake each time the filmed action stops. The atmosphere on set feels like a cross between summer camp and asylum, an inescapable indie-film paradise somewhere upstate. Here, people with different backgrounds, opinions, and, most significantly, appearances, are forced to interact, for better or worse.

Chained for Life unfolds like a fable, though it’s more intent on posing questions than imparting any kind of moral lesson. Like Glazer, Schimberg wants to give us whiplash, getting us to reconsider preconceived notions about beauty, handed down from Hollywood and held up over time, before suddenly changing direction in the next scene and representing the clichés that reinforce the same notions. It’s easy to sympathize with Mabel and the rest of the cast, who are forced to jump from fantasy to reality as they go in and out of character on set. It’s dizzying to feel our prejudices unravel, only to be exploited again a moment later.

The film’s epigraph is from Pauline Kael, essentially praising the practice of casting beautiful people in movies: “Actors and actresses are usually more beautiful than ordinary people. And why not? Why should we be deprived of the pleasure of beauty?” Schimberg seeks to interrogate the mythology behind Hollywood’s beauty standards in both this, his second film, and his surreal 2013 debut, Go Down Death. Schimberg, who was born with a bilateral cleft palate, says that he views the world through the lens of “disfigurement and disability.” “Is the cinema against me?” he asks. “Are these cinematic portrayals just a reflection of age-old beliefs—or some objective truth that I don’t want to admit?” While the film is saturated with such questions, Schimberg distances it from any speechifying or grandiosity, mocking the actors and crew members who try to display their erudition on set—the highlight being a Herzog-inspired, in-depth plot summary of The Muppet Movie from the extremely German director (Charlie Korsmo). While Herr Direktor may have cast Rosenthal and the others as “freaks,” it’s the other crew members who end up playing caricatures of themselves, whether it’s the tyrannical director trying to realize his elaborate “vision,” the pretentious actor quoting Shakespeare on set, or the beret-clad script girl chasing people down with new pages.

Even Mabel falls victim to the pressure to perform for a journalist who interviews her on-set. “Acting is . . . acting,” she says in response to the question of how she can play a blind person. “Like, Orson Welles, who’s white, can play Othello, who’s black.” Her vanity is on full display as she opines about her facial hair in the green room with her makeup artist Michelle (Joaquina Kalukango), and sips champagne while wearing a peeling green face mask with her co-star Sarah (Sari Lennick), who’s as wonderfully campy in these moments as she is in her role as a Russian nurse (“Vee vait in long line for loaf of bread,” she rehearses to herself). Once Rosenthal arrives, however, Mabel is drawn to him despite her initial discomfort with his appearance. While she at first stammers and struggles to look him in the eye, Rosenthal, clearly used to these interactions, remains unfazed. Soon, they are following the Disney trajectory, her fascination with him outweighing her trepidation. Will they or won’t they? In the film-within-the-film of course they do: in one of Chained for Life’s highlights, Freda and Rosenthal enact a passionate love scene while the entire crew watches. Their off-screen chemistry has seeped in, creating a strange and powerful hybrid between the two worlds. Similarly, we’re reminded that all this is being filtered through a sort of double vision, for while we’re witnessing the action on the beautiful graininess of 16mm, shot by DP Adam J. Minnick, the film within is shot digitally, to the director’s glee, allowing for seemingly endless takes.

Toward the end of the film, the barriers between the real and the filmed worlds, and the imaginary in-between, become increasingly fuzzy. Rosenthal and his crew of “freaks,” sequestered in the hospital while the rest of the cast lodges at a hotel, decide to make their own film, with cameos from the nurses (Lucy Kaminsky and Anu Valia) working the night shift. The film proves to be startlingly good, displaying a naturalism far from the melodrama of the original project, and featuring no allusions to Rosenthal’s appearance.

At one point, Rosenthal says his dream job would be a waiter—in other words, a profession where he could interact normally with people face-to-face. Mabel, too, claims this was her childhood dream, something as unlikely for a successful actress with a recognizable face to realize as it is for someone like Rosenthal. Both long for ordinary lives, where it’s possible, to take a break from thinking about the strictly external. Chained for Life is his attempt to represent this, and to show us what it looks like when a film is made by and starring “disfigured” people—a response to films like The Elephant Man, Mask, and Freaks. He succeeds in portraying a paradisical world in which physical appearance does not determine star quality. This may only be possible, however, in brief moments: an interlude, a dream sequence, or perhaps a storyline from another dimension.