Singapore Sling

An unholy hybrid of Otto Preminger’s Laura and Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack!, Nikos Nikolaïdis’s delirious Greek-tragedy-inflected sado-masochistic comedy noir Singapore Sling is one of those wondrous alien objects that excitingly tear through the cinematographic sky once in a while. It remains the most famous of Nikolaïdis’s films outside of Greece, even though he made eight theatrical features between 1975 and 2005 that won many awards at the Thessaloniki Film Festival. Born in 1939, Nikolaïdis had many talents: in addition to directing films, he was also a writer, worked for a record company and made hundreds of TV commercials.

Taking Preminger’s idea of a detective in love with a dead woman, in Singapore Sling Nikolaïdis constructs a circular fever dream of humorously sadistic sex and erotic violence, in which film noir is both parodied and fetishized, and its inherent romanticism blown to pieces. It is a beautiful and convincing neo-noir, albeit with an enormously outré twist, subverting the atmosphere of moody disillusionment with the most outlandish bodily excesses, ranging from incest, bondage, whipping, golden showers and kiwi masturbation, to forced regurgitation and electro-shocks, all the way to murder.

On a dark stormy night, a wounded, washed-out private eye watches two women – mother and daughter, or at least, that is how they will later present themselves – as they dig a grave in their garden and bury a man. As the detective fatalistically mumbles in the opening voice-over narration, he is looking for a woman named Laura, who disappeared three years previously, and may be dead. Jaded detective, hardboiled narration, gorgeous black and white cinematography, rain relentlessly hammering on the car’s roof, sinister deed being committed: all noir ticks. But the narration is in Greek (while mother and daughter speak a mix of English and French), and the two women, incongruously dressed in lacy lingerie, goggles and raincoats, are prone to moments of slapstick clumsiness that undermine the stylish bleakness. It is with this offbeat overture that we are ushered into the bizarro world of Singapore Sling.

‘In the old days, before Father died, we didn’t have such problems. He would kill the servants and Mother and I only had to plant decorative and aromatic flowers on the grave,’ the daughter tells us, with nostalgic regret for a simpler past and a weird childlike innocence punctuated by alarming jerks and twitches. With wonderfully chaotic illogic, she reminisces, bringing up a jumble of memories, fantasies and twisted re-enactments, woven around scenes and lines taken from Preminger’s film. There is the disembowelling of Laura in the kitchen over breakfast, set to Rachmaninov’s effusive Piano Concerto Number 3; the loss of her virginity to her late father in the attic, the deceased patriarch fully wrapped in bandages like a mummy; and then there’s the night when the private eye rings their bell. The encounter swiftly ends up with the luckless sleuth (nicknamed ‘Singapore Sling’ after a cocktail recipe the two women find in his notebook) tied and locked up in the house, catatonic and confused, mistaking the daughter for his lost love Laura. Purportedly to find out what he knows, the two women torture him with electroshocks, piss and puke on him, use him for sex and force him to eat until he vomits among other persecutions…

The catalogue of iniquities deployed by Nikolaïdis is rather jaw-dropping, but the film’s tone is joyfully outrageous rather than nasty or obnoxious. And beyond the subversive laughter it shrewdly makes explicit the sado-masochism inherent in film noir, taking that opportunity to slam its hazy romanticism. In Preminger’s Laura, McPherson, the detective, falls in love with the portrait of a woman he believes dead. He is a man who chooses to idealise a beautiful ghost and set himself up for a life of suffering, displaying a chronically romantic-masochistic attraction to death and torment. Singapore Sling gleefully trashes his idealized fantasy with the obscenity of the body, notably in a scene where the daughter pukes all over the prone, bound snoop as she orgasms, after saying, ‘That was Laura, but she was only a dream’, a line in Julie London’s languorous theme tune from Preminger’s film, which is playing on the soundtrack. Later, the sweeping Rachmaninov concerto is used again to score a messy, frenzied kiwi masturbation as though it were a scene of passionate lovemaking.

That childlike relishing of all bodily functions (eating, puking, pissing, fucking, killing, etc), used to pulverize romantic bullshit, is what makes the film so much fun. This particularly applies to the daughter, played with insane brilliance by Meredyth Herold. She is in a state of constant arousal about everything, her own naked breast, the way her father pisses, their prisoner’s vomit, being whipped – it all causes jittery, stuttering excitement in her. As in the world of children, in the women’s confined universe nothing is disgusting and nothing is out of bounds. Interestingly, it is the private eye’s quirk, being in love with a corpse, which to viewers may seem somewhat mild compared with what is going in the house, that is here perceived as the most perverse. In contrast, the sado-masochism of the two women is presented matter-of-factly, coming from a total lack of inhibitions, an absolute freedom to act on any urges they may have, including those of the murderous kind.

To this absence of sexual and moral boundaries corresponds a blurring of the lines between house and garden. The noise of the rain is heard inside, the wind blows dead leaves into the attic, the shadows of plants sway at the edges of the bedroom. This is as disorientating as the time shifts and the confusion of reality, fantasy, game-playing and memory in the narrative. It contributes to making Singapore Sling a very physical film, the palpable patter of the rain on the leaves intensifying the perverted eroticism of the bodies and the lush beauty of the cinematography (by Aris Stavrou), as well as heightening the claustrophobic atmosphere created by the baroque décor. Meticulously, intricately composed, the oppressively ornate sets are all flesh, lace, metal, creased silk, leather restraints and fluttering curtains, every inch of space occupied, airless and multi-layered, overloaded with objects and bodies, seen through drapes, chains and shadows. To be plunged into that ultra-textured world, rich and coarse, rough and carnal, luscious and repellent, for close to two hours is a genuinely visceral experience.

Singapore Sling remains a truly subversive, uniquely odd film, a surreal, anarchic slap in po-faced authority of any kind, be it filmic or moral. It was Nikolaïdis’s fifth film, marking a sort of halfway point in his filmmaking career, and it is a real shame that his other films, including minimalist political Greek myth re-reading Euridice BA 2037, hallucinatory crime thriller See You in Hell, My Darling and nightmarish sci-fi The Zero Years, have not been made more accessible to a wider audience.

Essay published in Film Rage, Vol.12, no.12 (2015).

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