LOS ANGELES — 'Claus von Bulow stinks!" a furious young law student explodes, near the opening of the seductively entertaining "Reversal of Fortune" (Beverly Center Cineplex, AMC Century 14.) "He's obviously guilty of something pretty despicable and if we free him, we become partners in his crime."
Audiences for whom the name Von Bulow and his still-comatose wife, Sunny, have any meaning at all may go into the film agreeing completely. Only a few other men, Donald Trump perhaps or Idi Amin, have courted bad press with such singular avidity. During Von Bulow's appeal--to reverse his previous conviction on charges of assault with intent to murder his wife by injections of insulin--he and his current girlfriend posed smirkingly for Helmut Newton in biker's leathers: the aristocrat as sadomasochistic stud.
As his defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz clarifies succinctly for the movie's Von Bulow, "You got one thing in your favor . . . everybody hates you."
All this is background to why the brilliant "Reversal of Fortune" becomes such a complete reversal of expectation. Screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, director Barbet Schroeder ("Barfly") and, especially, Jeremy Irons--in a glittering performance as the divinely decadent Dane--have chosen to treat this social death spiral as a tragicomedy of manners. It's an inspired tone.
By the film's end, Von Bulow may still be emotionally inaccessible, but the heart of the poisonous darkness in which he and Sunny co-existed has been laid bare. In the process Von Bulow, self-mocking but--crucially--self-knowing, has gone from a character of reptilian fascination to one it's even possible to be moved by, an emotion he would undoubtedly loathe. "Reversal of Fortune" has three points of view and two playing teams, each jaw-droppingly exotic to the other. On the one side, Von Bulow and the unimaginable richness and peculiarity of life at Clarendon Court, his wife's Newport "cottage."
Captaining the lively home team is Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), Harvard Law School's scrappy, high-profile civil libertarian and defender of tricky cases from Death Row inmates to Patricia Hearst and Harry Reems. The flamboyant "Dersh's" reasons for taking Von Bulow's case are part of the film's complex underpinnings.
As he meets Dershowitz, Von Bulow's inadvertently hilarious non sequitur about his deep respect for the intelligence and the integrity of the Jewish people raises the question that the case may also be the ultimate personal test for the lawyer himself. The joke between Dersh and his son Elon about defending Hitler is hardly in there by accident.
The film's third, quite objective viewpoint is presented by Sunny herself, the icily splendid Glenn Close, narrating from her comatose state. From her floating nether world Sunny can muse about her beautiful life with Claus before the notoriety as evenhandedly as she can catalogue her own medical eccentricities: her consumption of Valium, Seconal, aspirin, alcohol, cigarettes, sweets, even the 24 laxatives she'd taken daily since she was 16.
If such detached observations recall the opening of "Sunset Boulevard," spoken by its dead hero face-down in a swimming pool, it's not surprising. "Reversal of Fortune" is the most deeply sophisticated American-made film since Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch were in the business of shaking up our screens. Its sophistication comes from what it accepts as a given: the Von Bulows' design for living, domestic arrangements that might have seemed decadent to the Hapsburgs.
This unflappability about such things come from three sources: From the deeply European sensibilities of director Schroeder--who not coincidentally once made a juicy documentary about Idi Amin; from Irons, who has more than once drawn the soul of some very odd ducks indeed, as in "Dead Ringers," and from the inordinately talented Kazan. As a writer, Kazan seems drawn to lives somewhat off the norm: his previous screenplays were "Patty Hearst," written originally as a comedy, and "At Close Range," about a pair of sons and their alluring, sociopathic father.
Dershowitz creates a defense team, a cross-section of his most brilliant students and colleagues, who strain against a deadline to annihilate every point of the prosecution's case. The vague love interest between Dershowitz and a lawyer ex-love (Annabella Sciorra) is awful, but this legal detective work gives the film its lively motor.
The performances of Close and Silver are flawless, but it is Irons' portrait that remains behind, an enigmatic after-image. Ashen-gray and whippet thin in his all-black costumes, his hair meticulously thinned, Irons is never unaware that there is a comic as well as a tragic view of these haute goings-on. As befits their arrangement, Von Bulow is an endlessly accommodating consort: when his wife chooses to sleep in near-freezing temperatures, he simply wears a knit watchcap to bed; Irons wears his with the air of an elegant terrorist.