Ben Kingsley as Damian finds himself upgraded into a well-muscled 35-year-old body. Photo: Alan Markfield/VVS Films
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Farce, philosophy and fantasy: body-swap films have the perfect cinematic formula

Body-swap storylines are the perfect premise for filmic fun, so why is the most recent offering in the genre, Self/Less, so disappointing?

Body-swap stories have always been reliable currency in cinema. No wonder – one of the things for which the medium is best equipped is placing us effortlessly in other people's shoes and behind other pairs of eyes.

It isn’t much of a leap from there to speculate on what it might feel like to inhabit an entirely different skin.

The new thriller Self/Less stars Ben Kingsley as a dying industrialist who pays $250m to undergo a procedure called “shedding.” What this means in practice is that his body, and a body into which his consciousness is about to be decanted, are each placed inside neighbouring machines that resemble giant illuminated tumble dryers.

When Damian wakes up and looks in the mirror, he sees a new, younger man named Edward (Ryan Reynolds), though inside he is still his old self. Asked if he’s happy with his replacement form, he says: “It has that new body smell.”

That car metaphor turns up again when he finds that unfamiliar memories are impinging on his thoughts. “You thought you were buying a new car,” says his doctor. “Turns out it has a few miles on the clock.”

That’s putting it mildly. Damian is in danger of being overwhelmed from the inside by Edward, who once had his own life, memories and family.

It’s a premise that owes much to the body-swap sub-genre, and in particular the disquieting 1967 thriller Seconds, starring Rock Hudson. But it’s easily one of the weakest renderings of a format that has shown itself in the past to be all but foolproof.

The director Tarsem Singh usually throws everything – including, but not limited to, the kitchen sink – at his movies. His best film, The Fall, and his battiest one, The Cell, drench the eye in beauty and colour without forsaking human intimacy.

Why, then, is Self/Less such a plain Jane? Perhaps Singh feels he has touched on this subject before and is therefore trying to distinguish new work from old.

Both The Cell and The Fall have their own points of overlap with Self/Less. In The Cell, a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) enters the mind of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) – and takes us with her.

And in The Fall, a hospitalised stunt-man (Lee Pace) improvises a fantasy story for a little girl in exchange for morphine from the medicine cabinet: large chunks of that movie, too, take place inside the main character’s head.

In stripping down Self/Less to its bare bones, making everything from production design to performances frill-free, there’s no danger of trespassing on the past, whether it’s Singh’s previous work or any of the movies that have employed a similar scenario.

Even that slash in the title recalls the punctuation of the most delirious of all body-swap (or, in this case, physiognomy-swap) pictures: Face/ Off, in which John Travolta and Nicolas Cage undergo a face transplant and then spend the rest of the movie impersonating one another (which turns out to be much more fun for Travolta than it is for Cage).

So successful is Self/Less in distancing itself from its influences that by the time Edward is wandering around a New Orleans junkyard, the sight of plaster body parts from old Mardi Gras float displays piled high behind him doesn’t seem at all like the in-joke it could have been.

It was only at that point that it occurred to me how little history Self/Less owns up to. It does what Damian’s doctors were unable to do: it creates a clean slate, a complete break from the past. What’s missing is a personality of its own. A viewer could be forgiven for feeling envious of Damian, his head buzzing with woozy, action-packed hallucinations.

Also absent from Self/Less is a sense of the giddy fun that might come with surrendering your identity. It’s fair enough that the movie didn’t want to play the Face/ Off game and have Reynolds do a feature-length Ben Kingsley impression (though that idea sounds nigh-on irresistible to me). But that wouldn’t have been the only option.

Comedy is often the first port of call for the body-swap movie: it’s pure farce, being caught in someone else’s wrapping and having to pass yourself off as them. There’s no shortage of comic shenanigans when the mother and daughter exchange lives in Freaky Friday (whether it’s the 1977 one with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris, or the 2003 remake with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan).

Steve Martin is at his most dexterous trying not to show that the spirit of Lily Tomlin is writhing around within him throughout the joyous All of Me. Tom Hanks gave a complex and funny performance as a child trapped in a man’s body in Big, while the teen market has been treated in recent years to the likes of 17 Again and 13 Going On 30.

Existential dread would have been another route for Self/Less to take. In David Lynch’s Lost Highway, a murderer simply vanishes from his prison cell, replaced without explanation by a young mechanic. In Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, two women (both played by Irène Jacob) who have never met experience a kind of amorphous synchronicity of emotion.

But you can have it both ways. My favourite example of this narrative species is the 1993 curiosity Suture, which combines the comic and the philosophical in the tale of two identical brothers (played by Dennis Haysbert and Michael Harris, the former black, the latter white) whose identities become confused after an accident.

You’re not meant to take too seriously any film that features a character named Dr Renee Descartes, or a scene in which a man sustains serious facial burns while Ring of Fire plays on the soundtrack. If I was laughing during Self/Less, it was only the memory of Suture that had me in stitches.

Self/Less is released on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era