Mary Harron Mary Harron: "American Psycho" - A Stockbroker Runs Amok

The orgies of murder and mayhem aren't any more gruesome than in the scandalous novel on which it's based, but the film "American Psycho" probes for explanations, and so, turns the serial killer into a comic figure.

When the novel American Psycho appeared in 1991, author Bret Easton Ellis whipped up a scandal the likes of which the literary world hadn't seen in a long, long while. Pages and pages of brand names and descriptions of toilet rituals are followed by detailed depictions of sadistic violence and bloody murders. The bulk of the criticism of Ellis's book was directed less at the descriptions themselves as at the psychological detachment with which Ellis allowed these events to unfold.

At first, the film version, planned for years, couldn't seem to get off the ground. After much hemming and hawing, Leonardo DiCaprio declined to take on the leading role, several versions of the screenplay were floating around and Oliver Stone declined to direct.

Director Mary Harron was finally able to persuade a production company with her interpretation. At first glance, she seems to have held tightly to the original. Her film begins with scenes in an upscale restaurant and dwells on the morning fitness program of broker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in his luxury apartment. He's set himself up with Evelyn, a blond, smokes cigars, rides in stretch limousines and otherwise obeys the unwritten code of New York City's Upper West Side: One survives on a diet of next to no feelings, superficiality and excessive amounts of cocaine. It's a world whose inhabitants seem to have everything: a fit body, the first million in the bank and an expensive apartment.

Bateman's secretary, Jean, is an outsider, not part of this world of the beautiful and the perfect. For her performance as Jean, Cloe Sevigny has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Bateman's life always seems to fly off track when someone appears to be trumping him: with a more beautiful woman, a more expensive apartment, a larger car. If one is predisposed to take this seriously, Bateman murders out of envy. Another interpretation might read: In the struggle to survive, he wipes out any competitors who get in his way. The strength of this director is that she plants countless tiny clues suggesting that there indeed must be a reason Bateman kills.

Perhaps Bateman has never had to fight for anything before and has not been able to achieve much more in his life than unblemished skin. He's a zero in the tough and competitive world of business, and only by murdering can he prove his strengths and assets. Not too believable a motive for the screenplay version of "American Psycho". Maybe director Harron wasn't able to take it all that seriously and has shot the film through with satirical passages. When Bateman shoots down a police escort and then stands there in his victor's pose, the whole thing comes off like a comic strip in which the characters blow a few short dialogue balloons and then haul off and start murdering without any further motive.

There's no punishment for Bateman. After running amok, he confesses to the murders to his lawyer. But no one believes him. This is the toughest punishment possible for him - but not a satisfying ending. "American Psycho" seems to line up with "Natural Born Killer" and "The Fight Club" with its world of ice-cold emotions and its fetish for brand names and products. The explanations, at any rate, don't probe too deeply.

The film was shown as part of the Berlinale competition though it's not actually officially in the running. Still, "American Psycho" does have this to offer: With several tracking shots that swoop up close or far off, the cameraman has created an aesthetic that propels the viewer right back to the 80s.

"American Psycho". Directed by Mary Harron. Camera: Andrzej Sekula. With: Christian Bale, Reese Witherspoon, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Mathis and Jared Leto. 102 minutes.

Translated by David Hudson

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