‘Force of Circumstance’: Casablanca in the East Village

Liza Béar’s deadpan anti-thriller returns to the Museum of Modern Art for a limited engagement.

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By J. Hoberman

A young Moroccan woman slips into Washington, D.C., hoping to provide a journalist with intel on the United States’ clandestine involvement in a war for the contested Western Sahara. Once there, she crosses paths with two clownish compatriots looking to purchase a Washington safe house for the king of Morocco.

Shot in 1984, unreleased until 1990, and revived decades later in the Museum of Modern Art’s annual restoration series “To Save and Project,” Liza Béar’s deadpan anti-thriller, “Force of Circumstance,” returns to MoMA for a limited engagement.

A triumph of low-budget production design, the movie opens in a North African shantytown, impeccably realized in a vacant East Village lot. Thanks to the film composer Mader’s evocative score and ambient sound that Béar recorded in Casablanca, the scene, which introduces the young courier Mouallem (Boris Major), has a hyperreal authenticity.

Cut to Washington, Mouallem peers through a taxi window as the Watergate complex whizzes past. This strange landscape, through which she is shadowed by the royal envoy (Eric Mitchell) and his bodyguard (Filip Pagowski), takes another form when her hotel room TV broadcasts — what else?—“Casablanca.”

“Force of Circumstance” can’t sustain this suavely contrived mixture of dis- and reorientation. Still, Béar’s spectacle of downtown artists playing spy vs. spy in an assortment of Washington locations — a descendant of Louis Feuillade’s World War I serials in which fantastic crimes were staged on the streets of Paris — transcends the soggy plot, created in collaboration with the East Village writer Craig Gholson.

Mysteries proliferate and evaporate like puddles after summer rain. The envoy and the bodyguard wander through Georgetown searching for a colonial mansion. Mouallem, always wearing a new outfit, is never far away, hoping to contact the feisty journalist Katrina (Jessica Stutchbury), who is having an affair with Hans (Tom Wright), the dissolute rich boy looking to unload his ancestral home.

Béar, a central figure in New York’s 1980s art world, has said that her film was inspired by the Casablanca bread riots in 1981. The movie is dated less by its historical references than by its green-character-displaying computer screens and a cast seemingly culled from a Club 57 theme party: Major (a member of Squat Theater); a pre-Hollywood Steve Buscemi; the musician Evan Lurie; the scene-maker Glenn O’Brien; the performance artist Rockets Redglare; and the filmmaker Eric Mitchell, who cast both Stutchbury and Wright in his own downtown movies. Capped with a fez, speaking some sort of French patois, Mitchell brings his own campy aura to the movie, including the portentous punchline: “Choice is a Western concept.”

The New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin, who had little sympathy for the film, wrote that “the avidity with which Ms. Béar, absorbs and mimics big-budget clichés is a lot more impressive than the way those clichés have been used.” Indeed, “Force of Circumstance,” which appropriates a title used by both W. Somerset Maugham and Simone de Beauvoir, is more an art object than a conventional movie, even ending with a screen full of actual documents, as a conceptual piece from the early ’70s might.

This faux “thriller” has a sustained look, an intriguing cast, an entertaining attitude and a propulsive score. Its main flaw is the script — which, given the current Writers Guild of America strike, makes it all the more timely.

Force of Circumstance

Through May 30 at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan; moma.org.

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