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Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005
A nihilist rooting in the garden
By KAORI SHOJI
In the case of Joe (Ewan McGregor) in "Young Adam," sex doesn't lead to love, it simply leads to more sex. And then some more. For Joe, the sexual act transcends stuff like tenderness and bonding and any other emotions that his partners might care about. Joe is a sexual nihilist whose words and actions recall those of Meursalt in Camus' "The Stranger." Unlike that unfortunate antihero, though, no societal punishment awaits. He remains free to continue life as he knows it, which consists mainly of smoking and screwing -- he's a young Adam adrift in a strange nether-Eden of transitory relationships and sexual gratification.
"Young Adam" is based on the novel by Scottish beatnik writer Alexander Trocchi, who in his heyday (mid-1950s to '60s) wrote some of Europe's best sex fiction and consorted with fellow heroin addict William Burroughs. He was nicknamed "The Stud of the Literary World" and apparently there was nothing about sex that Trocchi didn't know.
More than two decades after Trocchi's death, filmmaker David Mackenzie re-creates the writer's particular world with bold wit and astonishing sensitivity, and with each scene he draws you further into uncharted waters. You probably never thought screen sexuality could convey such layered subtexts, but "Young Adam" proves otherwise.
Set in Glasgow in the 1950s, the film opens with a dead woman's corpse drifting in the River Clyde, clad only in a skimpy petticoat. Already the hint of arousal is in the air as bargeman Joe and his boss Les (Peter Mullan) fish her out with a pole and roll her onto the deck of Les' boat (which by the way, is named Atlantic Eve). They stare down at her outstretched legs, contemplate the partly exposed backside and after a pause decide "she should be covered." After fetching a piece of cloth (that barely serves its purpose), Les goes ashore to call the police.
While Les is excited about whether he'll get his name in the paper, Joe finds that he's suddenly drawn to Les' wife, Ella (Tilda Swinton), whom he had not really taken notice of until then despite the fact he lives with the couple and their young son in the fantastically cramped quarters below deck.
Ella is all dry twigs and sagging flesh, a bundle of irritation in a frumpy housedress. But for Joe, the recurring mental image of the young woman's lifeless body somehow translates to lust for the living. That afternoon he initiates a flirtation and by night he has her pinned against some bushes by the river bank while an unsuspecting Les knocks back a few beers at a nearby pub.
But Ella proves herself a match for Joe. Devoid of any strong emotions toward her new lover, she's governed only by a searing thirst for the next bout of sex. Nothing about their relationship is remotely romantic or even comfortable -- a stolen hour on Ella's bed is marked by the boat's claustrophobic dampness and perpetual creaking.
Swinton is so masterful at creating Ella that you can almost feel the rough texture of her work-scarred hands, sense the years of routine and drudgery in the way she goes about her chores. It's not the things she says or does so much as the way she is. Two scenes stand out: Once, when she lies in bed next to Joe, lazily eyeing a fly that has landed on her nipple and later when she reads aloud from the paper about the dead woman while cramming her mouth with biscuits and wiping away the crumbs with her fist.
Where Swinton seems to revel in her character's coarse earthiness (all ruddy cheeks and sleeveless dresses in mid-winter), McGregor -- turning in his best work here -- is icy throughout, even in the grip of Joe's sexual throes. Only once does he show any signs of warmth: when he and Ella go visit her widowed sister, Gwen (Therese Bradley). Joe is taken aback by this frilly gowned, excessively feminine woman (so different from Ella) and, while the sisters are talking, touches the makeup things on her dressing table with innocent fascination. Joe had been an aspiring writer before working on the barge and shows himself extremely susceptible to atmosphere. This is probably why he charges straight into a brief affair with Gwen, which involves leaning her against a brick wall in an alleyway.
In fact, Joe always seems to choose the most uncomfortable location for lovemaking. Subsequent flashbacks recall that even when he had been living with ex-girlfriend Cathy (Emily Mortimer) in a Glasgow flat, the sex was neither tender nor even very pleasurable. In one instance he douses her all over with ketchup, custard and mustard and then kicks her into submission on the cold stone floor. After it's over he storms out, but when he returns a few hours later, everything's clean and Cathy is waiting quietly . . . in bed.
"I just want to do something that's never been done before," says Joe. Maybe a lesson hidden is in these words, but it sure as hell has nothing to do with morality.