Friday May 28, 1999
Nobody could ever accuse Mike Figgis, Oscar nominated for "Leaving Las Vegas," of not taking chances, but he has never gone for broke so completely as with "The Loss of Sexual Innocence," his most venturesome, most personal--and least accessible film to date. If you open your mind and trust him completely, it's possible to experience the wrenching impact of this ravishingly beautiful and highly distinctive film.
But be prepared to accept that there are moments and images that will remain puzzling; it's as if Figgis is suggesting that if there are so many loose ends in life, why should you be able to make all the connections in art? What Figgis wants is the audience to respond to his film with emotion rather than reason, and wait until the film is over to start thinking about it. (And there is plenty to think about.) At bottom, Figgis is paying us the compliment of inviting us to participate in his film instead of just sitting there passively in the dark.
Elliptical, perhaps to a fault, "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" is shorn of exposition, except for the very occasional subtitle telling us where we are and when--a couple of more of these would help a lot and not detract from Figgis' rigorously nonlinear storytelling.
Jumping back and forth in time and place in the life of Nic (Julian Sands)--whom we eventually learn is a filmmaker--we gradually realize that he is drifting in and out of his memories. He and his wife (Johanna Torrel) and young son (Geraint Ellis) are driving to their handsome manor house in the countryside of the north of England, where he awaits a call that will send him off to London to fly to Italy. From there he will proceed to the Tunisian desert with a filmmaking crew that is composed of two assistants (Saffron Barrows, Stefano Dionisi) and a driver. This narrative thread, however, does not emerge clearly until the film's climactic sequence. And for Figgis' purposes, it shouldn't.
When Nic's mind wanders, the memories that flood over him are of himself at ages 5, 12 and 16 when he is experiencing primal scenes in regard to sex. In this approach Figgis is suggesting how such moments, which may be traumatic in varying degrees but are inevitably affecting, shape our emotions and how we, in turn, express them sexually. In Nic's case, we discover that he is sexually aggressive with his wife, an icy blond who responds to him sexually but not at all emotionally. The lack of emotion between man and wife surely is key in propelling Nic to his ultimate fate.
Figgis sees in Nic, who seems clearly the filmmaker's alter ego, and the arc of his sensual life a meaning to be found in the parable of Adam and Eve and their fall from innocence in the Garden of Eden. Figgis actually interpolates the biblical tale, played out by Femi Ogumbanjo as Adam and Hanne Klintoe as Eve in a sylvan setting whose location is not revealed until the film's finish.
By the time Figgis has evoked the fear and guilt that too often hover over sexual love, he broadens his perspective even further: A loss of sexual innocence gives way to a loss of innocence in general, and along with it the responsibilities and temptations of knowledge. Figgis is suggesting, while avoiding a lethal literalness, that there's a direct connection between the world's ills and the ways in which our sexuality is formed and directed.
The oblique, graceful way in which Figgis evokes such thoughts for us to contemplate is no small accomplishment, to say the least. But for the committed, it's well worth accepting a certain degree of perplexity. Most viewers are likely to be puzzled over the fact that Barrows is playing twins, born in Italy to a 15-year-old unwed mother and given up for adoption, with one girl raised in England. As adults they encounter each other briefly at an airport. What this means is elusive, at least on a first viewing of the film.
Since this is a film of images rather than words, it requires a great deal of presence and expressiveness on the part of the actors. Happily, Figgis has chosen well, with Sands effortlessly carrying by far the most demanding role of a man of isolating self-absorption.
"The Loss of Sexual Innocence," for which Figgis composed a rich, seductive score, is never less than ravishing, with its kaleidoscopic hues, ranging from cool blues to burnished golds and scorching oranges; Benoi^t Delhomme ("The Scent of Green Papayas," "The Winslow Boy") is the film's consummate cinematographer. More than most films, "The Loss of Innocence," which had a gestation period of more than 15 years, gives the sense that it has emerged precisely the way its maker intended. Make of it what you will.
The Loss of Sexual Innocence, 1999. R, for strong sexual images, pervasive nudity, violence and language. A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Summit Entertainment, in association with Newmarket Capital Group, of a Red Mullet production. Writer-director-composer Mike Figgis. Producers Figgis, Annie Stewart. Executive producer Patrick Wachsberger. Cinematographer Benoi^t Delhomme. Editor Matthew Wood. Costumes Florence Nicaise. Production designer (Newcastle, England) Mark Long. Production designer (Italy) Giorgio Desideri. Art director (Newcastle) Anita Bryan. Set decorator (Newcastle) Julie Harris. Art director (Italy) Alberto Tosti. Art director (Tunisia) Adel Chelbi. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Julian Sands as Adult Nic. Saffron Burrows as Twins. Stefano Dionisi as Lucca. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Nic, age 16.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times