Owen Gleiberman
June 04, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Loss of Sexual Innocence

Current Status
In Season
Saffron Burrows, Julian Sands

We gave it a B-

Has everyone sold out? Thank heaven, no. Every so often, though, you run across an ironic specimen of overcharged integrity. I’m speaking of the person who hasn’t sold out but, in fact, should — the filmmaker, for instance, who cleaves to his Uncompromising Vision like a dog who’s bitten into a bone you can’t pry from his teeth. For me, Woody Allen would top the roster. At this point, if he suddenly agreed to direct, say, Armageddon 2: Hellfire on Earth, there’s every chance that it would be a fresher movie than his latest cranky Upper East Side neurot-athon. Two other somber auteurs I’d happily consign to the integrity-overdose list are Mike Figgis, who took a break from his usual longueurs with Leaving Las Vegas and is now back to overinflated form with the lustrously shot, dazzlingly pretentious The Loss of Sexual Innocence, and John Sayles, whose latest plodding fanfare for the common man is Limbo. Quick, will someone please stop these two before they commit creativity again?

Why on earth would someone call a movie The Loss of Sexual Innocence? It sounds like the title of a post-structuralist doctoral thesis, and, indeed, the film has an ambiance of academic chic. It’s one of those woozy Jungian art jobs, a series of elliptical, nearly wordless vignettes that are meant to strike a universal symbolist chord. Figgis frames the movie with his baroquely contemporary documentary-like version of the Fall, complete with a biracial Adam and Eve (he’s black and sculpted, she’s white and willowy), full-frontal nudity and urination, and military police chasing the sinful couple from their Garden paradise. In between, the director traces the vaguely parallel story of a British film producer (Julian Sands) who is stymied during a weekend road trip with his cold-fish wife and young son. He then fulfills his sensual fate by voyaging into the Tunisian desert for a location-scouting expedition and falling into the arms of a ravishing colleague (Saffron Burrows) — a one-night stand with intimations of the apocalypse.

Figgis has often composed his own soundtracks (they tend to be variations on the same New Age jazz wallpaper), and The Loss of Sexual Innocence is conceived as a piece of visual mood music, a languid calendar-art meditation on the innate violence of human desire. It’s original sin filtered through a millennial aesthete’s eyes, and the imagery, even at its quietest, has an ominous golden shimmer. You can feel Figgis bucking for the highbrow-cineast big time, dutifully aping Bertolucci, Roeg, The Double Life of Veronique. He fills the film with overlapping portents: a crashed jeep, a pair of beautiful twins unknowingly brushing up against each other in an airport, an enigmatic tribe of vengeful blue-painted primitives. Does he cast a spell? To a degree, yet the movie is so obsessed with uncovering the subterranean destiny of sex that it omits something just as essential: the joy.

If people were to watch Limbo without knowing that John Sayles had made it, they might see the film for what it is: an earnest, dogged, squarely rendered wisp of a movie. But Sayles has come to signify all that is honorable and intelligent in motion pictures; I would call him both of those things — and also drab and studied. Limbo is set in Juneau, Alaska (the city is being taken over by entrepreneurs, natch), and for a while Sayles maps out the insular community with likable plainness: the foundering cannery and its workers, the bar where everybody knows your name, the sad-eyed middle-aged ex-fisherman (David Strathairn) with a dark secret and the sad-eyed middle-aged saloon singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) whose teenage daughter (Vanessa Martinez) punishes herself over her mother’s litany of loser boyfriends.

The three characters draw together, and Sayles suddenly strands them in an extreme situation. It’s the movie, though, that gets stranded. Limbo turns into family therapy in the wild kingdom, with Sayles relying on storytelling devices he should be ashamed of, like the cut-rate ambiguous trick ending and the old discovered diary that allows the girl to reveal her hurtin’ heart. I got the feeling that Sayles had gone all the way to Alaska to remove himself from the taint of commercialism only to end up forging the very cliches he thought he’d transcended.
The Loss of Sexual Innocence: B-
Limbo: C+

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