Monday, September 3, 2007
10. Exposed (1983)
James Toback's EXPOSED is in its first hour one of the great films of the eighties. It is so close to being a major masterpiece that its second half failures are still particularly stinging. Final act flaws aside, EXPOSED is an incredibly inventive film by one of America's most complicated directors and it features one of the great performances of Nastassja Kinski's career.
Writer and director James Toback is an interesting guy. He has hardly been prolific, shooting less than ten features in a thirty plus year period. He is one of the few American filmmakers though who can claim to have at least one truly great film in the seventies (1978's FINGERS), the eighties (EXPOSED), the nineties (1997's TWO GIRLS AND A GUY) and finally this decade (2004's WHEN WILL I BE LOVED). Toback's films are demanding, frustrating and finally rewarding, but it is finally the performances he manages to bring out of his actors that is perhaps the most noteworthy thing about him.
EXPOSED opens up with a startling tracking shot of Paris set to to the haunting strains of Georges Delerue's unforgettable score. This languid shot quickly closes into none other than New Wave icon Pierre Clementi mysteriously walking through the streets of Paris. Toback then switches his camera's obsessive eye to a pretty blonde entering a restaurant, planting a bomb and quickly leaving just before the building explodes. It's a shot people in 1983 would remember from the then recent NIGHTHAWKS (1981) but more in tune viewers would have also thought of Gillo Pontecorvo's astonishing 1966 feature, BATTLE OF ALGIERS. Indeed Toback's decision to switch slowly from a vivid color scheme to black and white over the destroyed restaurant seems to be a very deliberate nod to not only his idol Jean-Luc Godard but also the heated political films of people like Pontecorvo and Bellochio.
After this very mysterious and indeed explosive opening we are then taken to a Midwestern American college where Toback himself is teaching a class. He is speaking of Goethe and lamenting on how the "Western world is falling apart." It is here that we get our first look at the troubled and lonely Elizabeth Carlson listening intently, even while looking completely disconnected.
Kinski's first full scene as Elizabeth is a real stunner. We find her packing in her room listening to fifties rock music (which recalls Harvey Keitel's lost and angry soul in FINGERS) arguing with Toback's brutish, pig like professor. Surrounded by photographs and posters (including Garbo in CAMILLE) this is a Nastassja Kinski we haven't seen on screen before. She oozes tension and frustration and at one point screams "I feel like a caged animal" (the first of many moments when the film seems as much about Kinski's professional and personal life as anything else). Kinski is incredible in this very natural feeling scene and its improvised nature sets the tone for the startling first half of EXPOSED.
EXPOSED is very much a film about escape and throughout the first half we watch as Kinski escapes from one level of heartbreak to another. From school she escapes to her parents house (Where we hear Kinski speak of her destructive father and how she inherited her "restlessness from him.") and from their she escapes to New York. It is interesting to note that almost all of Kinski's escapes in the film are from men. First from the cruel leanings of her professor, then her judgemental father to finally the gaze of millions of men staring longingly at her photograph. If the film's final heartbreaking shot does have one positive aspect it is that she is no longer a woman escaping from a man, but simply from herself.
Continuing our journey with Elizabeth, she is immediately mugged upon arriving in New York and she loses all of her money. It is another scene that feels remarkably unscripted and natural and Toback's New York is an incredibly vivid snap shot of the town. The city is one of the films biggest assets and it is one of the major characters of the film. After applying at a record store where another fight breaks out (violence never seems far away in any of Toback's films) she finally breaks down and gets a job as a waitress.
It isn't long before she escapes from her waitress job into the world of high fashion. If it was anyone other than Kinski playing Elizabeth then her getting discovered so quickly and out of the blue by a fashion photographer would seem ridiculous, but because it is Nastassja it seems completely believable. The photographer promises her "Different clothes, different looks and different selves", and for the first time in her life Kinski's tragic character feels at home in her new role of inhabiting different persona's and characters.
I typically don't like to do plot synopsis but it is very important to understand that EXPOSED, more that any other film she ever made, seems to be about Nastassja Kinski. The first hour of the film is a remarkable character study and portrait of a woman very much separated from her own identity, her own persona if you will. One person even says directly to Kinski at one point, "You have the mystery of Garbo, the wit of Lombard and eroticism of Monroe." What is striking about this isn't Toback's mirroring the critical reaction Kinski always received but the near disgusted and exhausted look on her face hearing it. Only Nastassja Kinski knows just how close EXPOSED was to her own self but I am willing to bet their are few portrayals she gave that were more personal and close to her.
Around this time Rudolf Nureyev is introduced into the plot and at first his addition is very successful. Nureyev might not be the worlds greatest actor but he has an undeniable quality about him and he plays well off Kinski in their first few scenes together. Unfortunately Toback begins rolling some unnecessary plot mechanics in order to explain Nureyev's character when he should have been left mysterious.
All of the power and majesty of the first hour of EXPOSED quickly gives away to the films disappointing final 40 minutes. Why Toback decided to introduce a bizarre plot twist involving terrorists in Paris has always been beyond me. While it does all connect back to the unforgettable opening scene, Toback would have been much better off just having the terrorists as another example of the world surrounding Kinski collapsing. Instead he takes us into weird and convoluted section of the film that focuses on a fringe terrorist, played by a menacing Harvey Keitel, and his group of mostly female soldiers.
I won't go into any kind of plot synopsis of the convoluted final forth of the film. It really does seem like a totally different film from the first half, with only Kinski's fearless performance keeping the work grounded. Despite the problems of the film's final act, EXPOSED still manages to be completely arresting and its final shot featuring a stunning black and white close up of Kinski's face is just about the most unforgettable shot Toback or Kinski ever put on film. It very much recalls Keitel at the end of FINGERS but it is even more effective here as we are given a woman who has found something in herself that she wasn't prepared for, something else she is going to have to escape from after the credits role and the audience has left the theater.
EXPOSED opened up in the United States in the spring of 1983 to very poor box office returns. Critics were divided on the film, with some, like Roger Ebert and Tom Milne, hailing it as a major work and others damning it and Kinski. It would do a bit better in Europe but EXPOSED never really found its audience back in 1983. It fared better on VHS throughout the eighties but it has still never been released on Region One DVD and remains out of print.
I will be looking more closely at the people behind the scenes of EXPOSED throughout this week. You might be surprised by some of the people behind it. I will also be looking at some rare articles and Toback himself in the upcoming posts.
Despite some last act flaws, EXPOSED remains one of the most eerie and well conceived films of the eighties and among the best films Nastassja Kinski has ever appeared in. Less a film about plot and more a film of personality, EXPOSED would find James Toback very boldly making a film not only for his leading lady but ultimately about her.