Synapse // 1990 // 111 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 3rd, 2006
Trapped in a deadly game of torture and murder
While two women dig a grave in their garden, a private investigator lies dying, shot in the shoulder. As he crawls to a car and gets inside, he tells us of his mission and a case that has baffled him for over three years. Once he was in love with a woman named Laura and when she disappeared, our hero was heartbroken. Obsessed with discovering what happened, the perplexed PI has traced her whereabouts to a decrepit mansion in the country. There an equally odd mother and daughter duo reenact violent sex games and reminisce about the days when they could freely murder their servants. Seems Laura signed on as the pair's private secretary and was never heard from again. Now the detective is convinced that these lethal ladies killed his girlfriend and he is out to prove it. Unfortunately, in his injured state, he is completely at their mercy -- which means he will be tortured and tormented until he confesses his connection to the gal. In fact, the ladies try to convince him that Laura's not dead. As a matter of fact, she may simply be brainwashed, acting out the role of "daughter" in this deranged menagerie of sex and slaughter. Will our investigator's fascination with the past cost him his life? Or will he acquiesce to the wicked women who've nicknamed him after a particularly potent cocktail -- the Singapore Sling.
Singapore Sling is not a bad movie; it's just not a very fair one.
Purposefully obscure, almost to the point of pretension, and overloaded with
references both obvious and obtuse, this paean to interpersonal corruption and
emotional obsession is like the famous film Laura as performed by the
inmates of the asylum at Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade.
With little or no narrative to center the spectacle and performances that rely
almost exclusively on histrionics and Method mannerisms, this existential
exercise in exasperation is definitely not for the novice. Unless you're
familiar with works as divergent as David Lynch's Eraserhead, Passolini's
Salo, Curt McDowell's Thundercrack!, and Jorg Buttgereit's
Nekromantic, you will just not be prepared for the perpetual pounding
your aesthetic will experience. Some have even said that Sling was
influenced by Peter Greenaway's grueling political allegory The Cook, The
Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, citing each character's parallel to elements
within Greek society. Honestly, any sociological links are specious at best. It
is clear that this film wants to address the Hollywood notions of noir, while
fouling all facets of the standard detective thriller. Indeed, it's difficult to
argue for a droll deeper meaning when your characters are vomiting on each
other, pissing in people's faces, and rubbing fresh fruit on their nether
regions. If there is a message in all this mangled mayhem, it is one of the
best-kept secrets in all of world cinema.
With only his fifth film in 14 years, writer/director Nikos Nikolaidis brings his confrontational style of psychosexual surrealism to what is in essence a turgid tale of incest, murder, insanity, and sin. So circular in its construction that it actually laps itself, and then spirals inward until it more or less implodes, Nikolaidis' narrative is so inconsistent -- meaningful one moment, hollow the next -- that you have to wonder if everything in the film is merely a ruse. Nothing is for certain in the storyline -- our mother figure may be a matron in name only, her daughter a deranged lunatic or a brainwashed victim of some bizarre sex game. Our hero, a mostly silent statue who speaks to us in hard-boiled bon mots via a voiceover narration, claims to be a private investigator, but his methods appear suspect at best and even when he's able to escape the house of harpies, he hangs around and acts imbecilic. All the while, blood flows, organs fly, and unexpected nudity fills the screen. Nikolaidis understands that most viewers have an inherent fascination with kinky sexuality and often enjoy the frequent flashing of tits and ass. But he also confronts such carnality by making it tainted, unsettling, and disturbing. When our parent/child partnership goes graphic, our leads lunge at each other in a sick kind of craving, as if their desire for physical contact has become like a powerfully addictive drug. Even when they're not together in bed, these women are constantly touching and fiddling with themselves, leaving appropriate behavior in their raunchy rear view mirror. When our protagonist finally joins in, there's electrical equipment, bondage gear, and the occasional weapon involved.
In order for any of this to work, you have to have performers brave enough to go the dramatic distance. In the case of Nikolaidis's cast, two out of three aren't bad. Staying with the negative for a second, Panos Thanassoulis looks like a lost Dario Argento clone, his face never registering a single significant emotion. Even when he's covered in bile and urine, he's an actor carved out of solid cement. Much more lively and therefore intriguing are the actresses who play the mother/daughter duo. Meredyth Herold is the young lead and she is either giving the greatest performance in the history of thespianism or delivering the most hackneyed bit of scenery chewing the medium of film has ever experienced. She is loaded with tics, quirks, and outrageous line readings. Her body is constantly in motion, her eyes darting around in her head like she's simultaneously hearing voices and witnessing horrifying hallucinations. She stammers and breaks up her dialogue with decidedly deranged pauses and pantomime. As a result, she's like the motion picture equivalent of a car wreck -- difficult to endure until you realize how impossible it is for you to look away. Older actress Michele Valley is much more controlled. Her routine consists of wild stares, massive mood swings, and a strange habit of speaking each line of dialogue in both English and French. One moment she can be meek and reserved. The next, she can flail like a mental patient on incredibly heady PCP. Put them all together and the threesome becomes the foundation for Nikolaidis's otherwise formless film.
It's just too bad then that our plot has so many unanswered questions. In an interview, the filmmaker states that his intention was to make a bleak, black comedy, an outrageous attempt at mixing immorality with amusement to create a kind of comic send-up. If humor was indeed his primary purpose, he missed the tonal tenets by a good couple of light years. In its amazing monochrome imagery (more on this in a moment), Singapore Sling is just too stark and too dour to be rib-tickling. Instead, this movie is more of a mindf*ck, the kind of incomprehensible presentation that feels made up completely out of one person's perverted perspective. As you watch Ms. Herold masturbate with a kiwi fruit or both ladies finger and fight over a sink full of body parts, you feel both a sense of improvisation and an insular reality that only the filmmaker is fully aware of. We aren't going to be privy to his reasoning and logic will find no favor in the occasionally rambling situations at play. Still, somehow it is all meant to come together into a combination critique and condemnation. This doesn't mean it's entertaining, witty, inviting, reciprocal, pretty, intelligent, philosophical, or approachable. Indeed, Singapore Sling is a perfect example of film as artifice meshed with art as atrocity. It will definitely divide its audience as readily as it screws with the standards of cinema.
Hats off then to Synapse Films for unearthing this filmic rarity, and even greater kudos for the print they provide. Stunning doesn't begin to describe how stellar the black-and-white transfer is here. With nearly 2,000 reviews under his belt, this critic can calmly say that this is, without a doubt, the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous monochrome image he has ever seen. Cinematographer Aris Stavrou should be celebrated for what he accomplishes here. Every frame of this 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen edition is like a masterpiece, the contrasts so crisp and detailed you can practically feel the edges. More or less unknown outside his native Greece, this is one cameraman who earns his accolades -- and the honor of Synapse stepping up to deliver a definitive version is the eye-candy icing on the cake. The rest of the DVD's technical specifications are equally good. The Dolby Digital Mono renders the dialogue easily discernible, and the original subtitles (the film was shot in English -- only the voiceover remained sans translation) can be replaced by a new set. There's a caveat, though. The new words use big gray boxes that block out some of the scenery. Toss in a pair of perfunctory extras (a trailer and a gallery) and you've got a basic digital presentation. Some additional in-depth content would have been nice, however.
If you are unfazed by moments of mindless debauchery, if your enjoyment of films is not completely tied to understanding or accepting them, if you find experimentation, confrontation, and discomfort as valid a set of cinematic conceits as drama, comedy, and tragedy, then you'll definitely find Singapore Sling to be a mesmerizing, bewildering experience. While it is far from the most disturbing movie ever made, it does require a centered creative constitution to survive. If you are not up to the challenge, by all means pass. If you can handle it, you'll find a lot to praise in this perplexing macabre-a-trois.
Review content copyright © 2006 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Greek, with English)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Still Gallery
* Official Site for Director Nikos Nikolaidis