The Loss of Sexual Innocence
1999, R, 101 min. Directed by Mike Figgis. Starring Julian Sands, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Saffron Burrows, Stefano Dionisi, Kelly MacDonald, Hanne Klintoe, Femi Ogumbanjo, Johanna Torell.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., July 16, 1999
I've just seen one of the purest examples of unmitigated artistic self-indulgence since the Seventies heyday of Ken Russell. So why am I feeling humbled? Probably because, for all this movie's film-schoolish reveling in half-baked experimentalism and Freudian-symbol overkill (there's more phallic imagery here than an episode of TV Funhouse's “Ambiguously Gay Duo”), it's still braver by half than anything I've ever done in my creative life. It's almost as if Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas; One Night Stand) is consciously shrugging off the Mature Craftsman mantle some have tried to drape over his shoulders since he gravitated away from the lavish stylishness of such early works as Stormy Monday and Liebestraum. That in itself doesn't merit a chorus of critical attaboys, of course. However, this film's visionary richness, tireless cinematic invention, and power to stir the emotions most certainly do. Reputedly a sexual autobiography of sorts, The Loss of Sexual Innocence tells an episodic story of a character named Nic at various stages of his life. We first encounter him as a small British boy in Kenya, peeping through Venetian blinds to watch a lingerie-clad African girl as she reads Bible passages to an elderly white man. Later, we see him as a teenager (played by Rhys-Meyers of Velvet Goldmine) catching his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Finally, we meet the adult Nic (Sands) in scenes from his unraveling marriage and an ill-fated romantic tryst in North Africa. Recurring throughout are umber-hued dream images of a racially mixed Adam and Eve exploring a figurative Eden to the accompaniment of languid piano sonatas. Twin sisters (both played by Burrows) growing up unaware of each other's existence also figure into the mix. These episodes -- story fragments, really -- are a drifting smorgasbord of wistful melancholia, simmering eroticism, enjoyable dark humor, and flat-out surrealism. The theme of sexual knowledge as a source of caprice and sorrow is none too subtly driven home throughout. (The closing scene, unfortunately, is a disastrously ill-conceived howler seemingly calculated to send audiences home with derisive smirks on their faces.) Taken as a motley whole, The Loss of Sexual Innocence is probably the least successful film of Figgis' career. To be called an interesting failure may be its highest possible aspiration. And yet, there's a strange kind of assurance about it, a vigorous, unfaltering drive that wouldn't be present if this were indeed just another example of aimless art-movie wankery. For good or ill, it's clearly an accurate reflection of what Figgis was trying to do. And as you might expect from a deeply personal movie by one of the purest cinematic talents working today, there are many scenes here so strong and imaginatively realized they'll knock you on your heels. In short, this is a gutsy, oddly inspiring film that embodies both the risks and rewards of artistic boldness. You may not care much for it, but its courage forces you to at least care about it.