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Friday, Nov. 17, 2000


Beyond mere entertainment

You've got to hand it to director Mike Figgis. After the critical success of his Oscar-winning "Leaving Las Vegas," he didn't compromise a bit with his next film, the equally bittersweet "One NightStand." But after that project, it became clear to Figgis that there were better things to do in life than to waste years in L.A. "doing lunch," searching for stars and financing for mature films that nobody wanted to make.

So Figgis just packed up and returned to Britain, where he has since cranked out a solid three films in three years. The first in this series was 1998's "The Loss of Sexual Innocence," which sees a low-key release in Tokyo this month, somewhat overshadowed by the anticipation over Figgis' most recent work, the four-way split-screen "Time Code." (Look for a 2001 opening in Japan.)

For better or for worse, "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" is definitely the work of a director freed from commercial restraints: It's digressive, intensely personal, psychologically astute and stylistically daring. While not a total success (it's a bit too oblique for that), it is definitely a bold move, and when it works, it's magic.

Figgis has complained, rightly, about the overly formulaic narratives that straitjacket so much of modern film. His response here has been to dispense with story entirely, opting instead for a looser, impressionistic approach. He's made a film that plays like a daydream, the way we run memories through our minds. The story makes no sense in terms of traditional plot development, but it makes perfect sense in tracing emotional development, how our first experience with sex will be with us in every one to come.

With "Sexual Innocence," Figgis, who's also an accomplished musician, seems to be moving toward some form of cinematic jazz: He starts with a few clear themes -- sex and death, desire and jealousy, self-knowledge and denial -- and then riffs on them wildly. The various strands seem almost disconnected at times, until they ever so subtly coalesce. Like I said, jazz.

One strand follows a film director named Nic (played as an adult by Julian Sands, as a teen by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), touching on moments seared in his memory: the first, uncomprehending childhood glimpses of carnality and corpses; clumsy adolescent lust and insecurity; a marriage tired by familiarity; and a final passionate fling that ends back at death.

Another strand veers off into the Freudian dreams of Nic and his frustrated wife (Johanna Torrel), targeting the realm where our sexual fears become explicit. Yet another follows a pair of twins (played by Figgis' current muse, Saffron Burrows) separated from birth, whose lives come this close to intersecting.

Intercut with these hazy recollections is a beautiful, painterly portrayal of Adam and Eve and the original sin, set wordlessly to a piano sonata. This sounds pretentious as all hell in print, but Figgis approaches it so naturally and directly, and intercuts it so well with Nic's memories, that he proves to us the essential psycho-sexual truth that lies within the myth. (And is there any greater ironic comment on innocence lost than to have the natural, pure nudity of Adam and Eve blurred by the Japanese censors?!)

"Sexual Innocence" is so rich in symbolic detail and contains so many scenes that subtly "rhyme" with each other that repeated viewings promise to reveal far more. This is certainly art filmmaking with a capital "A," but it's speaking in a language that anyone can understand. Self-reflective types will love it; type-A personalities look elsewhere.

Theater Image Forum in Shibuya is certainly cornering the market in miserablism: After the sordid street kids and rape of Jang Sun-woo's "Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie," and the incest of Tim Roth's "The War Zone," along comes a film to prove that life is just as awful down in Oz, director Rowan Woods' "The Boys" (Japanese title: "Down Under Boys").

Wilhelm Reich held that fascism was a mass psychosis arising from individual psychological defects amplified onto society at large; "The Boys" peers inside one very dysfunctional home and shows us fascism in seminal form, the microcosm. Hard man Brett (David Wenham) is released from jail with a big chip on his shoulder, and proceeds to assert his control -- and hate -- over his brothers, their girlfriends and his mother.

They all know he's a head case, but they're too frightened to oppose him, timidly going along as he spouts platitudes like "We've all got to stick together," and plots violent revenge against the dealer who landed him in jail. Only Brett's girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette, "Velvet Goldmine") has the nerve to tell him off, and she pays the price for it, in one of the more brutal scenes you're likely to see this year.

Most of the violence here is implied, not shown. "The Boys" employs a scrambled narrative, setting most of the film in the present, while cutting constantly to intimations of the past crime that sent Brett to jail, and a future horror to come, left to our imagination. In fact, it's the drab suburban boredom of dole money, ale and TV that underlines the utter lack of empathy and amorality of these nasty brothers. The banality of evil has rarely been more so, which is terrifying in its own way.

This sort of hardcore bummer film is often called "challenging," but "honest" is a better description. If you need more proof as to how brutish, thick and violent some men can get, then here's your film. But unlike, say, "Goodfellas," these boys aren't very compelling monsters, and there's not one glimmer of hope. Life sucks, but do we want the movies to remind us of it? Your call.

"The Loss of Sexual Innocence" is playing as the late show at Shinjuku Cinema Qualite. "The Boys" is playing at Shibuya's Theater Image Forum.

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