Truly experimental in concept and form, "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" is Mike Figgis' most personal and ambitious film, but also his most problematic one. A self-reflective meditation on the fall from grace, the mysterious nature of love and sexuality, and the link between sex and violence, it is an art picture par excellence, one that derives its inspiration from Milton's "Paradise Lost" while drawing parallels between the first couple in the universe, Adam and Eve, and a contemporary British one.

Truly experimental in concept and form, “The Loss of Sexual Innocence” is Mike Figgis’ most personal and ambitious film, but also his most problematic one. A self-reflective meditation on the fall from grace, the mysterious nature of love and sexuality, and the link between sex and violence, it is an art picture par excellence, one that derives its inspiration from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” while drawing parallels between the first couple in the universe, Adam and Eve, and a contemporary British one. As one of the toughest marketing challenges Sony Classics ever faced, the film will sharply divide the critical community, and while it’s likely to be supported by the arthouse circuit, it might prove too esoteric and self-indulgent even for educated viewers.

When Figgis works on a small-scale and with a low budget, he does not necessarily produce good films, but he makes expressive ones, such as “Leaving Las Vegas.” However, when Figgis goes Hollywood, he makes silly, compromised films like “Mr. Jones” and “One Night Stand.” Unfortunately, “Innocence,” which was written by Figgis 14 years ago, lacks the lyrical quality, emotional pull and superb acting of Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue of “Leaving Las Vegas.” Boasting sublime imagery, but no characters to ground his reverie, new pic heavily relies on an opaque narrative and elliptical editing.

Figgis is not a provocateur in the manner of Kieslowski, but like the Polish director, he constructs in this pic an intriguing puzzle whose meaning and logic become a challenge for the audience to fathom. In narrative struc-ture and repetition of thematic and visual motifs, Figgis treats his movie as a music composition. Told in a non-linear way, pic centers on the tumultuous life of Nic (Julian Sands), a British director about to embark on a new film project in Tunisia, from the early 1950s, growing up in the Crown Colony of Kenya, to the present. Nic’s maturation into manhood, with all its ambiguities and dilemmas, are presented through four phases of his life: as a 5-year-old boy, a 12- year-old adolescent, a 16-year-old teenager and a fully grown man.

Episodes in Nick’s past are shown randomly, out of order, though none assumes greater importance than the others. The most emotionally touching chapter is the sexual exploration of teenager Nic (splendidly evoked by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) with Susan (Kelly MacDonald), capturing with humor and poignancy the timidity and awkwardness of the first kiss, the first touch. It is not a coincidence that almost every sexual act is interrupted or “corrupted” by the outside world, be it Susan’s father or the police. The film is replete with obsessive sexuality, one that includes homoerotic and lesbian overtones.

The narrative is fractured by recreations of the classic parable of Adam and Eve, which is meant as an allegory illuminating turning points in Nic’s life. Step by step, and all too literally, Figgis shows Adam (played by black actor Femi Ogumbanjo) and Eve (the beautiful blonde Hanne Klinton) in their pastoral garden, a beautiful isolated lake surrounded by wild vegetation, a white horse — and a snake.

Through snippets of imagery and lyrical music (mostly piano sonatas by Chopin), selective glimpses are offered as to what makes Nic the complex, complicated and unhappy man that he is. Nic is married to a cold, detached woman (Johanna Torrel), with whom he shares little verbal communication. Their sex scene takes place in the kitchen, while she’s cooking and he’s behind her, unaware that they are watched by their young boy. Two disturbing dream sequences are interwoven into their story. While Nick’s wife’s is erotically charged, his takes place in a train station and ends with him as a victim in a violent act.

The film’s most powerful segment is in Tunisia, where Nic and his Italian arrive for their shoot. Driving in the desert, sexual tension builds in the car between Nic and an Italian couple, leading to the accidental killing of a local boy and a brutal murder of the Italian woman (the stunningly looking Saffron Burrows) by the Tunisian tribe. The brilliant visuals and hypnotic cutting in this sequence are the most impressive in the film, and the staging of a scene in a marketplace, where a blind woman (Rossy De Palma) and her dog inadvertently create chaos, is exhilarating, making an intense impact without any word of dialogue.

The problem with the visual presentation of the biblical saga is not just its repetitiveness, but that it drags the narrative down to a level of obviousness that is otherwise missing from the rest of the film. Though personal, Figgis clearly wants to comment not only on Nic’s inevitable loss of innocence but on the entire state of civilization. It’s in this intent that the film fails most conspicuously, giving Figgis’ skeptics the strongest ammunition to dismiss his work as pretentious and overreaching.

There’s no doubt that the pic is at its most vigorous in the silent moments, when the tale unravels through sheer imagery.

Shot on a small budget ($3.5 million) and with Super 16mm camera, later blown up to 35mm, pic is a self-conscious art film that’s rarely made anymore. Lenser Benoit Delhomme (“The Scent of the Green Papaya”), designer Giorgio Desideri (“Dune,” “The Last Temptation of Christ”) and editor Matthew Woods contribute immeasurably to an intriguing, European-looking film.

The Loss of Sexual Innocence

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Summit Entertainment presentation, in association with Newmarket capital group, of a Red Mullet production. Produced by Mike Figgis and Annie Stewart. Executive producer, Patrick Wachsberger. Co-producer, Barney Reisaz. Directed, written by Figgis.

With

Nic (as adult) - Julian Sands Twins - Saffron Burrows Lucca - Stefano Dionisi Nic (age 16) - Jonathan Rhys-Meyers Susan - Kelly Macdonald Adam - Femi Ogumbanjo Eve - Hanne Klintoe Nic's wife - Johanna Torrel Nic (age 12) - George Moktar Nic (aged 5) - John Cowey
Camera (color, wide screen), Benoit Delhomme; editor, Matthew Wood; music, Figgis; production design, Giorgio Desideri; costume design, Florence Nicaise; sound (Dolby), Pawel Wdowczak; assistant director, James Bradley; casting, Jina Jay. Reviewed at Sundance Festival (Premiere), Jan. 23, 1998. Running time: 106 min.

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