Jude Law in drag and Dame Judi Dench as a cynical fashionista are among the stars of a new British film tipped to be the talking point of the Berlin Film Festival. With a cast including Eddie Izzard, Steve Buscemi and model Lily Cole, Rage, by London-based writer-director Sally Potter, plays in competition on Sunday and promises a pithy critique of the fashion industry in the age of globalisation.
A low-budget feature set in the New York fashion world, Rage takes the form of a series of to-camera interviews as a murder investigation unfolds. The film features 14 actors, and despite its mixed cast of big names and relative unknowns, says Potter, "each worked for just a couple of days on a completely equal pro rata basis" The film's execution belies its glamorous background. The shooting took place with only three people present at any time: the actor, a sound recordist and Potter, operating the camera herself.
Potter, 59, has defined her theme as "the ugly use of beauty in the pursuit of profit", and Rage explores the fashion industry across the board, its characters running from financiers and celebrity designers to a seamstress, a bodyguard and a pizza deliverer. Potter told The Independent on Sunday, "I wanted to find a way of looking at globalisation in the most personal way possible - the way it affects people's lives without their even realising. It's about a complex bundle of things, including power and powerlessness, and the desire to get behind the surface of things, by people who are embedded within a culture of celebrity."
Rage promises to play provocative games with the celebrity status of its actors, including Lily Cole, whose role as model Lettuce Leaf will no doubt be more challenging than her screen debut in last year's St Trinian's film. Much of the talk will focus on Jude Law's mould-breaking performance in a female role, as supermodel Minx, for which he wears a black wig.
"The part was originally written for a woman," says Potter. "It took me a while to realize that it would be more interesting if it was played by a man - Jude was an obvious choice because of his own beauty, and the way it's sometimes been held against him." On her blog, Potter comments of Law that "he took on a kind of hyper-beauty for this persona… The more he became a she, coiffed and made-up, the more naked was his performance."
Also stepping out of character is Dame Judi Dench, who has called Rage "without question or doubt the most unusual piece of work I've ever done". Playing a critic, she is seen in the film's trailer lighting a joint with a pistol-shaped lighter, and muttering such sardonic bons mots as, "Fashion is not an art form. If anything it's pornography, to which millions are addicted."
Although she has researched the New York fashion world, Potter - who originally planned the project 14 years ago - denies the characters are based on specific people. Even so, viewers will be struck by one designer character - Merlin, played by Simon Abkarian - bearing a distinct resemblance to moustachioed couture star John Galliano.
Potter, 59, established herself in the 1970s and 1980s as one of Britain's more experimental and politically motivated film-makers. While never matching the public profile of UK contemporaries Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, she has continued to impress as a maker of provocative, formally inventive films: her last feature Yes (2004), starring Joan Allen, was a politically-based love story with a script in iambic pentameters.
In Berlin, Rage will be watched closely by a jury including Wallender thriller writer Henning Mankell and president Tilda Swinton, who worked with Potter on her 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation, Orlando. A Berlin regular since her 1986 screen debut, Caravaggio, Swinton commented last week, "I've been here in every capacity. I've yet to clean the festival - maybe next year that'll be my role."