"…in bed with her I could hardly contain myself. I would fuck her quickly the first time so I could get off, then spend hours eating her, licking, constantly sucking… my tongue would ache, become swollen from rubbing my mouth, digging my chin into her, my mouth getting so dry I couldn't even swallow, and I'd lift my head up and actually gasp for breath…"
"…the sex is only okay and even if he's not so great in bed, at least he's imaginative. Yet he doesn't turn me on. No real orgasms. (Well, maybe a couple.) Just because he's so damned insistent. (Contrary to popular belief, being eaten out for two hours straight is not my idea of a good time.)"
—Sean on Lauren and Lauren on Sean, from Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules Of Attraction
The subtext of 99 percent of movies is "love me, love me, love me." And why not? It's only natural for filmmakers to want to ingratiate themselves to the audience, and make some sort of connection with them. That's entertainment. Based on his two features as a director, Roger Avary represents the other 1 percent, the movies that are nasty and unpleasant and couldn't give a shit about respectability. The same year he won an Oscar for co-writing Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino—making him perhaps the least likely Oscar-winning screenwriter ever—Avary turned out Killing Zoe, which tackled the heist genre with all the bloody brio of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, but minus the quotation marks. It's raw, unvarnished, and unapologetically sadistic, with a lead character (Eric Stoltz) who's only heroic relative to the amoral, drug-addled numbskulls he's forced to run with.
It was perhaps only a matter of time before Avary hooked up with Bret Easton Ellis, whose pitiless chronicles of youthful excess in books like Less Than Zero and American Psycho have gotten him branded as a misogynist, a nihilist, and an all-around literary bad boy. But here's the thing about Avary and Ellis: Look past the extreme ugliness and indulgence in their work—and granted, that takes a lot of squinting—and they're both moralists at the core, denoting the emotional (and sometimes mortal) damage inflicted by people who have no values. Take Stoltz's thief in Killing Zoe: Here's a professional who isn't above sleeping with prostitutes, freebasing with his buddies, and generally terrorizing the Parisian populace. But Avary makes it clear that there are lines he will not cross, even if it means putting hos before bros in the end.
Ellis' second novel, The Rules Of Attraction, was extraordinarily difficult to bring to film. For one, filming anything of Ellis' automatically loses the filmmaker a sizable chunk of critical and commercial support; Mary Harron's 2000 adaptation of American Psycho was miraculously good, yet it opened to polarized reviews and didn't find its sizable cult appreciation until home video. (And yes, it's a future New Cult Canon candidate.) For many, the characters and scenes in Ellis' books are just unforgivably grotesque: Why care about the misdeeds and misadventures of a bunch of crude, privileged materialists hell-bent on self-destruction? Sure, Ellis has a talent for getting inside their heads, but if there's nothing redeemable to discover within their primitive thought processes, why bother? To some degree, Avary was doomed before he even sat down at the typewriter.
And those are just the problems outside of Avary's control. The Rules Of Attraction presented a host of other challenges on the journey from page to screen, most notably a first-person style that volleys from one person's diary-like perspective to another's. Sometimes, they have overlapping points of view on the same events—as in the passages quoted above—and other times, they trail off into the intimate reaches of the characters' bruised psyches. Whatever the case, it's exactly the sort of fiction that isn't supposed to be made into movies, because so much of the crucial information is internal. The book burrows deeply (and often uncomfortably) into the private obsessions and desires of college kids, and the trick for Avary was to find ways to smoke them out into the open. Because just showing what happens in The Rules Of Attraction would mean presenting a plotless, shapeless mélange of couplings and uncouplings, and not much of a movie.
Though by no means a complete success, Avary's take on The Rules Of Attraction is inspired and vibrant where many more wholly accomplished films are not. Avary's characters never transcend their surface shallowness—or, more to the point, have their shallowness as precisely defined as it needs to be—but he does come up with creative and often wondrously cinematic solutions in the translation. In Ellis' book, Camden College, a nondescript New England liberal-arts school, is a never-ending kegger where lost souls gather to get wasted and screw, satisfying some desires while more meaningful love connections go unrequited. The themes of the parties change (The End Of The World Party, The Dress To Get Screwed Party, Thirsty Thursdays, The Pre-Saturday Night Party Party), but they're more or less the same, except with new sexual pairings taking their turn in the rotation.
Sean (James Van Der Beek), Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), and Paul (Ian Somerhalder), the three navel-gazing protagonists, are like the wrong ends of a magnet, always repelling the people they care about the most. The prissy, bisexual Paul longs for oblivious chest-thumper Sean, who in turn pursues the virginal Lauren, who spends much of her time pining for callow horndog Victor, who's chasing skirts all over Europe. None of them are within reach of the other, so they're doomed to drift around in a drug-or-alcohol-fueled stupor, subjecting themselves to endless disappointment and degradation.
The key point is that Sean, Lauren, and Paul—and by extension, perhaps, Gen-X'ers of a certain age and social station—are solitary bodies, not accessible or knowable to the people with whom they come into contact. In the film's brightest moments, Avary puts their individual isolation in thrilling visual terms, starting with an opening sequence that introduces them at a party by following one character for a stretch, then rewinding time to focus on another. The effects are as fun to watch as a ball-and-paddle set in 3D—vomit projecting back into a drunkard's mouth, scattered pool balls zipping into their original formation, etc.—but they also give the impression of people who occupy the same space, but are fundamentally disconnected. Then there's this incredible split-screen sequence of Sean and Lauren meeting in a school hall, set to the strains of Donovan's "Colours":
When the split-screen disappears and the two finally share the same frame, it's the one genuinely romantic moment in the movie, but it's short-lived. If Lauren's naïve yearning for Victor weren't enough to scotch the deal, Sean's mix of schoolboy eagerness and Neanderthal crudeness does the trick. And his affection is all based on a cruel irony, anyway: He thinks Lauren is the one who has been leaving anonymous love letters in his mailbox. (Avary's reveal of the actual letter-writer comes via another ingenious stylistic trick in which we, the audience, discover we've had plenty of chances to notice her, too, but haven't.)
For all its flashes of brilliance, The Rules Of Attraction still has plenty of flaws, most of which can be pinned on Avary the screenwriter, not Avary the director. In condensing the novel, Avary simply doesn't have enough time to devote to these three characters, and sometimes he chooses to emphasize the wrong things. For example, Sean owes money to local drug pushers for his dealings on campus, but aside from a hilarious scene involving a loaded, bloated Fred Savage in his underwear, the subplot feels like a cartoonish distraction, and unessential to the story. Anything that doesn't fall under the umbrella of the film's title doesn't really belong, no matter how vividly it plays in the novel or on the screen.
The drug subplot also keeps Avary from revealing the true depths of Sean's black soul. He is, after all, a Bateman, brother to American Psycho's Patrick, and at times, Van Der Beek flashes a Kubrickian hollow stare that will be familiar to anyone who's seen Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket or Jack Nicholson in The Shining. In the book, Sean has a sexual relationship with Paul and Lauren at separate times, which helps define all three of them. In the film, Paul's infatuation with Sean leads to one dalliance that may be more a credit to Paul's overactive imagination than a real event, while Lauren saves herself for Victor. Having Lauren remain faithful to Victor is the biggest change from the book, and it yields mixed results: While her deflowering becomes sadder, because Victor's betrayal—worse, his obliviousness to her existence—lowers her defenses, her abstinence fatally weakens her relationship with Sean, giving it little of the desperate resonance in Ellis' book. For as nasty as the film gets on occasion, it remains chaste where it needn't be.
Still, cult movies are often remembered more for scenes and sequences than they are as complete works, and in the DVD age, where chapter stops isolate the highlights, The Rules Of Attraction offers plenty of re-watch value. Avary loads his screenplay with spiky bits of comedy—Sean bedding a girl by passing off a Counting Crows song as his own acoustic creation; a line about the age of consent ("Old enough to pee, old enough for me") that's shocking enough to repulse even predators like Sean and Victor; Lauren's roommate (a luscious Jessica Biel) explaining the difference between "bulimic skinny" and "anorexic skinny"—and he captures Ellis' collegiate wasteland perfectly in broad strokes, even though he misses some of the particulars. But mostly, he succeeds in finding visual solutions to a novel that peskily resists them, and the essence of Ellis' work survives intact. Ellis-haters might call this a dubious achievement, but if you can't appreciate sequences like this short-film-within-a-film about Victor's trip to Europe, I for one have no use for you:
Next week: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
May 22: Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control
May 29: Battle Royale
June 5: Dead Man