Film: Straight out of the melting-pot

Beautiful People Director: Jasmin Dizdar Starring: Charlotte Coleman, Edin Dzandzanovic (109 mins; 15)
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The Independent Culture
I recall an interview in which Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood's Old Masters, reminisced about a project of his that had never come to fruition. A World War II movie, its hero was to have been an American spy, a fluent German speaker, ready to be parachuted into Nazi-occupied France. As he leaps from the plane, his parachute cord catches on the uniform of a lowly flight sergeant who is catapulted into space along with him. The movie, a black comedy, would have related the misadventures in enemy territory of this mismatched couple, the impeccably briefed spy and the gum-chewing, deese-dem-and-dose Joe Doakes from Brooklyn.

If I've told that story at some length, it's because it bears a curious similarity to one of the narrative strands in Beautiful People. A gormless, shaven-headed punk, having flown to Rotterdam for a World Cup qualifier match, collapses in a drunken stupor on the tarmac, is bundled into a UN military plane preparing to airlift supplies to Bosnia and finds himself parachuted into the thick of the conflict.

It's a promising situation which, if allowed to develop, could have made a terrific farce in the Hawksian style. In Beautiful People, unfortunately, it's just one plot ramification among several. Jasmin Dizdar, the film's British-based but Bosnian-born director, has been bitten by the Altman bug (there's a lot of it going around). This is is yet another of those increasingly common portmanteau films in which the portrait of a specific community at a specific moment in its socio-cultural history is built up from the kaleidoscopic interaction of a set of characters who somehow contrive to be both idiosyncratic and representative. The community in this instance is London, a very multicultural, very anti-Notting Hill London, maybe just a teensy bit idealised - white faces, even among extras, even among gawping onlookers, actually appear to be in the minority - and the moment is 1994, at the height of the Bosnian war.

As is true of all "Isn't it a small world?" films, in which everyone's destiny turns out to be linked to everyone else's, Beautiful People takes a relaxed attitude towards coincidence. If it were not a film but a sentence, it might go something like this: a pair of Bosnians, one a Serb, one a Croat, get into a fist-fight aboard a London bus and end up sharing the same hospital ward with a third patient, Pero, another Bosnian refugee, who falls in love with his doctor, the rebelliously upper-crust Portia, whose colleague, Dr Mouldy, attempts to dissuade a young woman, also Bosnian, impregnated by a rapist, from aborting her unborn child and meanwhile, struggling to come to terms with the abrupt departure of his own wife, deposits his children at the same school attended by those of a Scottish TV reporter who is waiting to be flown out to report on - yes, you've guessed it - the Bosnian war. And that's only the half of it.

Naturally, it would be churlish not to be impressed by the skill with which the strands have been woven together (though, to be honest, there are now so many of these Altmanesque films that one risks becoming blase). It might, however, be worth submitting Beautiful People to a very basic test. If its narrative were unpicked, and all its various stories laid end to end, so to speak, how would they look then? Let's try it. A pair of squabbling Bosnians, obliged to cohabit a hospital ward, eventually warm to each other over a game of Snap. Having pleaded with her doctor to abort a rape-induced pregnancy, a young mother-to-be eventually elects to keep her child. A snooty couple are bemused when their newly acquired son-in-law, a Bosnian refugee, confesses at the wedding reception that he, too, murdered innocent women and children during his country's civil war. A dishevelled, overworked doctor endeavours to pick up the pieces of his shattered domestic life.

I could go on, but it should be clear that, removed from their context, the individual stories are all pretty trite and soapy, with the sole exception of that with which this review begins (the layabout parachuted into Bosnia becomes a reluctant hero and even manages to put his stash of heroin to medicinal use). Dizdar probably likes to think of his film as a tour de force, but what he's really doing is exploiting its multifaceted complexity as a means of avoiding any real engagement with his own characters, their disappointments or aspirations. The effect is simultaneously one of energy (we are constantly being whizzed from one storyline to another), superficiality (we never spend long enough with any of them) and, ultimately, sentimentality (the film's vision of London is of a vast melting-pot in which all differences, racial, social and ideological, can be boiled down into a warm, humanist, lumpless broth).

Frankly, this isn't cinema, it's TV. Dizdar zaps his narrative, switching restlessly from character to character the way a couch potato switches from channel to channel. Bereft of mystery, beauty and imagination, his visuals have that dreary, just-another-British-film look to them. Everything has been reduced to the lowest common denominator of functional transparency.

Am I, finally, being too harsh on a film that was quickly and cheaply made, and also happens to be its director's first feature? It's possible. Beautiful People won an award at the Cannes Festival, so others have patently enjoyed it more than I did. Yet I'm writing for potential paying customers, after all, and cinema tickets aren't any less expensive for low-budget first films.