Wild Side

cast: Christopher Walken, Joan Chen, Steven Bauer, Anne Heche, and Allen Garfield

director: Donald Cammell

111 mins (18) 1995
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Michael Brooke

Wild Side was the last feature by Donald Cammell, whose tragically wasted career after an astonishing debut with Performance in 1970 produced just three more features over three decades, ending with his suicide in 1996. At the time, there were rumours that this was a direct reaction to the butchery that the film underwent at the hands of its production company, straight-to-cable specialist Nu Image (the film’s original editor Frank Mazzola said he literally let out a primal scream of horror when he saw what they’d done to it), though it now seems that the cause-and-effect claims don’t explain the pre-planned, ritualised staging of his own death.
We waited half a decade to see Wild Side on this side of the pond thanks to the hard work of Mazzola, Tartan’s Hamish McAlpine and Channel Four’s Nick Jones, who despite both legal and physical obstruction have managed to reconstruct what is as close to Cammell’s original cut as we’re ever likely to see. As with Eyes Wide Shut, there’s an irresolvable question mark over whether this is the definitive version, but it’s certainly much nearer the original concept – and while it’s no Performance, it at least provides welcome proof that decades of frustration hadn’t completely sapped his creative energy.
That said, I was unsure during the first 20 minutes or so whether the critics were just being generous out of respect for Cammell – despite the calibre of the cast, it seemed little different from the kind of tired ‘erotic thriller’ that Nu Image specialised in, and which can be seen on Channel 5 almost any day of the week. But it’s the sort of film that creeps up on you, and when the (deliberately?) clichéd exposition involving a shady financier, his wife, his chauffeur and a high-class hooker double-crossing each other starts fissuring into typically Cammellian explorations of power, sexuality, time, identity and of course performance, it becomes weirdly riveting.
The four leads help enormously – Anne Heche shows why she became a star, though she was in fact virtually unknown when this was made (and she also hadn’t come out as a lesbian, which adds an inevitable frisson to her scenes with Joan Chen), while Steven Bauer has done little of note since his impressive debut as Al Pacino’s sidekick in Scarface, but he’s more than a match for Christopher Walken, even though the latter goes so far over the top that mere adjectives are left helplessly trailing in his wake: I will never forget the audience reaction (ever tried laughing hysterically when your jaw is scraping the floor?) at the scene where he decides to sodomise Bauer as a punishment for raping Heche (forcing him to roll a condom on first, natch), which alone turns Wild Side into a 24-carat cult classic.
With its florid dialogue, torrid couplings, multiple time-shifts and general peculiarity this film is not, to put it mildly, for everyone – but as the swansong of one of British cinema’s few authentic visionaries it’s as close to being unmissable as anything else I’ve seen recently.
DVD extras: interviews with Heche and Cammell, and the director’s ‘lost’ short, The Argument, a stills gallery, and filmographies.