One of the strongest movies I saw in the recent London Film Festival, Christian Petzold’s psychological thriller Phoenix, depended for its success on a contrivance that not every viewer found easy to swallow. Petzold’s regular collaborator, Nina Hoss, plays a German Jew who returns to Berlin after surviving the concentration camps and undergoing reconstructive surgery for injuries sustained there. She catches up with her husband, who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazis, but he doesn’t recognise her. The rest of the picture hinges on this fact, but for some it was a sticking-point as well as a plot-point. How could it be that a woman’s face had changed so fully in such a relatively short space of time that even a spouse could look upon her and see only the vaguest resemblance to the woman he married? I think you know where I’m going with this. I think you may be several steps ahead of me here.
Should Petzold be called upon in promotional interviews to justify this far-fetched scenario when Phoenix opens next year, he need only offer two words to silence the doubters: “Renée” and “Zellweger”. The world is not crying out for another opinion on Renée Zellweger’s face, so it’s just as well I don’t have one to give. But the incredulousness which greeted photographs last week of this actor’s transformed appearance resembles strongly the sort of reaction prompted by an outlandish plot twist. The tenor of response was not “I hate it” or even “she shouldn’t have done it” but “I don’t believe it”.
At its most extreme, that response could be interpreted as: “It’s not her.” We have seen Vertigo and The Skin I Live In and Face/Off and we are not dumb enough to fall for that. These celebrities will try anything. Remember Joaquin Phoenix and the nervous breakdown that turned out to be merely the preamble to a mockumentary which he then had the temerity to sell back to us? Nope: we won’t get fooled again.
It is the worst sort of gaucheness to be hoodwinked in the digital world – to be taken in by a photoshopped image, a hoax obituary, a scam e-mail. It induces in people the same sense of shame once felt by homeowners allowing into their houses a con-man who claimed to be from the gas board. We seem to believe that technology has delivered us far beyond the reach of those tricks that duped previous generations, when in fact its sophistication has simply facilitated infinite new avenues by which our naivety can be exploited. Part of the aggrieved reaction to this woman’s decision to alter her appearance is down to the suspicion that we are being taken for mugs. It’s not very different to the scoffing and snorting that goes on in a packed cinema when the suspension of disbelief required is simply too great for the audience to bear.
The question of what women in their forties are forced to do to their faces to maintain a career in movies seems far less relevant here than the problems which arise when an actor breaches a contract with the public – a contract signed not in their blood, but stamped with a seal bearing the image of their face. The history of popular culture is littered with performers who have been brought to book by fans saying in one form or another: “Hey! We made a deal!” We may think we own them, but we don’t, and they are as vulnerable as any of us to changes in temperament, outlook, philosophy and physiognomy. Dylan went electric. Brando went nuts. Zellweger got a new face. That’s entertainment.
Phoenix will be released next year