Monday, 21 December 2009

Death Becomes Her, Robert Zemeckis, USA 1992

Death Becomes Her remains one of my all-time favourite comedies, whose blatantly camp, black humour, never fails to make me laugh like few other comedies do.

At the centre of this farce stands a quintessential Hollywood diva of a certain age who in her steadfast refusal to face the facts by intending to stop the ageing process “dead in its tracks and forcing it into retreat”, ends up, tragically, as one of the many “living dead of Beverly Hills”. It is right here where Death Becomes Her strikes a much more serious, much darker, and much more ironic, note than one is led to believe, for on the surface Zemeckis’ offering could easily be written off as yet another special effects extravaganza. But with its insinuations to real life -society’s increasing fixation with youth, the increasing plastic surgery mania - the film often has the effect of making you choke on your laughs.

Death Becomes Her deservedly won an Oscar for its special effects, which were truly breathtaking for its time and which Zemeckis uses carefully and sensibly and never gratuitously as they are always expertly woven into the story. In fact, you’re never quite sure what’s more astounding: the special effects bonanza, the razor-sharp dialogues, or the mastery of Meryl Streep, who in her role as the washed-up screen siren Madeline Ashton pulls all the stops and brings a new meaning to the word ‘camp’. In fact, her wisecracks in this film just have you laughing out loud. She’s absolutely hilarious!

The sets and the costumes are a vital element in the film, and both are designed to underline the film’s surreal, gothic undercurrent. Take Isabelle Rossellini, for example, as Lisl von Rhoman, wearing an outlandish creation consisting of a parure of beads and rhinestones with a sort of pareo skilfully wrapped around her hips. Zemeckis of course plays on Rossellini's past as one of the world's highest paid fashion and beauty models. As the face of Lancome, Rossellini's career lasted well into her forties, which makes her role in Death Becomes Her - as a peddler of eternal youth and beauty - all the more intriguing.

After her miraculous rejuvenation Streep’s Madeline Ashton makes a sensational entrance in black leggings, a turquoise see-through chemise and a pair of fuck-me-heels – all designed to win back the lover she lost to a younger girl. But no sooner has she left her room than her furious husband is pushing her down the stairs - in a fall that is artificially prolonged, highlighting the film’s surreal tinge - which subsequently turns her into the ‘living dead’ she and all her fellow plastic-surgery-fiends are fated to become. The costumes are matched by outstanding sets and props, which again underline the film’s surreal and gothic undercurrent reminiscent of films like Blade Runner, Metropolis, and, also, very fittingly, a famous commercial Jean-Baptiste Mondino made in 1990 for the launch of Chanel's fragrance Egoiste. Moreover, Lisl’s mansion and Madeline’s fortress-like home with its extremely high staircase, also call to mind films like Nosferatu, Faust or Der müde Tod (Destiny).

Another element in Death Becomes Her that strikes a familiar tone is the music, which incidentally is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho. However, although certain elements in Zemeckis' film are certainly borrowed, he clearly uses them to pay homage rather than just blatantly stealing from other films. Zemeckis's use of these - borrowed - elements is clever and thoughtful, as he ultimately turns it all into something new and makes them his own. With the help of an equally witty script and a brilliant mise-en-scène (e.g. the three nuns who seems to be hovering rather than walking), not to mention his exquisite cast, notably Streep and Goldie Hawn playing her nemesis, Zemeckis came up with a highly original, camp, black comedy, which unfortunately and undeservedly, at the time of its release, was written off as just another special effects comedy by most critics.

"Can you remember where I parked the car ...?"