A bomb explodes in a Parisian restaurant killing dozens including women and children. Meanwhile in the United States, Wisconsin farm girl Elizabeth Carlsen (Nastassja Kinski) leaves behind her stifling family, college and overbearing English professor lover for a new life in New York City. Struggling with a demeaning waitress job amidst the crime-ridden urban hell-hole, Elizabeth’s fortune takes an upswing when a fast-talking fashion photographer (Ian McShane) launches her on a modelling career. Elizabeth soon takes the fashion world by storm as the latest in-demand cover girl, but attracts the intention of enigmatic man of mystery, Daniel Jelline (Rudolf Nureyev). Falling under his spell, she discovers Daniel intends to use her as part of his plan to kill terrorist leader Rivas (Harvey Keitel), who uses beautiful women to plant his bombs and has his eye on Elizabeth.
Back when Nastassja Kinski was far and away the most sought after actress in the world she had an admirable tendency to pursue offbeat, challenging film projects rather than go the easy route and trade on her great beauty. Sometimes such choices paid off, as with Paris, Texas (1985) but sadly more often unwieldy, overambitious films like The Moon in the Gutter (1983), Harem (1984) and One from the Heart (1982) crashed and burned much like Icarus flying too close to the sun. And if you thought that was too pretentious a metaphor then take a gander at writer-director James Toback’s Exposed, a film that to this day divides critics between those that think it is a masterpiece (notably Roger Ebert) or pretentious tosh.
Toback himself essays the role of Elizabeth’s spurned academic lover and outlines the film’s central philosophy by declaring that the western world has broken down on every conceivable level, while art and romantic love are the only means of escape. Even thirty years ago such ideas seemed hopelessly archaic, but while it remains unclear whether Toback set out to satirise or simply explore this concept the film remains bold and challenging, albeit in an occasionally, irksomely self-important way. Exposed has the demeanour of the sardonic student pseudo-intellectual who reckons they have all the answers, yet emerging at the height of Eighties play-it-safe/high concept/three act structure filmmaking, its unpredictable narrative and intellectual ambition remain admirable. The combination of self-amused post-modern trickery, political rhetoric, abundant literary and cinematic references and conflicted attitude toward its central female protagonist deliberately evoke the early work of Jean-Luc Godard. Perhaps Toback, who at the time was feted as an American auteur in the wake of the acclaimed Fingers (1978), felt resurgent Reaganite values required the sort of satirical response Godard might have made and decided to have a go himself.
In the Eighties image was everything while meaning was often secondary at best. The film is in part a meditation on Kinski’s own image at that time as a global It-girl, including a line of dialogue where Elizabeth is described as combining the mystery of Greta Garbo, the wit of Carole Lombard and the eroticism of Marilyn Monroe, that was once applied to the actress herself. It rehashes an idea popular among Sixties radicals of terrorism hijacking art as a means of injecting meaning back into images corrupted by capitalism. Hence, the film has Daniel and Rivas alternately attempting to refashion Elizabeth into some kind of liberating angel of sociopolitical upheaval. At least that seems to be the idea. Frankly, the film is none too clear on this and in its latter half loses sight of exactly what message it is trying to convey. Where it falters badly is in conjuring some naive, almost fairytale like evocation of a terrorist cell, ignoring the realities of terrorism. Rivas’ use of various angels of death is like something out of a Derek Flint movie cloaked in the banalities of pseudo-realism, while his political beliefs and Daniel’s revenge plan are ill-defined.
Amidst a truly eclectic cast that includes Bibi Andersson as Elizabeth’s mother and Pierre Clementi as a turncoat terrorist, Nastassja Kinski commands the screen with a performance that transcends whatever merits the film has on its own and remains among the best she ever gave. Toback draws Elizabeth as incredibly shrewd and insightful in some instances (she pegs Rivas for the posturing pseudo-intellectual he is, right off the bat) yet at other times hopelessly naive. Yet rather than coming across as inconsistent this proves a compelling human characterisation. She is drawn into these dangerous situations more by her own intellectual restlessness and curiosity than the machinations of those men out to possess her.