Reversal of Fortune [1990] – A Taut Drama with Questions about Legality and Morality

What do you give a wife that has everything? A shot of insulin

Swiss film-maker Barbet Schroeder’s movie career is going strong even after five decades. Born (26 August 1941) to a Swiss Geologist dad in Tehran, Mr. Schroeder has traveled around the world before opting to study philosophy in Paris. Soon, he was enamored by French New Wave that he became a writer for Cahiers du Cinema. In 1962, when he was 21, Schroeder started the production company Les Films du Losange with visionary film-maker Eric Rohmer. He also had the chance to work with other pioneers of French New Wave during this earlier phase. In 1969, Barbet Schroeder made his directorial debut with More, a drama about young man’s downward spiral through heroin and LSD. Although Mr. Schroeder didn’t direct a work which ranks alongside the works of French New Wave contemporaries, he found his true voice by transforming himself into a perceptive documentarian. His controversial documentary and first one in the ‘Trilogy of Evil’ General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1975) was an oddly engaging take on the psychopathic Ugandan dictator.

The other two documentaries in the unofficial trilogy were The Terror’s Advocate (2007) and The Venerable W (2017). The director was perhaps best known for conducting extended interview with American novelist/poet Charles Bukowski, presented as The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1987). In the late 1980s, Barbet Schroeder directed his first American feature film with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway playing the leads. The film titled Barfly was about an indigent, alcoholic writer Henry Chinaski, a character inspired by Charles Bukowski. In the 1990s, Mr. Schroeder mastered the patience to work within Hollywood industry, directing some average thrillers like Single White Female (1992), Kiss of Death (1995), etc. 

Apart from Barfly (1987), the director indeed made one truly good American film in 1990 titled Reversal of Fortune which bestowed Jeremy Irons with Best Actor Oscar. Since Schroeder always had a penchant for scrutinizing evil, odd or outcast characters, he must have relished at the chance to work with the film’s bizarre and ambiguous protagonist Charles Von Bulow. Although Barbet Schroeder’s film career was thought to be finished in the late 1990s, he found his way back to form with feature films like Our Lady of the Assassins and Amnesia.

Reversal of Fortune is based on law professor Alan Dershowitz’s published account of the infamous and bizarre case of Claus Von Bulow, a European aristocrat accused of attempting to murder his wealthy wife Sunny Von Bulow. In the initial trial that took place in 1981, Claus was found guilty of putting his wife Sunny into coma and sentenced to 30 years. By the end of the trial, Claus became the most hated person in America. But for an intriguing constitutional reason, Professor Alan agrees to take the appeals case. 

The chunk of the narrative doesn’t take place inside a courtroom, but during the days before when Alan and his energetic students/assistants carefully built the appeals case which eventually reversed Charles’ conviction. As for the question whether Charles was really guilty or not (irrespective of judicial verdict), Alan Dershowitz and director Barbet Schroeder asks us to make up our own mind. What makes Reversal of Fortune a great drama/thriller is the stylistic direction and insightful writing (script by Nicolas Kazan) which eschews by-the-numbers approach to get deep into the characters’ emotions and psyche. It’s pervaded with moral ambiguities and makes a valid commentary on the human nature rather than just turn us into voyeurs or armchair detectives.

Reversal of Fortune unfolds from trio of viewpoints. The film opens with the most chilling and deeply objective viewpoint of Sunny Von Bulow (Glenn Close) who voices her predicament from comatose state (Sunny died in 2008 after spending the last 28 years of her life in coma). It’s an approach familiarized by movies like Sunset Blvd, American Beauty, etc and books like My Name is Red, The Lovely Bones. The icy blue color palette and the floating camera work in the scenes delineating Sunny lend wonderful visual weight to her contemplation from the nether world.  

Sunny narrates what set off the chain of events that now keeps her in vegetative state. Her recollection is oddly detached, providing us only with the facts exhibited in the public trial. The other two viewpoints in the narrative include enigmatic Charles Von Bulow and Alan Derschowitz (Ron Silver), a famous libertarian. One look at Charles (Jeremy Irons) from the purely objective flashback is enough to convince our mind that he is guilty. He is unwittingly hilarious, peculiar, apathetic, and has annoyingly haughty demeanor. By injecting Sunny with insulin, Charles stood to gain $14 million after her death. As Alan’s spirited young student says, “Claus von Bulow stinks!”.

Nevertheless, the film isn’t about painting the characters with broad strokes to constrain them under categories of good and evil. As Alan and his team scrutinize the case and those involved, a lot of unsettling as well as fascinating truths rise to the surface. We are revealed the peculiarity of Von Bulow’s marriage, the complex underpinnings of their rich life, and Sunny’s predilection for laxatives, alcohol, sweets, etc. What’s further interesting is the way Kazan affixes us to observe the behind-the-screen happenings that’s necessary to build the defense. 

Unlike many sensational courtroom dramas, the film shows how these daunting cases are won before ever reaching into the court premises. Alan’s team consists of eclectic mix of youngsters (including Alan’s ex-lover & lawyer Sarah, played by Annabella Sciorra) who are fun-loving, easily outraged and also unrelentingly determined. And, director Schroeder elegantly moves between these different worlds or perspectives, keeping us in guessing mindset till the end and providing us the space to pick a side or just stay neutral.

Nicolas Kazan’s ingenious script is full of richly textured dialogues: “It’s hard to live with someone you love. Love is fantasy, living is work”; “Legally, this is an important victory. Morally you are on your own”. Schroeder’s direction perfectly compliments the script, upholding and celebrating the mystery till the end. Schroeder's handling of the actors is nothing short of exceptional. Despite clever writing and making, the film could have fallen flat if not for Jeremy Irons’ commanding performance. 

It’s a known thing that evil on-screen looks more fascinating than good. Irons’ Claus Von Bulow isn’t just designed as a evil incarnate, like say Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, but a morally ambiguous guy who is capable of cruelty, manipulation whenever it suits him. Yet we aren’t fully certain if his sociopathic tendencies really led him to commit the act. Without extracting feelings of uncertainty towards Claus, the film wouldn’t have been half interesting as it is. Irons also instill splendid sense of dark humor to the character (especially that epilogue scene was a nice wicked touch).

 Reversal of Fortune (112 minutes) is an absorbing investigative drama packed with powerhouse performances from Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, and Ron Silver. The staggering aspect of this study of a very dark soul lies in its moral complexity.  

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