Talking Movies

January 8, 2016

Bret Easton Ellis: Page to Screen

Bret Easton Ellis has written seven books, four have been filmed, and two of those have been set in Los Angeles. And yet they are by far the weakest of the Ellis adaptations… Here’s a teaser of my piece for HeadStuff on those adaptations.

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“I stand back from the unfinished canvas. I realise that I would rather spend my money on drugs than on art supplies” – The Rules of Attraction (novel)

While Hollywood was premiering his debut, mangled to appeal to perceived Reaganised teenagers, Ellis published his sophomore novel The Rules of Attraction, in which the influence of Reaganism is present in the Freshmen wanting a weight room and vetoing Louis Farrakhan as a speaker. Camden College life in the 1985 Fall term is narrated in short vignettes by Sean Bateman, Paul Denton, Lauren Hynde, and some secondary characters. An unreliable picture emerges from their overlapping experiences at parties, cafeteria lunches, hook-ups, classes, and trips to town. Denton narrates a secret affair with Bateman, Bateman narrates a minor friendship with Denton, Bateman and Lauren hook up for a disastrous relationship which both record very differently, and Bateman’s secret admirer (who he thought was Lauren) kills herself when he sleeps with Lauren. STDs and abortions are the frequent price of the casual sex merry-go-round of Camden’s never-ending party, and Lauren pays in full. Ellis’ dialogue is a marvel, with one-liners aplenty in concisely captured conversations, while the trademark pop culture references (everybody is listening to Little Creatures) are married to more nuanced narration. Denton, the most self-aware and self-critical character, eschews auditioning for the Shepard play because his life already is one. Spielberg is memorably critiqued for being secular humanism not rigorous modernism, but mostly these intelligent characters play dumb because excess is what’s expected.

“What does that mean? Know me? Know me? Nobody knows anyone else. Ever. You will never, ever know me” – The Rules of Attraction (film)

Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary adapted and directed the novel, and Ellis dubbed the 2002 film “the one movie that captured my sensibility in a visual and cinematic language.” The rise of independent cinema meant Avary could cast James Van Der Beek as Bateman without bowdlerising the novel. The film is alternately shocking (it opens with the rape of Shannyn Sossamon’s Lauren), hilarious (Denton [Ian Somerhalder] and Dick [Russell Sams] perform an entirely improvised dance to ‘Faith’ in their underwear), and romantic (an extended split-screen sequence shows Bateman and Lauren finally meeting at their Saturday morning tutorial). Avary stylishly plays out the climactic ‘End of the World’ party from three viewpoints before winding back to the start of term, and situates Camden in a temporal twilight zone; with broadband internet but a 1980s soundtrack of The Cure and Erasure. Avary radically changes Lauren’s character, by throwing many of her traits onto loose roommate Lara (Jessica Biel). Lauren is now a virgin, waiting for Victor to return from Europe, whereas in the book she waited on Victor while sleeping with Franklyn. From being a mirror of Bateman, who sleeps with her friend while being in love with Lauren, she becomes a Madonna. There’s no longer an alienated road-trip with Sean ending with an abortion, just as Sean’s affair with Denton is reduced to one split-screen scene implicitly showing Denton’s fantasy. Avary’s changes make more violent and consequential Bateman’s successive breaks with Lauren and Denton, when she tells Bateman he will never know her, and he repeats her lines to Denton. Denton and Lauren’s snowy encounter after the ‘End of the World’ party, scored by Tomandandy with electronic eeriness, becomes a haunting summation: “Doesn’t matter anyway. Not to people like him. Not to people like us.” Lauren’s momentary self-condemnatory thought, unsaid in the novel, is spoken and brings things close to Gatsby’s “careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money.”

Click here to read the full piece on HeadStuff.org.

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May 23, 2013

The Moth Diaries

American Psycho director Mary Harron returns with a Carmilla-indebted horror of female vampires at an upstate New York private school starring Irish actress Sarah Bolger.

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Our heroine Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is inseparable from her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon). Indeed, haunted as she still is by the memory of her father’s suicide, Lucy may have been the only thing that kept Rebecca from spiralling out of control a few years previously. However, their bond is tested with the arrival of ethereal new student Ernessa (Lily Cole). The growing friendship between Ernessa and Lucy is resented by Rebecca, especially as other girls in their close-knit circle seem to self-destruct in various ways after getting too close to Ernessa’s baneful influence. And then Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) starts to teach them about Gothic fiction and Rebecca realises that Ernessa is undoubtedly a vampire, slowly draining the life out of Lucy. But is Rebecca merely suffering from nightmarish hallucinations as she slides towards the fate of her father?

I’m reviewing this film from the odd perspective of having attended the screening at JDIFF which featured a Q&A with Harron, and Jeff Bridges’ insistence that ‘the intentions are always good’ in film-making is true with a vengeance here. Harron’s explanation of the ambiguity she wanted to imbue the film with make it fit perfectly beside American Psycho in her canon. But… The Moth Diaries doesn’t actually possess that intended ambiguity. This is partly because you can see the twist a mile off as Ernessa isolates Rebecca by breaking up her social circle. But mostly it’s because Lily Cole does not look remotely human. Dressed in flowing black clothes that accentuate her height and porcelain doll head she might as well sport an “Hello, I’m a vampire” nametag on her first appearance. And a muted horror without ambiguity is dubious.

The Moth Diaries was a nightmare to finance because of its female focus, and, unlike Orson Welles’ Othello, which is stunning despite many jarring effects caused by its interrupted shooting, it feels as if Harron simply fell over the finishing line with relief rather than with the confidence that buoyed The Notorious Bettie Page. There’s some very clunky dialogue, especially in Speedman’s scenes, and many of the characters are clichés, though Valerie Tian does stellar work with a tokenistic role. But Bolger is a very sympathetic lead and Cronenberg favourite Gadon is a good foil for her. There’re some beautiful touches by DP Declan Quinn in varying the drab colour scheme of the school with vivid torrents of blood, ghostly moonlight walks, and disruptive flashbacks and sex scenes that drip bright colours, while Harron’s final Apollonian image is also impressive.

Harron is an interesting writer/director but this film is a disappointment. It outstays its welcome despite its short running time, largely because it never emerges from cliché’s comforting cocoon.

2.5/5

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