Liebestraum is a tasty slice of cinematic junk food, a film-noir dessert that’s more icing than cake. The talented British writer-director Mike Figgis, who had a hit with the enjoyably perverse — and tightly crafted — cop thriller Internal Affairs (1990), has returned to the glossy, extravagant mood of his first film, Stormy Monday (1988). Liebestraum is so languid and overwrought, so self-consciously ”hypnotic,” that the action often seems to be taking place underwater. Figgis, though, doesn’t just overdose on the trancelike style of film noir. He gets its grungy substance, too — the world seen as a lusty, paranoid male fantasy. You can’t really take Liebestraum seriously, but there are pleasures to be had from a movie as passionately purple as this one.
Like Dead Again, Liebestraum is a romantic mystery in which the past threatens to consume the present. Years ago, in the pretty little city of Elderstown, an adulterous couple was gunned down, apparently by a jealous husband who then shot himself. (The movie takes its title from the music playing during the murder — a jazz version of Franz Liszt’s piano interlude.) The illicit rendezvous took place in a stately, beautiful old department store called the Ralston Building. Now, decades later, the Ralston — and the treacherous memory it represents — is about to be torn down.
Enter Nick Kaminsky (Kevin Anderson, from Sleeping With the Enemy), a young architectural writer who has arrived in Elderstown to visit his cancer-stricken mother (Kim Novak), and who soon develops an obsession with the Ralston’s eerie interior. The other main characters are Nick’s college buddy Paul (Bill Pullman), a boorish yuppie contractor who’s heading up the building’s demolition, and Paul’s sultry, neglected wife (Pamela Gidley), whom Nick instantly falls for. The movie is really about Nick’s fear of his own desire: If he gives in to temptation, getting involved with his old friend’s wife, can he survive the heat?
Stylistically, Liebestraum is all dangling portents and ”poetic” conceits. The movie features enough arty golden light pouring through venetian blinds to stock a dozen ’40s retreads, and there’s a suggestion that Nick’s impending affair is a replacement for his mother’s love. Yet as a director, Figgis knows how to keep the conflicts percolating just beneath the surface, and he works with such dazzling rhythmic assurance that the interlocking conceits draw you in. It helps to have actors who can project cool gazes of submerged longing. Anderson, who gets to speak about three syllables per scene, makes the disheveled Nick a closet obsessive, a nice guy whose chivalrous impulses are leading him inexorably to sin. He’s like Mickey Rourke without the sleaze. And Gidley plays the not-so-fatale femme with a disarmingly gentle sexiness. The ending is a bit of a cheat: Rather than tying up the loose ends, Figgis just lops them off. But until then, Liebestraum makes for a compelling night out. B