Published February 1, 2000
Beautiful People, written and directed by Jasmin Dizdar, is what we might call a Rodney King movie—a relatively harmless, feel-good concoction of a familiar kind which asks, rhetorically, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Of course, neither Jasmin Dizdar nor Rodney King is interested in any answer there may be to their question. Instead, the idea is to imply that there really is no answer, or none that need be taken seriously. If people would just be nicer to each other, the world’s problems would be solved. Certainly this is true, though it gets us no nearer to answering the question of why they cannot be nicer to each other when, as is so often and so lamentably the case, they cannot, for all the pious hand-wringing of movies like this one.
Like others of its kind, its expansive moral vision causes it to attempt to do far too much, and we are shown as many different varieties of what the multiculturalists have taken to calling “ethnocentrism” as possible: there are thuggish English soccer fans trying to get to the big international match in Holland; there are a Serb and a Croat brawling in the streets of London, and then in the hospital where they are taken with the injuries they inflict on each other; there are Serbs and Bosnians shooting at each other in Bosnia and a Bosnian couple who seek to abort a child conceived as a result of the wife’s rape by Serbs. In addition, we have the family and political loyalties of an upper class Tory M.P.’s family, their snobbery about the lower classes and foreigners, and rebellion against that snobbery. For good measure there is a dash of Welsh nationalism.
Even the marital discord between Dr. Mouldy (Nicholas Farrell), an over-worked National Health Service physician, and the wife who has just left him to cope with their bratty twin boys on his own somehow seems to fit into the same pattern of irrational prejudice and hatred. Oddly left out of a film set in Britain is the form of tribal conflict which has been most prominent and most intractable there over the last 30 years, namely the struggle between the Fenians and the Loyalists in Northern Ireland. Perhaps even Rodney King would despair of a solution to that problem. But there is plenty of hatred to be getting on with, even if any hope that the movie might have had of saying something interesting about it dissipates with each new theatre of class, ethnic, sexual or national strife introduced. For the only common element among them is the same vague hope that people might turn nice (as most do here) and avoid violence and bloodshed.
There are some funny moments, as when the Serb (Dado Jehan) tries to disconnect the oxygen supply of the sleeping Croat (Faruk Pruti) in the hospital bed next to him. “He burn my village! His whole family are Nazis!” as he has already tried to explain to the bus driver who unsuccessfully tried to part them. The nurse (Linda Bassett), coming upon this scene, scolds the Serb: “Don’t try and help him yourself. You call nurse.” I couldn’t enjoy as much as I was meant to the mistaken parachute-drop of the junkie punk Griffin Midge (Danny Nussbaum) into Bosnia, where he unexpectedly becomes a hero (“He alone managed to get through Serb checkpoints and smuggle in much-needed drugs,” says the TV announcer). It has a too symbolic, or perhaps a magical-realist a cast to it. But Griffin’s parents, Roger (Roger Sloman) and Felicity (Heather Tobias) are almost enough by themselves to make the movie worth watching.
Likewise, the attempted comedy in the story of the TV journalist, Jerry Higgins (Gilbert Martin), didn’t quite work for me. Jerry suffers from what the film calls “Bosnia syndrome”—in which a sympathetic onlooker will “identify with victim until you begin to see things through the victim’s eyes….In severe cases the distinction becomes so blurred that you become the victim and the victim becomes you”—so severely that he tries to cut his own leg off. But it is a very nice touch to have the Cypriot railway worker who finds Jerry drunk and passed out on the tracks with the unwanted leg draped over a rail say to him in a somehow very English way: “If everyone were sleeping on the railway tracks, we wouldn’t have a railway, now would we, Sir.” There is a similarly delightful absurdity in having the nurse proudly announce to the Serb and the Croat that their room-mate, the Welsh bomber who calls himself Glendower “single-handedly burned twenty three English holiday cottages.”
But such moments are too few and far between to save the film from its conceptual flaws. The last chance to do this comes when the Bosnian Pero (Edin Dzandzanovic) gets up to give a speech at his very traditionally English wedding to Portia (Charlotte Coleman), the daughter of the Tory parliamentarian, and instead of spouting the usual pleasantries, tells them about his experiences in Bosnia: “I have been in war. I kill children and woman,” he says matter-of-factly. “Now,” he adds, “I want to be you”—that is, one of the comparatively pacific English into whose tribe he is marrying. There is a moment of embarrassment among the wedding guests, but it seems as if the film itself shares that embarrassment, since it doesn’t follow up. What ought to be the emotional center of the movie gets lost among an assortment of vignettes of a generally upbeat and hopeful nature at the end.