Suspension of Disbelief
Author: Mike Figgis
Writer’s Potential: 5
Logline:A successful writer is suspected of murdering a beautiful French girl by the police and the girl’s twin sister.
Synopsis:The opening sequence intercuts two distinct sequences: MARTIN discussing lecturing a class of eager film students about screenwriting, and a man and a woman in two separate locations having phone sex. As the phone sex gets more intense, and Martin digs deep into the schizophrenic nature of writing, it’s finally revealed that the phone sex sequence is actually a scene from the movie. The two separate locations exist on the same soundstage, and the actress playing the woman — SARAH (early 20s) — is angry the moment director GREGORY (with whom Sarah has a secret relationship) yells “Cut!” She feels her performance is horrible and the other actors are judging her. Afterward, Sarah rides up to her father’s Hampstead home, talking on her cell phone to somebody about coming to her birthday party. Her father turns out to be Martin, a well-off novelist and screenwriter. He buys her a fancy camera for her birthday, which she uses to snap photos at the party. The party itself is a bit raucous, filled with obnoxious young actors. Sarah’s best friend, DOMINIC, shows off his new French girlfriend, ANGELIQUE, a sultry woman whose quiet demeanor stands out among the actors. Martin pays attention. Martin’s AGENT browbeats Martin about missing a deadline on his latest screenplay. Martin complains about writer’s block.
Angelique approaches Martin and gives him a puff on her joint. Sarah snaps a photo of it, disappointed. Martin excuses himself to bed. He lives on the third floor of the house, which has been renovated into a loft-like flat. Angelique is in the room, reading the sexually explicit dialogue from his latest script. She starts pantomiming the actions described. The next morning, Martin greets Sarah and some of her friends (who have been up all night) as they scroll through the photos in her new camera. At the college lecture hall, Martin describes the important balance between character and plot. Back at home, INSPECTOR BULLOCK (a jolly fat man who may or may not be feigning his apparent stupidity) arrives, looking for Sarah. Martin invites him in. Bullock explains Angelique turned up missing and was last seen at the party. Martin keeps a poker face as he explains he only spoke to her briefly. Bullock mentions he’s a fan and is sympathetic about Martin’s wife, who went missing 10 years earlier. Bullock asks Martin to read his own screenplay. Martin reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, two boys find Angelique’s body floating in a canal.
Martin drives Sarah to the morgue so he can console Dominic as he identifies the body. There’s evidence of sexual trauma, so Bullock theorizes she had a fight with Dominic and walked home alone when she was attacked. They’re shocked when Angelique’s twin sister, THERESE, shows up at the morgue after the police contacted her. In contrast to Angelique, Therese is more conservative and withdrawn. Sarah talks Martin into allowing Therese to stay at Martin’s house. Martin lectures the college students about the difficulties of a three-act structure, because life doesn’t happen in three acts. This descends into a rant about his own writer’s block. Sarah, having attended the lecture, is impressed — the outburst allowed students to relate to him. Martin meets with Bullock to give notes about his screenplay. Martin is exceptionally blunt, saying the script was awful and Bullock has no writing talent. Bullock thinks he’s joking at first. Before Martin can give Bullock a “delicate” statement about Angelique that he’d like kept private, Bullock has a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital.
Martin starts writing a scene about the collapse of a marriage. In his mind, the characters look very much like himself and his missing wife. Sarah calls to say her shooting has run late. It’s just Martin and Therese. He inadvertently walks in on Therese masturbating. Later, he awkwardly offers to make her dinner. They start talking about Sarah. Martin tells her that he wrote the script for the movie Sarah’s acting in. She didn’t want to be accused of nepotism, so she gave a fake name and wore a wig during the audition. Martin invites Therese to scout a location with him. She agrees. Before anything can happen between them, Sarah bursts into the house, angry about her performance. Therese digs around her room until she finds pile of VHS tapes featuring Martin’s missing wife — an actress before her disappearance. Martin visits Bullock at the hospital and gives some gentler notes about Bullock’s screenplay. Bullock is basically an invalid, unable to speak or move — but he can cry.
As Martin drives Therese into the country, she describes her childhood. After their parents were killed in a car accident, Therese and Angelique were adopted by separate families. Angelique accused her adoptive father of sexual abuse, causing the man to commit suicide. Therese’s adoptive parents took pity and adopted Angelique, where she made the same accusation — but this time, Therese knew it was a lie. Though she wanted to protect her sister, Therese told the truth, causing a rift between them. Out in the country, Martin and Therese are given access to an old, defunct NATO bunker. Therese breaks down emotionally, which in the darkness Martin misinterprets as a sexually provocative act. They drive home in silence. Later, Therese tells Martin she’s surprised Angelique didn’t try to seduce her, because he’s exactly the type of man she would be attracted to. Martin has a blowout, sending the car into a ditch. They’re forced to spend the night together in a country inn that only has one room left. Martin calls Sarah to let her know. He and Therese share the bed, but nothing happens. Meanwhile, Sarah brings Gregory back to Martin’s house, and they have sex in his loft space.
When he arrives back in Hampstead, new police detectives wait for him. They’ve intensified the investigation a bit and, after examining Sarah’s photos, they suspect Martin, who’s seen in a photograph where Angelique has a somewhat provocative, flirtatious pose next to him. He reluctantly gives a DNA sample. They inform him that Bullock passed away, which relieves Martin. Martin writes a scene in his screenplay that appears to be a confession of killing his wife. He flashes on sex with Angelique and the strangulation of his wife. He considers deleting the passage from the script but ultimately keeps it. Instead, he burns Angelique’s panties. At the inquest, the coroner — having failed to find any physical evidence of rape — rules Angelique’s death an accidental drowning, which deeply upsets Therese. She’s too grief-stricken to handle the funeral arrangements, but Sarah is too ignorant. Martin agrees to take care of it, once he returns from a day trip to France — to the tiny town in which Therese and Angelique were raised.
Sarah, who has the day off, invites Therese out. At first, she’s a little alarmed by Therese’s apparent familiarity and odd sexuality — she’s a bit more like Angelique than she expected. After a day spent shopping and goofing around, they go to a birthday party for one of Sarah’s friends. They get drunk, and Sarah wakes up the next morning in a post-coital embrace with Therese. Uneasy, Sarah goes off to work. Martin’s still in France, so Therese goes up to his loft and reads his screenplay. In a muted montage, Martin talks with school and adoption officials. Dominic brings Angelique’s things to Therese. She invites herself into his life and moves out of Martin’s place. Martin’s surprised and disappointed, but Therese knows where he went and what he was looking for.
Martin has an odd dream, starting with him and Therese in a boat, which capsizes, causing Therese to drown while Martin does nothing to save her. He wakes up and thinks he sees Angelique. It turns out to be Sarah, dressed in Angelique’s clothes, in an almost pornographic posture. This may or may not also be a part of his dream. All of the central characters gather at the crematorium for Angelique’s service. Therese, now wearing Angelique’s things and her style of makeup, makes Dominic a bit uneasy. The wake is like an unsettling parody of Sarah’s birthday party — all of the same characters, mostly doing the same things, but a bit muted. Therese asks Martin to drive her to the airport. He agrees.
Therese is angry at Martin for sneaking behind her back and investigating her life — mainly because it means he suspects her of killing Angelique. She laughs that she suspected Martin, too, initially. Martin points out that everything she told him about her life was a lie. Therese says that they were, indeed, adopted, by a loving couple, but the father quickly turned to raping both Angelique and Therese, so they killed him, making it look like an accident. In reality, it damaged both of them, and Therese has always felt like the two of them are halves of the same whole — she feels the same things that Angelique does, thinks the same things. That’s how she knew Angelique seduced him — and it’s also how, after spending a few days with him, she knows Dominic killed her. Martin’s surprised by her honesty, but she plays it off by observing that Martin killed his own wife. She leaves Therese with the thought that the two of them are much more similar than he’ll consider. The script fades to black, but the credits are interrupted by the college lecture attendees complaining that Martin can’t end a movie this way. Instead, it’s ended with an oddly theatrical epilogue narrated by Sarah, followed by a curtain call from the entire cast.
Comments:Suspension of Disbelief is clearly trying to be a sexy, surreal meditation on reality versus fiction. Unfortunately, it’s really just a hackneyed, poorly thought out murder mystery that tries to obscure its lack of resolution with a lot of semi-explicit sex and pretentious talk about screenwriting conventions. As written, it merits a pass.
The story starts off well enough: although the opening sequence is a bit long and on the nose, it clearly establishes some of the script’s central themes. From there, the first act focuses on introducing the characters and the murder of Angelique, which drives the rest of the story. Aside from the fact that the writer makes no one other than Martin seem like a potential suspect in the murder, the story works pretty well up until this point.
Problems arise in the second act, as each character’s role in the story grows increasingly unclear. The writer spends most of his time playing with the audience, but that inadvertently drains the story of suspense. If the audience knows nothing is what it seems, how can they get invested in anything that’s happening? The writer tries to rely on cleverness to push the story forward, but nothing about it is as clever as he seems to think it is. For instance, Dominic — ultimately fingered as the murderer, although by an unreliable character — pretty much disappears from the story after his early introduction. There’s no time to suspect him, which is irritating, not clever.
Although the third act tidily explains everything in one long scene full of bland, on-the-nose dialogue, the narrative is still frustratingly scattershot. None of Martin’s actions seem to add up to him suspecting Therese — in fact, whether it’s intentional or not, he frequently seems like he wants Therese to be his next victim — so his trip to France is bizarre and confusing, as is Therese’s sudden decision to spend so much time with Dominic (all of which occurs offscreen). Everything is explained, but the explanations are weak and unsatisfying. At the end of the day, the script lacks a true resolution — two people sitting in a car, filling in the gaps in the plot, doesn’t qualify as resolution. Neither does the coy, jokey epilogue. Watching this unfold onscreen is likely to infuriate audiences.
The characters suffer from the same problems as the story, for the same reasons: the writer is so intent on obfuscating for the sake of alleged cleverness, it’s incredibly difficult to empathize with the characters. Every character is an enigma, almost until the end, because the writer refuses to tip his hand about anything. This isn’t about trying to guess whodunit — it’s about understanding who these people are, how they relate to one another, and why the events in this story occur. If none of this is clear, why does anything in the story matter? The blunt answer is: it doesn’t.
Of course, this all goes back to the theme, but the theme itself begs the question: if this script is an intense exploration of reality versus fiction, why does most of it read like a third-rate Agatha Christie knockoff? It might have been interesting, or at least more entertaining, if the writer had explored how “real” characters might react being thrust into a convoluted Christie-like mystery, but that’s not how the story plays out.