Director Michael Winterbottom may be the only person on earth uninterested in who killed Meredith Kercher in Italy in 2007. Was it Amanda Knox, who confessed under duress, recanted, then was convicted, acquitted, convicted and acquitted at last? Or was the killer actually chronic knife-wielding housebreaker Rudy Guede, who confessed, and whose DNA (unlike Knox’s) was all over Kercher’s body and bedroom?
Don’t ask Winterbottom. While his film “The Face of an Angel” loosely adapts the bible of the Knox-Did-It fact-ion, Barbie Latza Nadeau’s “Angel Face,” he won’t assess the evidence, the victims, the accused or the legal process. He changes Meredith and Amanda to Elizabeth (Genevieve Gaunt) and Jessica (Sai Bennett), and reduces them to adorable zombies gazing beatifically at his camera. They have no motives, the crime is a blur, the investigation a random bag of mumbled phrases and hand-cam chaos.
The focus is on the media professionals covering the case: a director (Daniel Brühl) who, like Winterbottom, wants to make a noncommercial, noncommittal movie that avoids the question of what actually happened, and the Nadeau-based character (Kate Beckinsale), who tells him, “You can’t tell the truth unless you make it a fiction” (as Winterbottom has said Nadeau told him).
That sounds like Nadeau backpedaling from peddling Knox’s guilt — after all, she did change her book’s subtitle from “The Real Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox” to the less judgmental “Sex, Murder and the Inside Story of Amanda Knox.” In any case, you can’t tell a story unless you take a point of view, or points of view, and Winterbottom won’t take a pro- or anti-Knox position. He seems more preoccupied with his ideas about making the film than the story at hand.
Winterbottom is an important and subversive auteur whose risky method mixes documentary and avant-garde style: critic Richard Corliss called him the past master of the “faux-fake, a fiction sprung from reality.” His what-is-reality method and shambolic improv frolics can strike gold in cinematic experiments like “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” and “24-Hour Party People” (both with screenwriters infinitely better than “Angel Face”‘s Paul Viragh). “Angel Face” strikes nothing but empty poses as it wanders Siena’s dark streets as labyrinthine as fingerprints, thinking about thinking.
The only reality that registers briefly is the camaraderie of the murder journalists at the bar, razzing each other and being cynical. Yet Winterbottom won’t commit to a point of view of the journos either. The only character who holds Winterbottom’s interest is the Winterbottom-like director, who disapproves of his lurid assignment and never makes the murder-case movie. The worried furrow that attractively bisects Brühl’s brow gets a workout, but everything he says is banal. The press exploits murders, and nobody remembers to honor the murder victim.
Well, Winterbottom doesn’t exactly honor the victim either by making her a beaming non-entity. Worse, he decides to structure the film he eventually refuses to make around the framework of Dante’s Divine Comedy, because he identifies the victim with Dante’s inspirational sweetie, Beatrice. Brühl’s character is a single dad whose adorable kid, also named Beatrice (Ava Acres), keeps Skyping him. Soon he acquires a third Beatrice figure: a young bartender (model Cara Delevingne) whose famously prominent eyebrows upstage even Brühl’s. She guides him through the youth-party scene of Amanda and Meredith (I mean, Jessica and Elizabeth), and serves as Winterbottom/Brühl’s symbol of the victim’s beautiful free spirit. Delevingne’s winsome spontaneity does mitigate Brühl’s moping frozenness, but her character casts no light on the murder victim.
The Dante stuff, complete with four seconds of Brühl’s CGI hallucination, does nothing to clarify the plot, which wanders aimlessly as an exchange student drunk on cheap wine and highfalutin ideas. Everybody is like a zombie. Beckinsale, who said she learned to quit memorizing her monologues since the script kept changing, is an empty face improvising from no apparent center of character. She’s also said Winterbottom gave her and Brühl very little feedback on their performances, which is evident.
Her character has sex with the director and also dates a knavish Brit tabloid guy evidently modeled on the Daily Mail’s Knox tormentor Nick Pisa, to whom Nadeau dedicates her book. The sex doesn’t seem to interest the lovers, nor Winterbottom, nor the audience. The director apparently courts the Delevingne character, too, eventually snorting cocaine she gets him, but neither offers any enlivening effect. The whole movie is like snorting line after line of novocaine: you get numb, but no rush.
No doubt Winterbottom was after something like Gus Van Sant‘s film “Last Days” or novel “Pink,” which are not exactly about Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix respectively, but use their stories as a jumping-off point into a weird, drifting parallel universe that exists only in Van Sant’s infinitely elusive, Andy Warhol-saturated imagination. “The Face of an Angel” is full of images of haunting, dreamy genius, but there are no people in it. At least Van Sant gives us, in even his most baffling films, a vivid sense of the director’s mind.
“The Face of an Angel” is opaque in every way. Winterbottom will make another great movie. But if he didn’t want to make the Amanda Knox story, why did he so halfheartedly try?