1999 Sundance Film Festival Update #3: "The Anti-Narrative"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 27, 1999

Mike Figgis and Scott King. Astute movie-goers will be familiar with the former name, but not the latter. Figgis is the British director whose Leaving Las Vegas made a surprising impact on American cinema a few years ago, winning the film maker raves and earning Nicolas Cage an Oscar. Figgis is at Sundance with his latest movie, The Loss of Sexual Innocence. King is an American whose low-budget debut feature, Treasure Island is playing in competition. And, while there are no obvious similarities between the two men, their films bear a remarkable resemblance in both subject matter and style.

Treasure Island is one of a few films causing a stir. It's an extremely odd picture that has almost no chance of finding a major distributor for two reasons: (1) it contains copious full frontal male nudity, and (2) it's about as non-mainstream as a motion picture can be. In a way, that's unfortunate, because I'd love to have another opportunity to see this movie. There's too much here to be absorbed in one viewing, and, having sat through the film once, I think I would be in a better position to put things in context the second time.

Treasure Island takes place during the late days of World War II, after the surrender of the Germans, but before Hiroshima. The two main characters, Frank (Lance Baker) and Sam (Nick Offerman), are intelligence officers charged with breaking codes and developing ploys to confound the enemy. Their latest gambit involves dumping a dead body in the water where the Japanese are sure to find it. In the corpse's clothing will be false information about American tactical plans. In order to make the fiction convincing, the two men develop a detailed background for the body, writing to him from loved ones, friends, and relatives. Through their missives, Frank and Sam begin to reveal buried aspects of their personalities. Meanwhile, away from the office, we are given a glimpse into their sexually-confused personal lives. Frank can only have sex with a woman he marries, but, since he craves variety, he has become a polygamist. Sam can only have sex with his wife if there's another man involved. As gradually becomes apparent, both Frank and Sam are on the edge.

The Loss of Sexual Innocence also deals with the issue of sexual identity, although the plot is completely different. This film follows the life of Nic, a film ethnographer (played as a teenager by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and as an adult by Julian Sands), through different periods in his life - as a young boy growing up in Kenya, as an adolescent coping with his first sexual encounters, and as a grown man involved in a stale marriage. Other tales are interwoven with Nic's, most notably that of twins (both played by Saffron Burrows) who were separated at birth but fleetingly encounter each other in an airport. There's also a stylized re-telling of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise that takes a vicious jab at organized religion.

Both films deal with the importance of sex to the human experience. In Treasure Island, the characters are unsure of their sexuality, and this lack of assurance places their personal lives in a state of constant turmoil. Each of them is driven by sexual needs: Frank to find another woman who will marry him and Sam to find a man who will join him and his wife for a night. Likewise, the characters in The Loss of Sexual Innocence are defined, at least in part, by their sexual activities. The central event of the film (which happens in the closing few minutes) occurs because of a sexual indiscretion on Nic's part - an indiscretion that is built up to by his entire sexual history. Likewise, Figgis' version of the forbidden fruit is sex, and that's what causes Adam and Eve's fall.

More interesting than the films' thematic content, however, is the manner in which they present it. Neither film is linear. Treasure Island jumps randomly from scene-to-scene, intentionally confusing reality with fantasy, and often dropping us in the middle of an event without offering any sort of explanation about what's going on. Code breaking isn't just something that the characters do; the audience has to do a little of their own. The Loss of Sexual Innocence refuses to stay anchored in one time period, presenting disjointed pieces of a story without offering many clues about how they should be put together (although Figgis' use of amber filters helps a little). Both films reject the traditional narrative form, preferring instead to try something experimental. The result is curiously satisfying, because, while it leaves countless unanswered questions and loose ends, it demands thought and intellectual participation.

When asked his reasons for presenting the film in this manner, Figgis denounced the way the three act structure has become the film maker's Bible, then went on to attack the manner in which commercialism has destroyed the artistic elements of film. The Loss of Sexual Innocence is his attempt to restore art to the medium, and to prove that an involving, compelling experience can result from a fragmented narrative that relies more on music and images than dialogue. When, at a completely different Q&A, Scott King was asked the same question, his response was nearly identical. American movies, in his opinion, have become too reliant upon exposition. With Treasure Island, he is trying to tell a story in a way that confuses the audience so they have to rely on their own interpretation of events rather than being force-fed a definitive resolution.

One of the things that bothered me about the 1998 Sundance Film Festival was the lack of challenging and/or innovative films. Figgis and King have rectified the situation this year. Movies with fragmented narratives can often be pretentious and inaccessible, but this is a pitfall that both directors - the veteran and the novice - largely avoid. As for the prospects of a wider audience seeing these films... The Loss of Sexual Innocence already has a distributor (Sony Pictures Classics), so it will show up in art houses some time later this year. Unfortunately, those wanting to see Treasure Island will probably have to wait for a local film festival, and hope that the programming director has scheduled it.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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