This week in movies you missed: John Malkovich plays a psycho (again!) in this filmed theater production from Vienna.
What You Missed
Jack Unterweger was a dashing Austrian who committed murder, went to prison for life, started writing books, became a celebrated public intellectual, was released from prison, and promptly started killing again. In 1994, facing prosecution for the murders of several prostitutes, he hanged himself in his prison cell.
Malkovich plays Unterweger in this recording of a 2009 Vienna performance of the title play, written and directed by Michael Sturminger. The surreal conceit is that Unterweger, after his death, penned his memoirs and is now publicizing them from beyond the grave.
He is aided — at the insistence of his publisher — by an on-stage orchestra with period instruments; and two sopranos who deliver long baroque arias about the abuse women endure at the hands of men. The result is a very odd, distinctly highbrow theatrical hybrid.
Why You Missed It
Now we know what else Malkovich was doing at around the time he made the decision to appear in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The Infernal Comedy was not destined for the multiplex.
Should You Keep Missing It?
One of my best theater experiences ever was seeing Malkovich perform in London. I don't remember the play (this was 1992), but he was amazing, even in a tricky scene where he had to seduce a woman onstage. No, especially in that.
Malkovich does some of his Valmont thing in The Infernal Comedy, but it's creepier. Way creepier. When one soprano sings an aria meant here to evoke Unterweger's teenage mother, he slinks up behind her and pillows his head on her abdomen. In later scenes, the singers embody his victims — he appears to strangle them with their own bras while they continue singing. Not your average genteel evening of theater.
It livens up the musical interludes, which, I confess, felt awfully long. The passages from Mozart, Gluck, Weber, Beethoven and others seem superlatively performed, but they'll mean more to viewers who know enough about baroque opera to place them in context.
What about the text? To some degree, I agree with this New York Times review that dismisses the play as nothing new for Malkovich. Still, if you aren't familiar with it, Unterweger's story is riveting. When he began killing again, he deflected suspicion by reporting on his own murders as a journalist. He even went to L.A. to interview prostitutes, then proceeded to rack up a few more victims there.
A "Making Of" documentary on the DVD offers more details of this story; it kept my attention more than the actual play. Still, I loved the scene where Unterweger critiques the inaccuracies of his own Wikipedia page (it has since been updated).
Even better, Sturminger's text mocks the whole institution of the celebrity literary reading. With his fussy hauteur, Malkovich reminded me less of Hannibal Lector than of one of those Authors who takes himself far too seriously and resents having to whore himself to the public. Unterweger blames the publisher for every aspect of the production he doesn't like (such as the orchestra sharing his space). He arranges copies of his book on a "dead" soprano's body, then uses her as a human puppet to exhort us to buy three copies each. Now, that's a step beyond gaming your Amazon ratings.
Verdict: For Malkovich fans who are also culture vultures, a must. True-crime fans may be put off by all that singing.
(Photo copyright by Olga Martschitsch.)
Other New Releases You May Have Missed
- Dragonslayer (Skateboarding documentary about Josh “Skreech” Sandoval.)
- Newlyweds (Writer/director/star Edward Burns is back with this comedy.)
- Perfect Sense (Eva Green and Ewan McGregor face the end of the world together)
- United (David Tennant in a soccer movie)
- Windfall (Documentary on the "dark side of wind energy development.")
- Worried About the Boy (Boy George gets his own biopic)
Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)