Following her report on the press conference of A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON'S GRAHAM CHAPMAN and her interview with directors Bill Jones, Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson at the London Film Festival (HERE), Dr Karen Oughton is back with her full review of the rather bizarre new film.
50 Shades of Graham: He's a very naughty boy...
A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN is the new film from the Python stable and is directed by Bill Jones (Terry’s son), Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson. Featuring the voices of John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin playing themselves, it splices Graham Chapman's recordings of his diaries with animation and archive footage. The result is a scattershot, sordidly funny and often surprising insight to the man who would be Brian (and the King, for that matter).
This film is not what you may expect from the land of Python, being oddly (and, yes, completely) different despite incorporating many elements of their past work in a way that actually adds to the cannon. It is a fusion of their Flying Circus fixations with (and send-ups of) the English class system, silly THE LIFE OF BRIANesque surrealism and bisexual Graham's fixation with sex and identity. The latter ingredient is the most striking – you won't get any of that jolly silly 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' double-entendry stuff here, but full-on boobs, bums, body-bumping and a million mustachioed, gay 'Muscle Marys'. Team America looks tame and perfunctory in comparison. This, however, is not a film to watch with your mother unless she is frightfully 'leftie'.
Cleese, Palin and co actually play a poignant part in the proceedings. With a rather unusual representation, they periodically interject as their friend talks about them and they squabble over who will represent their characters. While any Python fan cannot help but cheer at their voices, the scenes often feel dislocated, and one does rather suspect this was as a result of the medium rather than intention. One also suspects that their varying levels of experience with voice acting versus their physical comedy styles plays a part.
Nevertheless, the film's master stroke is its method of bringing 'Grae' (as the other Pythons call him) to life by pairing his emotionally honest audio with animation. Fifty-odd different animation companies were initially approached to allow the shades of Chapman's character – sleaze, silliness, exasperation – to tell the tale. Fourteen of these eventually took part. While it is plain that a few segments are sledgehammerish, master strokes of design and colour not only look pretty but allow you to empathise with Chapman and also to idolise and be appalled by him. Similarly, we veer from segments essentially narrated by Chapman that feel highly controlled, to sections of cartoon containing almost exploitative scenes that pack emotional punch to today’s reality TV audience. It does, however, feel like a tribute to Chapman that the character the film represents is actually a rather brave man who is conscious of the man he tries to become, the celebrity whom he thinks people want to see, and a hopeless romantic who’d like to think he can fall in love in an apparent blink of an eye. He’s allowed to be a rather superior but very silly sod and proud of it.
This is not to say that the film is not also delightfully daft due to its own inventiveness at times. We are given a fantastic ride along the excesses of Graham's sex life and the music is simply perfect. What is more, many of the standard Python tropes are present, with feet (particularly sandals) a surprising but suitable focus for following the legend. We Brits do have a very odd thing about feet and spotting these touches will keep the Python fanatic happy for many repeat viewings.
Yet this is not to say that all of the film works for the audience as opposed to as a film in its own right. While it is entirely logical (in a Pythonesque way) to have a film that plays fast and loose with the truth, so much of the man himself is evidently present that one can feel slightly cheated. It is precisely because we may feel privy to and entrusted with an honest insight that some sections appear to be a slightly lackluster, wild attempt to wrong foot the audience because we simply cannot hope to understand what this very clever man was going through. Indeed, the graphics actually turn into an X-factor close-up replay, at this point.
A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, naturally enough, may not quite be to everyone’s tastes. Frankly, this is evidently the way the directors want it: it is as rude, radical and insensible as Graham would have liked to think of himself. It will reward the viewer who jolly well rolls their sleeves up and puts in the work, but don’t think you’ll completely understand Graham – despite his death, this film means that (Jesus-like) his legend is only just beginning.
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