The movie’s macabre sense of humor is evident from the opening scene. In a narrative voice-over, a character introduces the facts of the case from the depths of a coma. “I am what doctors call persistent vegetative,” she says in a disembodied voice, as the camera shows her immobile and comatose, wired to a life-support system on a hospital bed. The character, played by Glenn Close, is Pittsburgh heiress Martha (Sunny) von Biilow, who has been in an irreversible coma since 1980.
The case is the sensational trial of her husband, Danishborn aristocrat Claus von Biilow, who was accused of twice trying to murder Sunny with lethal injections of insulin. In 1982, a jury found him guilty; after an appeal, he was acquitted in 1985. Considering that Reversal of Fortunéis about real people who are all still alive (technically, in Sunny’s case), Reversal of Fortune is a work of remarkable audacity. A suspenseful mystery and a sharp satire, it is hugely entertaining.
The movie is based on Reversal of Fortune-. Inside the von Bùlow Case, a 1986 book by Claus von Biilow’s lawyer, Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz. Playing von Biilow with eerie and exquisite self-possession, Jeremy Irons gives a performance that is chilling one moment, hilarious the next. It should earn him the Oscar nomination that he deserved, but did not get, for his brilliant portrayal of twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers (1988). Close, who narrates from Sunny’s coma and plays the character in flashbacks, is at her icy best. And Ron Silver counterpoints their embalmed upper-class grace with manic energy as Dershowitz, the Jewish law professor who swallows his working-class ideals to take on von Biilow’s appeal.
Initially, Dershowitz is convinced that his client is guilty. After von Biilow first phones to ask him to represent him, the lawyer says, “It reminds me of my Hitler dream—Hitler’s alive; he calls me up; he needs a lawyer.” Reversal of Fortune is not just about the enigma of von Biilow’s guilt. It is about the liberal guilt
of a do-gooder lawyer who can become both rich and famous by defending a man who— even if he is innocent—takes perverse delight in cultivating the opposite impression.
The story charts Dershowitz’s out-of-court campaign to compile enough fresh evidence to reverse von Biilow’s conviction. Faced with a tight deadline set by the courts, the lawyer assembles a team of law students who set up shop in his house and slave day and night on the
case. A makeshift commune of amateur sleuths, they eat spaghetti, listen to reggae and pursue their research with the zeal of a juridical Dirty Dozen. The heroic, Hollywood-style portrayal of the team—legal detectives racing against the clock—seems deliberately absurd, considering the dubious morality of their cause. The oracular Sunny, speaking from her coma, sums up the case: “Is he the devil? If so, can the devil get justice?”
Certain facts are clear. Sunny was discovered unconscious in the couple’s Newport mansion. Tests later showed that her blood insulin level was 14 times the normal level. But in the retrial, von Biilow’s defence contended that various factors were to blame. She had a history of severe drug and alcohol abuse and was possibly suicidal. However, even if Claus was not directly instrumental in causing his wife’s misfortune, he seemed strangely indifferent to it. Sunny’s personal maid testified that, before she fell into a coma, he heard her
moaning and refused to call a doctor. Sunny’s two children by a previous marriage, Alexander and Ala, maintained that their stepfather was guilty, while his daughter, Cosima, defended his innocence.
On that question, the movie remains enigmatic. Rich in legal detail, Nicholas Kazan’s script provides enough evidence on both sides to support opposite interpretations. And Irons portrays von Billow as a man so enamored of his own notoriety that, regardless of whether he tried to kill his wife, he seems amused by the idea. He even makes jokes about it: “How can one define a fear of insulin?” he asks Dershowitz’s dumbfounded students. His answer: “Claus-trophobia.”
French-trained director Barbet Schroeder strikes a delicate balance between dramatic intrigue and black humor, while satirizing the deranged behavior of the super-rich. Von Biilow, who has a mistress, wears a tuque, a blindfold and earplugs while in bed with his wife. In one scene, he tells her he wants to go
back to work as a lawyer. Sunny replies: “You marry me for my money and then demand to work? You’re the prince of perversion.”
Strangely, the amoral von Biilow emerges as a more charismatic and sympathetic figure than the justice-obsessed lawyer fighting for his rights. And the movie shares his sense of play. Von Biilow “enjoyed the mischief and mystery of charade,” Schroeder told a news conference for the film’s première at the Toronto Festival of Festivals last September, which Dershowitz also attended.
Dershowitz maintained that only two people know whether von Biilow is guilty or innocent. “One of them,” he said, “is in a coma, and the other has a self-interest in having you believe that he is innocent.” But von Biilow “always wanted to keep the ambiguity alive in the public mind,” he added. In Reversal of Fortunés tantalizing charade, his secret is safe.
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