Carl Jung had a theory he called “Participation Mystique,” which Mike Figgis tries to explain with a few written lines at the top of his new post-modern film noir, “Suspension of Disbelief.” Basically, the idea is that the emotional part of the brain that controls emotions doesn’t distinguish between truth and fiction; consequently, when making or watching art, reality and fantasy merge.
Philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief” in 1817, using the example of a writer being able to convince the reader to suspend judgement of an implausible narrative if the author could infuse his story with human interest and the suspension of truth. The odd thing about making such a big deal of Jung is that Figgis has managed to make a film that never gives the audience a chance to suspend disbelief. At every opportunity, the all-too-self-aware director reminds the audience that they are watching a fiction, whether by jumping to scenes of screenwriting professor Martin (Sebastian Koch) explaining screenwriting and story structure to pupils at the London Film School, or in the film within a film that finds director Greg (Eoin Macken) explaining the theory behind his plot to his leading actress Sarah (Rebecca Night), daughter of Martin.
The merging of the fact and fiction in the creative process has been heavily investigated recently, most notably in the works of Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen, but no auteur has taken quite such an academic tone as the one adopted by Figgis. The director even has the temerity to put up a definition of “twin” written on screen when it’s revealed that Lotte Verbeek is playing two parts: the voluptuous Angelique and her sporty curious sister Theresa. Then comes the flashing on screen of the slogan “character is plot,” condensing an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote. It’s as if Figgis is desperate for us to give him a pat on the back for being such a smartass.
To my embarrassment, I’m going to give him one. In between all the postulating, “Suspension of Disbelief” is an intriguing drama that uses all the clichés of film noir to raise tension and create not just one but *two* murder plots. Martin is the prime suspect in both. His wife went missing 15 years ago and Martin tells everyone that she left him. No one has heard from her since. Then, on his daughter Sarah’s 25th birthday, her mysterious friend Angelique takes a shine to Martin and is photographed flirting with him — only to be found some days later dead in a canal.
Sebastian Koch is excellent in the Humphrey Bogart role. He has an uncanny ability to seem both in control and at a total loss at the same time. Despite being the prime suspect, he himself conducts an investigation to prove that Therese killed her twin. What doesn’t work so well are the scenes in the film being made by Greg, and anyone who has seen a Hitchcock movie will second guess that this fiction foreshadows reality.
Through and through, this is a film about filmmaking. Once again, Figgis, who also composed the score, shows his mastery of the freedom and opportunity offered by digital technology. One of the first directors to claim that “film is dead” and embrace digital technology, Figgis became a hero for digital filmmakers by inventing camera accessories such as the Figgis Wheel and writing books on digital filmmaking. He remains the master of the split screen. (Sorry, De Palma.) The standout moment comes when he has the director write a montage into his screenplay that includes four steps and a plane journey before simply jumping to a scene at the end of the trip.
Nonetheless, the form doesn’t mask the failure of the content. The plot looses its way when it creates too many threads. For a film so focused on reminding audiences that character is plot, it’s a shame that Figgis eventually just regurgitates stereotypes. Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With a structure and design that seems aimed at film students with cerebral interests, the movie will likely keep mainstream audiences at bay. The lack of star names in the cast will also count against it.