A dizzying visual style can hardly conceal the shallow and self-indulgent nature of Abel Ferrara’s newest, “The Blackout,” an erotic thriller with some moral dimensions about a tormented movie star who sinks into the lower depths of Miami’s drug-and-sex subculture. It’s doubtful that even Ferrara’s hard-core fans will like this sleazy, borderline exploitation movie that’s burdened by psychological and therapeutic concerns. Receiving its world premiere at a midnight screening in Cannes, picture may be picked up by a minor distributor, though it’s bound to enjoy a longer life on video.
Probably no director in contempo American cinema exhibits in his work the wide gap displayed by Ferrara between the dictates of his head and those of his heart. In film after film over the last 15 years, Ferrara’s high-art and philosophical ambitions clash with his fondness for lowlife sleaze. In “The Blackout,” helmer puts aside the exploration of good and evil and instead shoots a film straight from the gut.
Cast against type, Matthew Modine plays Matty, a self-destructive Hollywood star who escapes from the cameras and his fans into Miami’s hedonistic world of booze and drugs. Seeking stability, he proposes to his girlfriend, Annie (French actress Beatrice Dalle), claiming she is the love of his life. When his amorous proposition is not exactly reciprocated by Annie, he begins to torture her. When he finds out that she had an abortion, he’s enraged and humiliated.
Deeply depressed over having lost his baby, even though a taped conversation with Annie discloses that he is the one who initially demanded the abortion, Matty sinks lower and lower. To cheer him up, his friend Micky (an over-the-top Dennis Hopper), a video director and club owner, takes him for a night on the town, during which they engage in some seedy voyeuristic conduct. Visiting a restaurant the next day, Matty meets a naive teenage waitress (Sarah Lassez) whose name is also Annie, and the two spend a wild night at Micky’s club, at the end of which Matty blacks out.
Switching from Miami to New York 18 months later, pic’s second part finds Matty at an AA meeting. Clean and sober, he is now in a “healthier” relationship with an attractive blonde named Susan (model Claudia Schiffer, in her dramatic debut). Still obsessing about Annie, who in the meantime has settled in Mexico, Matty goes back to Miami, where he is confronted with devastating news about the waitress Annie — and about himself.
The story is meant to be an emotionally intense mystery, filled with existential revelations and driven by Matty’s need to probe deep into his psyche to reach peace with himself. But what unfolds onscreen is a tiresomely familiar melodrama that’s excessive in every possible way — and replete with drug scenes and annoyingly profane talk. Ferrara has always been attracted to the seamy sides of life, but in previous movies, such as “Bad Lieutenant,” his cinema of extremes served a dramatic and a moral purpose.
Rather disappointingly the helmer has chosen the easy way out, using the slender narrative as an excuse for an ultra-graphic depiction of the South Beach drug, sex and music milieu, which he’s done before (as have other directors).
Indeed, the film is marred by heavy symbolism, schematic contrasts (the black-haired vs. blond woman, mature femmes vs. innocent virgins) and psychoanalytic concerns that feel out of date. A further problem is the totally unsympathetic character of Matty, a self-absorbed actor whose conduct seems to be governed by self-loathing.
Miraculously, considering his narrowly conceived role and the largely banal dialogue, Modine renders a creditable performance, which cannot be said of the women around him.
Working with his reliable team, most notably lenser Ken Kelsch, Ferrara has made a film that’s always visually arresting, but one that lacks emotional and dramatic sense — a recurrent weakness in his work.