"The Loss of Sexual Innocence"

Mike Figgis' stylistically extreme sexual autobiography may be a failure, but at least it fails shamelessly.


Charles Taylor
May 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Starting with its title -- which sounds both titillating and pompous -- "The
Loss of Sexual Innocence" is the sort of indulgent movie that invites
derision. But Mike Figgis' wildly reckless movie isn't dismissible. "The Loss
of Sexual Innocence" is a failure to be sure, but if it's not exactly a brave one,
it's one whose foolhardiness deserves at least half a salute. I don't want to
set up false analogies between mainstream movies and non-mainstream
movies, between art and entertainment. But in a movie atmosphere
dominated by the crushing irrelevancy of "The Phantom Menace," Figgis'
insistence on making such a personal movie, bad choices and all, clears your
head.

It's risky enough that Figgis is attempting to tell a sort of sexual
autobiography in a fractured, impressionistic structure. But that's not enough
for him. And so he loosely parallels the story of Nic, a documentary
filmmaker whom we see at 5, 12, 16 and as an adult, with the
myth of a black Adam (Femi Ogumbanjo) and a white Eve (Hanne
Klintoe).

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Since his first feature, 1987's "Stormy Monday," Figgis has been one of the
most interesting -- as well as one of the most wildly uneven and frustrating -- filmmakers
to emerge from Europe. He can do "straightforward"
moviemaking.
His 1993 version of Terrence Rattigan's "The Browning
Version" was the sort of polished and moving version of a classic that
Merchant-Ivory's snoozefests are supposed to be and almost never are. But
Figgis has a taste for the experimental, which in his films is sometimes
inseparable from the merely stylish. At his most out-there, as in the 1990
"Liebestraum," he's nothing but style. But even in "Stormy Monday" or
"Leaving Las Vegas" there are moments when Figgis is willing to let a
combination of music and camera effects -- in "Leaving Las Vegas," he
reduced that city's skyline to blurred, limned bars of color while sax-heavy
renditions of standards played on the soundtrack -- take the place of acting
and writing. It's extraordinarily effective, yet it also comes close to being
mood music.

Still, those moods can be damned hard to shake, and Figgis is tuned into a
fatalistic, doomed romanticism that can get under your skin and stay there.
(Watching "Stormy Monday" is a pleasure akin to spending an evening
sunk in an armchair sipping Scotch, smoking and listening to Lee Wiley
records.) For Figgis, who in an interview in the current Sight and Sound
talks about being bored with the conventional narrative structure of
movies, the interplay of music and image probably amounts to an attempt
to capture what's sometimes called "pure cinema." I believe there is such a
thing. But, paradoxically, the moments I've encountered it have always been
grounded in the nuts and bolts of narrative and character -- the wobbling
bowling pin that signifies death in Howard Hawks' "Scarface"; the scene in
the record-store listening booth in "Before Sunrise" when you know Ethan
Hawke and Julie Delpy have fallen in love simply by the way they avoid
looking at each other. They are moments when only moving images seem
capable of capturing the emotions and interactions of the moments so
concisely or profoundly. The trouble with most directors who go chasing
after pure cinema is that they think they can find it by freeing themselves
from the nuts and bolts, and that's part of the problem Figgis faces here.

What's best about "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" is how the various
episodes capture the texture and weight of Nic's experience. But every one of
its best moments would be richer if it were grounded in a fully developed
narrative. Many of Figgis' instincts are sharp. He doesn't put a rosy glow
around burgeoning sexuality. By linking it constantly with death and
violence, he calls up the stomach-churning mixture of nausea and
excitement our first brushes with either of those experiences can provoke. The sight of
5-year-old Nic (John Cowey) spying an old man fetishistically appraising a
teenage Kenyan girl kitted out in lingerie too big for her provokes the same
uncomprehending fascination (and perhaps fear) in Nic as when he sees
blood still dripping from the ear of a factory worker's corpse. As moments
like this come back to the grown Nic (Julian Sands, doing his damnedest to
flesh out Figgis' conception of the role), Figgis conveys how shameful or
frightening moments from your past can suddenly overcome you, can still
seem startlingly raw.

Like "Leaving Las Vegas," "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" was shot in
Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm. Benoit Delhomme's cinematography
has a slightly grainy texture and a ripeness that comes from being saturated
in yellows and reds. Figgis has claimed that Super 16 allows him to shoot
longer takes (up to 14 minutes) and what that's revealed is his talent for
capturing unmediated experience, for allowing us to see characters simply
going through their lives. This works beautifully in the sex scenes. In one of
them, 16-year-old Nic (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of "Velvet Goldmine") is
making out with his girlfriend Susan (Kelly MacDonald) in her parents'
parlor while trying to keep from waking them. The scene goes on for a few
minutes, allowing Figgis to capture the ebb and flow, the implicit
negotiation, of adolescent sex. Nic becomes more and more excited, Susan is
put more and more on her guard. A foot crashing into a tea tray puts things
to a stop. Cups and saucers are righted, the girl rearranges herself and the
poor guy finds himself back at square one. It's impossible to think of any
other way of doing that scene, of capturing that interplay without allowing it
to go on. And it's the same when the adult Nic comes up behind his wife
(Johanna Torrel) while she's chopping vegetables for dinner and begins
squeezing her nipple. We sense her annoyance, then her almost
involuntary arousal, and finally the mixture of impatience and excitement
with which she raises her skirt. The whole of a marriage seems to exist in
that scene, the familiarity and comfort, the skirmish for power, the
resentments that no longer need to be spoken, the sexual connection that,
temporarily at least, can blot everything else out.

If "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" is Figgis' most extreme work as a stylist,
moments like these suggest that he could go even deeper by simply focusing
on his skills as an observer. In one scene, we follow a young woman
(Saffron Burrows) as she gets out of bed in the morning, her lazy
movements as she drags herself to the shower contrasting with her precise
clipped ones as she dresses herself for work, appraising herself in the mirror,
changing her outfit. All the while the radio is broadcasting news, and the
total effect of the scene is of the world, bit by bit, making itself felt in this
woman's life, of a private persona giving way to a public one.

That's a kind of observation of behavior that perhaps only Eric Rohmer or
Jacques Rivette has captured. And combined with the superb work Figgis
has done in the past with actors (and does here with, in small roles,
MacDonald and Gina McKee, currently to be seen as the only human being
in "Notting Hill"), it suggests that the experimentation Figgis engages in
here may be hindering his best work. During some of the most
image-driven moments, the classical piano music he uses on the soundtrack
gives the film an almost perfume-ad air. And the denouement, with Nic
and his crew precipitating a disaster during the making of a film, resurrects
the clichis that equate the making of a film in the third world with
colonialist exploitation. It also resurrects the worst parts of the Adam and
Eve story, the combination of misogyny and Puritanism.

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There's plenty of evidence of Figgis' talent throughout "The Loss of Sexual
Innocence," but it also suggests he's still discovering the nature of that
talent. Figgis' talent is in the specifics, not the atmospherics. And it's not in
the story of the Fall; he's one of the few directors who can put sex on the
screen without being crippled by shame.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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