For maverick filmmaker Mike Figgis, the naughties was his digital playground. Oscar nominations for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas gave him enough critical cache to spend his next few features on the cutting edge, experimenting and innovating with new formats. While Timecode’s 4-way split screen was truly groundbreaking, Hotel boasted an international A-list cast but came out the arse-end of the arthouse. Two years later, Cold Creek Manor marked Figgis’ return to studio filmmaking and was a huge flop at the box office. Going off the grid for the next decade, to this day it’s hard to say whether he was thrown in director jail or his exile was self-imposed. Besides the odd short film or TV pilot, Figgis concentrated his energies on developing new technology (the Fig Rig) and teaching as a professor of film studies in Switzerland.
Last month, Figgis fired off a scathing state-of-the-film-nation address in an article for The Guardian, denouncing the British film industry as an assembly of meddlesome committees and exclusive clubs. Figgis had a good moan about being turned down by the BFI for budget and post-production help and failing to get a showing at the London Film Festival. On the evidence of his latest effort, Suspension of Disbelief, it’s not hard to see why the moneymen said no.
A past-his-prime screenwriter (Sebastian Koch) has a quickie with mysterious French floozy Angelique (Lotte Verbeek) at a party, only to find himself being fingered for her murder the next day when her body is found floating in the Thames. The bigger mystery of why Angelique flings herself at Martin with barely an introduction can only be explained by screenwriter wish fulfillment, as it would appear that nothing gets this ravishing beauty hornier than a good ol' case of creative blockage.
Figgis’ films have always had a perverse seediness that make him a kind of pervert auteur UK equivalent to Brian De Palma. Here, whether it’s the narrative conceit of evil twin doubles or a girl-on-girl make-out scene in the back of a cab, De Palma’s recent triumph of trash Passion looms large. There’s also the film-within-a-film written by Martin that, like Passion, playfully deconstructs film noir clichés, yet as the style and its attendant tropes spill over into the main storyline, Figgis is too busy letting us know how aware he is of genre to fully embrace it.
His film also lacks any of De Palma’s visual virtuosity, failing to mask the film’s DIY drabness. When we finally see the finished film of Martin’s script (a noirish high contrast of inky black and snowy white) it makes you wish Figgis had gone to the BFI with that instead.
Acting as if his lengthy absence never happened, Figgis’ now seemingly random barrage of split screen, layered dissolves and perfume ad slow-mo once pointed to the future of narrative cinema and all its possibilities. Ten years on, it’s an embarrassingly un-provocative exercise in tired style that points nowhere.
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