Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bent Out of Shape: "Bent" (1997)

Martin Sherman's play about German homosexuals during World War II makes a shaky transition to the screen.

Max (Clive Owen) lives with dancer Rudy (Brian Webber), and has a debaucherous old time at a "club" run by drag queen Greta (Mick Jagger). He lives a selfish life, broke, and does not treat Rudy that well. He brings home a military man as a lover, and the Nazis raid, killing the soldier and driving Rudy and Max into the woods. The couple is captured while trying to make plans to escape to Amsterdam. They are thrown on a boxcar headed for Dachau, and there Max makes a fateful decision to stay alive at all costs, using advice received from Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who is wearing a pink triangle, signifying a homosexual. Max has conned his way into a yellow triangle, signifying himself as Jewish.

At the concentration camp, Max is always looking to make a deal, and gets Horst moved to Max's work detail. The two begin arguing as Horst realizes Max's work detail is an exercise in futility used to drive an inmate mad. The two cannot touch each other, get three minute breaks every two hours (when they must stand at attention for all three minutes), and work twelve hours straight moving rocks from one pile to another, and then back again. Horst is angry that Max denies being a homosexual, even though the pink triangles are the lowest form of life at the concentration camp. The two men slowly become friends, then lovers, but not in the conventional sense. Because they live apart, and cannot touch, they make love while standing next to each other, using their voices and imaginations.

Martin Sherman wrote a difficult screenplay to watch, crowding his most shocking scenes in the opening third of the film. By the time we are taken to Dachau, and the monotonous rock moving begins, the viewer's monotony sets in. Was this the intent of the film makers? After so much sex and violence, the camp scenes seem almost mild by comparison. Sean Mathias' direction works all the way through. He was hampered with a small budget (filmed on location in England...and it certainly looks like it), but his camerawork captures enough of the pain after the brief highs of Max's existence in the beginning of the film.

Clive Owen and Lothaire Bluteau are excellent, as Max tries to reject Horst's eventual professings of love and sadly forgetting the name of Rudy, the man he loved and then would be forced to kill. Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen have good cameos, and Jude Law can be spotted in a two line early role. Philip Glass' musical score sounds exactly like his others, and I think it was used almost note for note (and to better effect) in "The Hours." The locations do not convince. My main problem was with Sherman's screenplay. While the actors carry most of the middle and end of the film on their own, I hate to admit I was often bored. "Bent" was also rated NC17, an overreaction to an orgy scene at Greta's. I have seen worse on cable television, and this is just one more ratings mistake the MPAA made.

"Bent" is a good film, but it cannot keep up the pain and terror of the first third, with a screenplay that lets the two main actors down. Emotional ending, but all in all a disappointment. (* * *) out of five stars.