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Although The Rules of Attraction is a satire of mating and other rituals at a highly selective New England college, it’s also nothing less than an action movie. Pulp Fiction co-scripter Roger Avary’s second film as a director isn’t as gangsta as his generally underrated debut, the bloody 1994 farce Killing Zoe, but it has just as much swagger and locomotion. Whipping forward and backward through the events of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, Avary uses every intrusive cinematic technique that ever appealed to him, turning an ’80s-youth-culture flick into a millennial romp. It’s as much a show reel as a movie, but one that proceeds with zest and a terrifically black sense of humor.
Though entirely willing to follow minor characters right off the campus of Camden (aka Bennington) College, The Rules of Attraction is essentially an unrequited-love triangle. Rough-edged Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), who supplements his non-trust-fund existence by dealing drugs, finds himself falling for Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon), in part because he’s convinced that she’s the one who’s been slipping mash notes into his mailbox. Sensitive Lauren, a technical virgin, is waiting to go all the way with supposed true love Victor Johnson (Kip Pardue), who’s skipped the semester for a European trip. Meanwhile, Sean is being pursued by bisexual Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), the moderately appalling son of the entirely appalling Eve Denton (Faye Dunaway), a high-society drunk.
The action begins at a campus bacchanal, the Edge of the World Party, narrated by Lauren from someplace in the future. As events go amok, Avary hits Rewind. This setup is repeated two more times, to introduce Paul and Sean, before the narrative clock resets to the beginning of the term, when the central characters are marginally more innocent. The film then makes its way back to its opening scene, although not directly. Avary takes inspiration from the disorienting effects of the ubiquitous drugs, as well as mock-philosophical college blather about the nature of time, to make a sort of Remembrance of Things Whenever, complete with a comic OD sequence, two suicide attempts (one successful), Killing Zoe star Eric Stoltz as a nodding-off (but still horny) professor, former child star Fred Savage shooting up, and a cycle-of-life ending that could be an homage to Finnegans Wake (but is reportedly faithful to Ellis’ novel).
Both alienation and aspiration are reflected in split-screen sequences of Sean and a possible lover, one of which ends when the two parallel sequences wittily meet. And Victor’s trip to Europe is depicted in a fast-mo montage that suggests the influence of Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive, although the jump cuts evoke Godard and the breathless narration notes that the experience was “like a Polanski film.”
A cinephile’s frolic, The Rules of Attraction salutes Douglas Sirk, The Wicker Man, and a dozen more, while exuberantly trashing the personae of teen-fare stars from Dawson’s Creek, A Knight’s Tale, 7th Heaven, Blue Crush, and Remember the Titans. The soundtrack provides an unceasing ironic commentary, alternating the ’80s-specific pop of Gary Numan, Yazoo, and George Michael with the earnestly anachronistic balladry of Donovan and Nilsson and the sheer schlock of “Afternoon Delight.” The delights here are of a distinctly desperate nature, but that’s only an objection if you insist on trying to identify with the hapless characters. Ride up front with Avary and this is one of the most entertaining forays to hell since, well, Killing Zoe.
Besides callow professors and off-campus drug connections, there aren’t really any adults in The Rules of Attraction, which isn’t how things are done in China—or in Chinese youth-culture pictures. When the protagonist of Quitting, Beijing actor Jia Hongsheng, forsakes his career to spend his days listening to Western classic rock and smoking heroin, his parents arrive from the provinces to rehabilitate him. They move into the apartment that Hongsheng shares with his intimidated sister, Wang Tong, and proceed to both bully and baby him.
Can this work? In fact, we know it did, for Quitting is a true story, cast entirely with real people playing themselves. Like Sons, Zhang Yuan’s 1996 account of an alcoholic father and his resentful offspring, the film achieves a startling intimacy by having the actual participants in a familial meltdown re-enact their roles. Quitting director and co-writer Zhang Yang goes for a very different tone, however. His film was originally conceived as a play—as is eventually revealed—and has a cooler disposition than the brawling, bellowing Sons. This may be in part because Hongsheng is not the only actor in the family. His father and mother, Jia Fengsen and Chai Xiurong, spent their careers in a regional theater troupe and understand the power of understatement. Hongsheng has done theater, too: He first tried drugs while in a production of Kiss of the Spider Woman directed by Zhang Yang.
The story is simple enough: One day in 1995, Fengsen and Xiurong arrive at Hongsheng’s apartment, having taken early retirement to save their only son. Hongsheng, who was briefly the “thug idol” of Chinese B-movies, is less than welcoming. When not cloistered in his room—that’s the one with the Taxi Driver poster on the door—he’s denouncing his parents for using lard soap (“It’s for peasants”), speaking their rural dialect, or wearing unfashionable clothes. In response, Fengsen gets his son a bike, takes him for walks, and tries to cool his cravings for junk with beer. Soon, however, Hongsheng sets a more difficult test for Dad: He demands a Beatles cassette.
Buying such a thing is no easy matter for someone who doesn’t recognize English letters, and Fengsen soon discovers that the clerk at the foreign book and tape store can’t read the word “Beatles” either. (No Beatles songs are heard in the movie, no doubt because they’re so expensive to license; instead we hear Zhang Yadong’s synth-symph score and two songs by Chinese protest rocker Cui Jian.) Fengsen’s dogged campaign to purchase a copy of Let It Be encapsulates his quest to save his son, and its fulfillment is an omen of eventual success.
Zhang Yang’s previous feature, Shower, also reconciled a family divided into traditional and modern wings, but it did so in a predictably heartwarming way. This film is more astringent, distanced by fades to black, a chronologically jumbled narrative, and Hongsheng’s petulance and self-absorption. When the former actor is institutionalized, the break from family bickering comes as a relief. Though Quitting has an eventual breakthrough and something resembling a happy ending, the movie takes place in a still-conflicted China, not Happily Ever After Land. CP