Capital Celluloid 2023 — Day 242: Thu Aug 31

Wild Side (Cammell, 1995): ICA Cinema, 6.30pm

ICA introduction:
The perfect companion piece to Performance, Donald Cammell’s swan song is an edgy unpredictable pulp noir centred around crime, money, sex, power games and four outstanding acting performances. Bruno (Christopher Walken), the world’s most notorious money launderer, is being set up for a sting by undercover agent Tony (Steven Bauer) posing as his chauffeur. When Alex (Anne Heche), an international banker moonlighting as a call girl enters Bruno’s world, both Bruno and Tony see opportunity – as does Bruno’s estranged wife Virgina (Joan Chen). Masquerading as a crime thriller, Cammell’s final film shifts unpredictably between hard-bitten drama, sensuous lesbian love story and absurd black comedy to deliver an incendiary mix of mind games, sexual liaisons and ever-shifting loyalties as the four characters navigate an increasingly complex and irrelevant plot. The performances, particularly Walken’s as the nervy, eccentric Bruno are larger than life, and Heche, the emotional centre of the film, is outstanding as the intermittently tough, vulnerable, and uncertain Alex. On its UK release in June 2000, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote, ‘an original and exhilarating thriller, capriciously intelligent, with experimentalism and verve…an arresting work from an important and distinctive director.’Re-edited against his wishes by its American producers Cammell removed his name from the project and shortly after committed suicide, but a posthumous ‘director’s cut’ adding more than twenty minutes of material and restoring Cammell’s original vision was produced by Tartan Films in the UK screening to enthusiastic reviews. Thought to be lost, two 35mm prints of this director’s cut were recently uncovered, and this screening – the first for more than two decades – is from one of these two surviving prints.

Observer review:
Like William Burroughs, British film-maker Donald Cammell was the scion of an immensely rich family (the Cammell Laird shipbuilders) who reacted violently against his respectable background. Both lived outrageously unconventional lives of drugs, orgies and diabolical dabbling, and produced extravagant, deliberately provocative works concerned, often mystically, with bisexuality and the perverted exercise of power. Unlike Burroughs, who killed his wife, Cammell killed himself, dying in Hollywood in 1996 at the age of 62. Cammell's first film, Performance , co-directed with Nicolas Roeg, is one of the most remarkable to emerge from a British studio and encapsulates the culture of Swinging London at its most seductively corrupt. He was forced by Warner Brothers to re-edit it drastically and he only completed three more pictures - the SF curiosity Demon Seed (Julie Christie impregnated by a computer), the mystic thriller White of the Eye (serial killer loose in the Arizona desert) and Wild Side, which was chopped up by its producers and sent straight to cable TV in 1995. It was the contemptuous treatment of this last film that proved the last straw, as it were, for Cammell, but he was still hoping to regain control of it when he shot himself. Now his editor and friend, Frank Mazzola, with the help of Channel 4 and Tartan Films, has restored the director's cut, and it is being shown under the somewhat tautologous title of Donald Cammell's Wild Side. It could as easily be called 'Christopher Walken on the Wild Side', for in that most volatile of American actors Cammell found a perfect exponent of his dangerous art. Walken plays an out-of-control financial crook, Bruno, the world's biggest money launderer, on whom the federal authorities have planted a psychotic undercover agent, Tony (Steven Bauer), as his chauffeur. A beautiful Los Angeles banker, Alex Lee (Anne Heche), is moonlighting as a $1,000-a-night call-girl to pay off her mortgage. She services the sexually voracious Bruno, is raped by Tony and then blackmailed by the Feds. Walken sends his Chinese wife Virginia (Joan Chen) to Alex's bank as part of a gigantic scam and the two women fall passionately in love. The film is from start to finish absolutely crazy, full of baroque dialogue and over-the-top performances. On one level it's a power game between an unlikely unhinged quartet, on another it's an orgy in serial form. It is often queasily risible, as when the financier prepares to bugger his chauffeur in front of Alex to demonstrate his superiority, and makes the intended victim roll the condom on for him as he smokes a cigar. Yet like all Cammell's work, Wild Side is oddly compelling - riveting in the sense that you feel nailed to a post as you watch it. The editing is disconcerting, the interiors claustrophobic, and Cammell uses to considerable emblematic effect the township of Long Beach, where the immaculate three-funnelled Queen Mary is isolated in an industrial seaside wasteland. In a curious reference back to the London of the 1960s, the heroine's nasty boss is called Rachman, presumably after the property racketeer involved in the Profumo scandal.
Philip French

Here (and above) is the trailer.

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