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Sadomasochism. Whips, chains, leather, and handcuffs. Grass and heroin. Serial killings. Anorexia and bulimia. Anal compulsiveness. Psychic phenomena. Lesbianism. Heterosexuality. Homosexuality. Promiscuity. Troilism. Oral sex. Anal sex. Unsafe sex. AIDS. Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand’s latest gabfest, Love and Human Remains, offers all this and more, capped by an uproariously maladroit optimistic ending. Pretentious and unconvincing from opening credits to fadeout, it’s the kind of bogus art movie that makes the most meretricious Hollywood fare seem the model of artistic integrity.
Brad Fraser wrote the screen adaptation of his 1991 play, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, which was widely criticized for its callow nihilism and gratuitous nudity. Arcand purchased the screen rights after seeing a Montreal stage production. (“The characters and situations were so modern, so “now,’ that I instantly wanted to do it.”) An ensemble piece, Fraser’s play structurally resembles Arcand’s most recent features, The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal. It follows the same formula—assemble a group of verbose characters (academics, actors), provide them with some important themes to yak about (sex, marriage, midlife disillusionment, religious hypocrisy, commercialism), and climax the talkathon with a glib epiphany or two.
Like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Love and Human Remains is an embarrassingly out-of-touch youth movie by a middle-aged director. How many decades have passed since people used the adjective “now” to characterize something of contemporary import? Aren’t the opiates of today’s young adults much more likely to be money and security than sex and drugs?
Fifty-four-year-old Arcand has assembled a pack of alienated twentysomethings and set them adrift in a barren, menacing urban landscape on a quest for love and purpose. The focal character is handsome, cynical David (Thomas Gibson), a brooding gay man who has renounced a successful acting career. Supporting himself by waiting tables and killing time with drugs and joyless sex, he recites his mantra, “I don’t need anybody,” to conceal his fear of commitment and craving for affection. He shares an apartment with Candy (Ruth Marshall), his ex-lover and best friend. A contemptuous book reviewer, dysfunctional Candy is a clean-freak and food-phobic whose straight and gay relationships fail to surmount her lack of self-esteem. Bernie (Cameron Bancroft), David’s straight childhood friend, is a drunken, randy misogynist trapped in an unfulfilling civil servant job. Another friend, Benita (MiaKirshner), is a dominatrix hooker and psychic, a “dark angel” capable of reading auras and predicting future events. Jerri (Joanne Vannicola), a lovelorn lesbian schoolteacher, develops a desperate crush on Candy. Similarly, 17-year-old Kane (Matthew Ferguson), a restaurant busboy, becomes infatuated with David. Robert (Rick Roberts), a bartender, finds himself rivaling Jerri for Candy’s emotional and sexual attention.
While these lost souls are inflicting assorted wounds upon themselves and each other, a murderer stalks the streets of the unnamed, forbidding Canadian city they inhabit, ripping souvenir earrings from victims. (Review the previous paragraph and you’ll have little trouble spotting the killer’s identity.) These random, senseless murders symbolize the snares facing young people in the ’90s, as does the film’s inhospitable urban environment—concrete freeways and faceless modern buildings bathed in cold, brackish light. Virtually every detail is overloaded with elephantine significance—a stray cat searching for a home; messages on answering machines documenting failed attempts at communication; television newscasts featuring stories about atmospheric pollution and deformed children.
Apart from a sprinkling of comic lines—Thomas shouts “Honey, I’m homo!” when he returns to the pad he shares with Candy; Robert confuses “futon” with “tofu”—Fraser’s dialogue is crushingly solemn, with morose characters whining, “I need some tenderness in my life” and “Everyone needs to be loved.” Faced with the insurmountable task of making this dialogue believable, Arcand’s young ensemble understandably fails to make much of an impression. With his sculpted, Byronic profile and Calvin Klein hair, Gibson photographs strikingly and seems to enjoy playing the callous yet vulnerable Thomas. But poor Ferguson stumbles cluelessly through his scenes, and Marshall, victimized by a hideous (and symbolic) red dress in the scene where the killer is unmasked, appears distraught in her revealing bedroom sequences, as though someone had just informed her that her parents were in the audience.
If, like Fraser’s play, Love and Human Remains possessed even a shred of artistic integrity, one might generously regard it as a guilty pleasure—a lunatic misfire that remains doggedly faithful to its relentlessly misanthropic, self-pitying convictions. But the Disneyworld happy ending imposed by Arcand denies us even that option. With a deafening crash of symbols, Thomas returns to acting, hitherto impacted emotions are exposed, nourishing relationships are forged, the smirky answering machine message is replaced by a friendly greeting. Even the goddamn cat finds shelter. As I lumbered out of the press screening, my brain reeling from the fatuousness of the movie’s climax, a publicist handed me a promotional gift from Sony Pictures Classics—a pair of plastic handcuffs with the tagged inscription “Welcome to love in the ’90s!” If only it had been a whip!
The Crude Oasis can’t be faulted for a lack of artistic integrity. USC Film School grad Alex Graves wrote, produced, directed, and edited this semi-surrealistic feminist psychodrama on a budget of $25,000. Lugubrious and uncompromising, it’s obviously the movie he wanted to make. Whether it’s a movie anyone wants or needs to see is highly debatable.
Jennifer Taylor stars as Karen Webb, an unfulfilled Kansas Belle de Jour. Trapped in a sexless marriage to an unfaithful husband (Robert Peterson) and pondering suicide, she’s troubled by recurrent dreams of a mysterious stranger. She actually encounters her dream man, Harley Underwood (Aaron Shields), at a desolate gas station and follows him to the sinister roadhouse that provides the film’s title. Slowly, very slowly, she discovers some unsettling secrets about her husband and finds the strength to embark upon an independent, liberated new existence.
Like Love and Human Remains, The Crude Oasis is bloated with flagrant symbolism. Recurring shots of thrusting oil pumps remind us of what’s not happening in Karen’s bedroom. Radio reports of the search for a missing woman parallel her own sense of dislocation. Harley’s crucifix necklace and the religious paintings in his home point to a religious subtext, underscored by a baptismal sex scene in the rain and a sign outside the Crude Oasis announcing “Coming Soon: Jesus Returns.” An enigmatic incubator comments on Karen’s frustrated desire to bear a child.
With its grainy color photography, muddy and intermittently out-of-sync sound, and excruciatingly sluggish pacing, Graves’ 80-minute psychodrama is an experience in sheer duration. The film concludes without clarifying most of the questions it poses. Is Karen’s husband gay? Is Harley real or Karen’s erotic invention? Is Karen pregnant in the final scenes? Is the entire movie the liberation fantasy of an unhappy, infertile housewife? A great artist like Buñuel challenges us to sort out the levels of dream and reality in his teasingly enigmatic movies. But Graves, in his first feature effort, lacks the artistic control to involve us in his protagonist’s nebulous shadow world. I couldn’t wait to be liberated into the sunlight of a breezy summer afternoon.