Retro psycho

Film - Jonathan Romney on the difficulties of filming an unfilmable book

Suppose you want to film one of the most extreme and scandalous novels of recent years, one that genuinely deserves the description "unfilmable". You could play down the extremity - both the graphic brutality and the asperities of the writing itself. Or you could dare to make a film that is unwatchable in the same way that the book is unreadable. A nice thought, but one that flies in the face of commercial sense. Truly extreme books rarely become truly extreme films - a rule proved first by David Cronenberg's somnolent version of Crash, and now by Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho. Harron's version is in many ways a much better work than Bret Easton Ellis's original: but it fails precisely because it doesn't take on the crazier and more perplexing of the book's failings.

American Psycho was published in 1991, to much protest at the gloatingly forensic tone of its descriptions of violence towards women. Its narrator and anti-hero is Patrick Bateman, a spoiled Wall Street broker (the story takes place at the height of the 1980s finance boom) and a consumer par excellence - notably, of disparate parts of women's bodies. Behind his urbane surface is a serial killer and cannibal: Ellis's satirical point, at its simplest, is that yuppie and psycho are much the same, that a culture which values perfect exteriors must surely harbour diseased innards. But what made the book compellingly freakish was the texture of the writing: a droning litany of restaurants and designer labels, interspersed with long, hideously precise passages of slaughter, offset at key points (perhaps the most ghoulish touch) with poker-faced tributes to Phil Collins and Whitney Houston. Ellis's novel wildly overstates its case. Yet the overstatement makes it something else - a genuinely cacophonous text, airport novel and intransigent avant-gardism wrapped up between the same covers.

The film's director, again Harron, made the witty, acute I Shot Andy Warhol; her co-writer is Guinevere Turner, best known as writer and star of the no-budget lesbian hit Go Fish. That two women have taken on a novel attacked for vicious misogyny already establishes a crucial element of distance from the book. Another is that, whereas Ellis in 1991 was writing about the very recent past, the film is a historical piece, as retro as Boogie Nights. Effectively a costume drama, it wryly evokes those bygone braces and shoulder pads.

You could argue that, even if hairstyles go out of fashion overnight, social attitudes don't, and that American Psycho is nonetheless a story about today. But the film is so laden with precise references that it feels like social archaeology: the (inadvertent) subtext is that, if we now know better in terms of taste, then we surely know better morally, too. A potential victim (played by co-writer Turner) asks Bateman, "You actually own a Whitney Houston CD?" and we immediately hear a knowing contemporary voice mocking Bateman's outmoded naffness.

The film always lets us know where we stand, starting with the credit sequence, set to John Cale's playful "pizzicati", as a drip of blood turns into the coulis of a nouvelle cuisine dish. (American Psycho refers less to a state of mind than to a style of restaurant, along the lines of "classic Californian" or "Mexican-Korean fusion".) This is a playful black comedy, then; we can rest easy that we're not going to be immersed in the book's repetitive textures of madness. Harron and Turner artfully fillet the book's chaos: we get the key sequences in a manageable order; fewer characters, less interchangeable than the book's; and, mercifully, murders played for concise, grim humour. One killing is a farcical dance routine with conscious echoes of Reservoir Dogs, as Bateman enthuses about the Eighties soft-rocker Huey Lewis: the song is "Hip To Be Square". The only genuinely nightmarish scene, with Bateman brandishing a chainsaw, is strictly genre pastiche, reminding us that the film is a conflation of two key strands of Eighties cinema - slasher thriller and yuppie comedy.

You can see why Harron insisted on casting Christian Bale - his Bateman seems at once smooth, crazed, menacingly clever and somehow stupid; he's a man who knows it all, yet still doesn't get the point. His butch basso delivery gives the character some heft, but loses the sexual indeterminacy: where Ellis's Bateman seems like a drag act, a queeny impersonation of heterosexuality, Harron's is close to being a grotesque medallion man.

It comes as a relief that Harron restores some humanity to the women. There's something quite touching in the way that Bateman's mistress, Courtney (Samantha Mathis), seems trapped and infantilised by luxury. And there's a black irony to Patrick's date with his secretary Jean (Chloe Sevigny, spot-on as ever). "I don't want to be bruised," she says (emotionally, she means, although we know she'll be worse than bruised if she sticks around).

Filmed with cool precision by Andrej Sekula, American Psycho is perfect as a study of glazed surfaces. A deft touch, heightening the unreality, is the New York skyline outside Patrick's window, just a little skewed, not too obviously a trompe l'oeil backdrop. The elegance and streamlining are what make American Psycho so effective as a film, but they are also the reason it is finally so slight. Harron has created something cool, precise and intelligent, but you miss the authentic babble of nightmare: even the nightclubs seem quieter.

American Psycho (18) is currently showing at selected cinemas

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?