We always knew Jude Law was pretty, but pretty enough to be a female runway model? Well, yes. In Sally Potter’s inventive and playful Rage, Law is hidden beneath a black bobbed wig and miles of eyeliner as Minx, a gorgeous Russian diva. It takes about two seconds of watching this supermodel talk straight into the camera, though, to realize he/she isn’t exactly pretending to be a woman. With a husky voice deeper than Law’s usually is, waving around unmistakably man-size wrists, Minx eventually sheds the wig and the accent to reveal a British bloke who’s rich, acclaimed, and profoundly at odds with himself.
Law’s is the most glittering and trenchant among the many star turns in Rage, a wildly uneven yet fascinating bare-bones film set in the fashion world, a movie with a wacky distribution plan: It’s being released for mobile phones. Potter recruited top-notch names like Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, and Steve Buscemi, placed them in front of brightly colored screens to deliver individual monologues, then wove those bits into a filament-thin story.
Her dramatic conceit is that for several days surrounding a runway show, the players—company moguls, publicists, photographers, delivery boys—talk to Michelangelo, an unseen student recording them on his camera phone. But just as Minx isn’t what a glib description of a cross-dresser suggests, Rage only sounds as if it’s about fashion; there’s not an eye-catching dress in sight. And all the action—shots are fired, people die—happens off-camera. The plot is just an excuse for a constellation of performances about people gripped by their lust for fame, a desire that could easily have been directed at music, movies, or winning Top Chef.
Potter is best known for Orlando, her lush, centuries-spanning film (from Virginia Woolf’s novel), in which Tilda Swinton changes from a woman to a man. Most of her films have been even stranger. In Yes (2004), Joan Allen plays a scientist who has a passionate affair with a persecuted Lebanese immigrant. The lovers speak entirely in iambic pentameter, which works much better than it should.
Rage shares that ambition, even though its release is gimmicky. The film is being offered for iPhones and iPods, one segment a day for a week (that started on Monday); those segments will begin appearing online Sept. 28 (like the mobile downloads, the film is on babelgum.com; the DVD is available now. Potter didn’t begin with this strategy in mind, but it works better than anyone might have imagined; it offers a viewing experience ready-made for the way we watch now, dipping in and out of YouTube, texting and Tweeting with one eye on TV, a snippet here, a snippet there.
Even better, and Potter may not have intended this, watching on DVD lets you choose which actors to follow. Zoom past the hammy performances; Simon Abkarian’s over-the-top posturing doesn’t work, even for an egotistical, devilish-looking designer named Merlin. Fast forward when Potter’s writing becomes obvious and tiresome. Judi Dench, as a haughty fashion critic with bright red lipstick and Kabuki-white skin, pronounces that fashion is not an art, it’s porn, an addiction. Maybe it’s all those things, but tell us something we didn’t know.
Yet you can easily find the stellar, gripping little character studies lurking within Rage. As the violence increases off-camera, characters unveil more of themselves. John Leguizamo puts his experience in one-man shows to good use as a bodyguard trying to make his work seem valuable, then slowly revealing his need to get out of the shadows. Buscemi, as a cynical tabloid photographer, starts out as a sympathetic has-been, but becomes too delighted when his bloody closeups of the murders get him on Page 1. Lesser-knowns include Riz Ahmed as a pizza delivery boy who so desperately wants to break into the fashion world he paints his face blue and crashes the show.
The names Potter gives these characters are often inane. Real-life model-turned actress Lily Cole plays a model called Lettuce Leaf (because that’s all she eats?), terrified of the lethal world she’s stumbled into. Izzard, dressed like a riverboat gambler, plays a smooth-talking mogul named Tiny Diamonds. Both performances should make your personal final cut, but you can see why the script isn’t the thing here.
Yet with its visceral portraits of the fame-obsessed, at its best Rage plays like shrewd performance art, and Sally Potter is one of our most intriguing innovators, even when she’s innovating in ways she didn’t expect.
Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.