Kate Shenton follows up body modification documentary On Tender Hooks with second feature Egomaniac, and in doing so turns her sharply observant eye a little closer to home. This time around the lines between fact and fiction are a little more blurry, as the film adds a bloody twist to the director’s own experiences in filmmaking (though she herself swears to never precisely expand on exactly where the creative embellishment begins). A searing and bitingly funny satire on the nature of the industry from a female perspective, the precision with which it makes its point and some killer writing earmark this as a firm statement of intent.
Catherine Sweeney (Nic Lamont) is an aspiring director with one noble goal: to make the great zombie romantic comedy (zomromcom?) she knows she’s capable of making. Of course, game changing sub-genre masterpieces don’t come cheap, and much of the first half of Egomaniac documents her meetings with various interested parties in the hope of securing some funds. The meetings themselves are without fail both funny and disconcertingly plausible: the earnestness with which she’s advised to put a talking dog into the film to make it more commercially viable is inherently ridiculous only until you look at the lineup of films at your local multiplex. Ultimately, she finds herself in tow with “producer” Nathan (Adam Rhys-Davies), and from there, the requests get more outrageous, Catherine’s film distorts beyond recognition and it’s left to her to reconcile with the fact that what it’s becoming is so far adrift from her original vision.
The concept of “selling out” against the simple and more artistically forgivable notion of “a little compromise” is just one of the many areas where Egomaniac has smart, pertinent things to say. There’s some commentary on the obsession with physical attractiveness directed at women in the industry, and with it comes a genuinely affecting moment when, after a particularly savage session with an overly blunt photographer, Catherine, in a moment to herself, sadly scrutinises her own body in the mirror. As with many of the film’s strongest elements, the message is punctuated with humour, here in the form of her outraged acknowledgement of the double standard – “Tim Burton looks like a hedge!”
The fact that Egomaniac is so articulate in conveying its central message is pivotal to its success for a number of reasons. Firstly and most simply, satire needs clarity to really resonate, but also, a muddled or indistinct message may have proven fatal purely for that fact that the character of Catherine, for all the moments where we find ourselves on her side, isn’t always portrayed as particularly likeable. Her struggle against the industry establishment (sometimes portrayed as idiotic to the point of caricature) is easy to cheer for, but moments like her interactions with her parents are less flattering. Depicted here as nameless, faceless, voiceless ATMs, she asks for money at several junctures during the film, and immediately ends the conversation (always by phone) as quickly as possible once she has what she wants. Her endless dedication to her project as it spirals from her control is relatable, but in the face of the tantrum she throws on the one occasion they don’t acquiesce to the request, it’s not always easy to see things from her side. Though it might have been problematic in a lesser work, the moments where Catherine proves difficult to identify with are offset by the film’s grander ambitions.
Egomaniac more than achieves what it sets out to do, and the two critical elements in that success are Shenton’s razor-sharp writing, and a set of excellent performances. Human Centipede franchise alum Laurence Harvey appears here as aspiring actor Michael, and with only a handful of scenes puts in a performance that’s both funny and sympathetic. Elsewhere, Mark Logan steals the show as well-intentioned fan Devon, and in doing so provided FrightFest with its best post-credits stinger. All things considered, this is an assured, keenly-observed film that is a direct hit in its satire, and delivers just as well as the blood starts to flow. Accomplished stuff from a fresh, intelligent voice.