Cinema: When Sunny Gets Blue

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REVERSAL OF FORTUNE Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Screenplay by Nicholas Kazan

The rich "are different from you and me," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Yes," Ernest Hemingway appended, "they have more money." But Claus and Sunny von Bulow, at least as represented in this marvelously sad and funny docucomedy, really were different. She, the depressive Newport heiress, with a frail hauteur in her demeanor and a well-stocked pharmacy in her purse. He, Danish-born and smartly foppish, living off her wealth and at her whim. Not Eurotrash exactly -- aristotrash. When in 1981 Claus was accused of attempting to murder Sunny with insulin injections, leaving her in a coma from which she has not emerged, the case yielded reams of tabloid tattle. Twice he was tried in Rhode Island courts: first found guilty and then, when he was defended by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and won a new trial on appeal, acquitted.

For jet setters, the Von Bulows seem positively Ruritanian -- starched anachronisms, prisoners of good taste when hardly anyone else bothers. So screenwriter Nicholas Kazan and director Barbet Schroeder have woven a cunningly old-fashioned artifice -- a drawing-room comedy with a toxic tinge ^ -- told from three points of view. Alan (Ron Silver) is the detective, groping for a truth he may never know or, knowing, accept. Claus (Jeremy Irons) is the cagey chameleon, resigned to a notoriety he also enjoys. "I'm wondering," Alan muses, "who you are," and Claus replies, "Who would you like me to be?" And Sunny (Glenn Close) relates her own version from the hospital bed where she vegetates -- the most audacious narrative device since Sunset Blvd.' s story was told by a corpse floating facedown in a swimming pool.

TV might make cautionary stick figures of Claus and Sunny. Reversal of Fortune treats them as if they were Noel Coward lovers gone to hell in a Lamborghini. Close carries herself with the cool, pathetic majesty of the prematurely doomed. She limps swankily, dines on sundaes and cigarettes, treats Claus as if "a male's place is in the deck chair." Irons wears a kept gentleman's tight smile and gracefully calibrates every gesture, his hand describing Palmer method circles in the air as he speaks in a voice mellowed in good schools and fine port. Perhaps there is only a pretense of loving, but pretense is everything. As they argue in bed one night, Claus covers his eyes with a bandanna; both insert their earplugs. Then he holds her hand. It makes for a nice portrait of marriage in middle age: deaf and blind and touching in the dark.

Did Claus try to kill Sunny? At the end, Reversal of Fortune offers two scenarios, both suggesting that Claus abetted his wife's suicide attempt. But one can only speculate on the death-styles of the rich and famous. Besides, the film's Claus -- pompous and airy, proclaiming his love for his wife and mistresses when he is not telling sick jokes on himself -- is enough of a mystery for any one movie. "What I've seen of the rich," Alan snorts, "you can have them." Claus fairly purrs, "I do." This corrosive comedy of high manners has them down right. It knows that these rich are different. They are worthy of our derision and awe.