MOVIE REVIEW : Figgis’ ‘Liebestraum’ Leaves You Gasping for Less


“Liebestraum” is not for the faint of heart, although it’s perfect for the faint of mind. It’s the kind of overwrought melodrama where, if it’s raining outside, the soundtrack doesn’t just register a pitter-patter, it registers a roar.

Crickets chirping in the underbrush are amplified into an infernal screech. The lovemaking that often accompanies these roars and screeches is equally rapacious.

Director Mike Figgis, the former British pop musician and experimental theater artist who made his directorial debut with “Stormy Monday” and followed it with “Internal Affairs,” has a great feeling for the higher reaches of sleaze.


This may not sound like a great achievement but, in this overscrupulous movie era, when most films seem to be designed to lower our temperatures, Figgis’ hot-bloodedness can almost pass for the real thing. He purveys ersatz eroticism of a high order.

But not quite high enough to make us forget his new movie’s abundant absurdities--not that we always want to. One reason why “Liebestraum” (Laemmle’s Music Hall) will probably end up on many a viewer’s “guilty pleasures” list by year’s end is that it plays out the flagrant fantasies of several earlier eras of steam-heated movie melodrama.

Figgis draws on “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and practically every other famous film noir; he borrows so promiscuously that the borrowing itself becomes a kind of sex play, a lathering of remembered moments. (The R rating is for “strong sensuality and language.”)

The plot seems to exist primarily as a way to join together as many of these moments as possible. Nick (Kevin Anderson), who teaches college in Upstate New York and writes books on architecture, drops into a Midwestern sanitarium to pay his final respects to the cancerous, daft mother (Kim Novak) he has never known.

His fleabag hotel is directly across the street from a beautiful old cast-iron building about to be razed--the Rawlston Department store, which has been boarded up since it was the scene of a marital-infidelity murder in 1953.

Nick sees the structure as “a missing link in American architecture.” But he runs into an old college chum (Bill Pullman) who, as film-noir fate would have it, is not only the developer in charge of bringing down the building but is also in possession of a minxish, unsatisfied wife (Pamela Gidley). In between poking around inside the abandoned structure, Nick ends up nosing around the wife.


Figgis has put too hot a spotlight on Anderson, a recessive, unthreatening actor who, with his wan eyes and perpetual two-day growth of beard, simply doesn’t fit into this film-noir fantasia. Gidley fares better; she might have brought a curl to James M. Cain’s lips. But Novak doesn’t exactly come back in glory; she’s photographed writhing in her hospital bed in a state that can perhaps best be described as advanced ashen.

One big reason this film isn’t up to the sleazy-classic level of Figgis’ last film is because “Internal Affairs” had a really sharp script by Henry Bean. Figgis wrote this one, and it’s a mess.

His penchant for mysterioso luridness and free-form ambiguity may be a result of his inability to tell a coherent story. He has such a fever for filmmaking that the film’s collage-like aspects are still pleasurable, but you’re never sure while watching “Liebestraum” if the absurdities and glitches are intentional.

Besides having composed the heightened, jazzy score, Figgis has put too much of himself into the shadow effects and gothic camera angles and smoldering glances for us to believe the whole thing’s intended as a joke.

He’s a tad too humorless for his own good. One reason “Dead Again,” which shares a few similarities with Figgis’ film, is so enjoyable is that Kenneth Branagh involves us in the joke of his gothic legerdemain. He sends up the creepy-crawly conventions of the erotic occult thriller. In “Liebestraum,” Figgis isn’t sending up, he’s getting down.


Kevin Anderson: Nick Kaminsky

Pamela Gidley: Jane Kessler

Bill Pullman: Paul Kessler

Kim Novak: Mrs. Anderssen

An Initial Production released by MGM-Pathe Communications. Director Mike Figgis. Producer Eric Fellner. Screenplay by Mike Figgis. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia. Editor Martin Hunter. Costumes Saron Simonaire. Music Mike Figgis. Production design Waldemar Kalinowski. Art director Michael T. Perry. Set designer David Lubin. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.


MPAA-rated R (for strong sensuality and language).