If you’re into cinema of the furrowed-brow variety, you can count on prolific British director Michael Winterbottom to construct medial versions of altered truths, QED his take on Sterne’s already meta-fictional Tristram Shandy in A Cock and Bull Story. Challenging perceptions of reality, Winterbottom has excelled at undercutting these with work that explores violence in explicitly political, social and sexual contexts (The Road to Guantanamo, In This World, The Killer Inside Me**).
“You can’t tell the truth unless you make it fiction” is apposite advice given to Thomas Lang (Brühl), a film director tasked with making a movie about a notoriously violent and sexually motivated murder case in a sleepy Italian university town. So Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel is not set in Perugia and the murder victim is not an innocent young British student called Meredith Kercher, rightly suggesting that media reporting on such crimes has lost itself (and us) in Daily Mail–National Enquirer reality-fiction mazes. The terror and tragedy beyond is secondary to salacious details and profit margins. Should intellectualized versions of truth (like this film) be part of the picture? These are the possibilities and theories that Lang ventilates with an in-crowd of hard-baked coverage journalists, including the gently exasperated love-interest Simone (Beckinsale), whose book is to form the basis of Lang’s filmic treatment. Many arguments here are obvious—but bear repeating as factors in a world predisposed to immediate, medial short-cuts. It’s Lang’s own confusion (and Brühl’s portrayal of it) that is likely to challenge viewer patience as the hapless director decides to link his version of events to Dante’s Divine Comed. Struggling with literary correlatives, alienating his backers and skyping with his daughter, Lang takes refuge in a symbolically freighted friendship with Melanie – another wide-eyed “young British student” (Delevingne) with whom he ends up playing cards at the seaside.
Allowing Thomas to cultivate the garden of his own ultimately simple needs à la Voltaire may feel like something of a cop out. On the other hand the journey there is positively labyrinthine and Winterbottom’s response to our fascinations with sex and violence, innocence and corruption as interestingly framed as ever. If coherence and credibility takes a knock sometimes, it’s all part and parcel of Winterbottom’s struggle with notions of truth and fiction: a struggle that’s not getting any easier — for any of us. You can close a book. Shutting out visual media is a lot harder. So why not just tell it as it is? Complicated.
The Face of an Angel | Directed by Michael Winterbottom (UK, Italy, Spain 2015) with Daniel Brühl, Kate Beckinsale, Cara Delevingne. Starts May 21.