Thursday 25 June 2020

Article: I wanna be adored. – Looking Back at The Rules of Attraction

 …and it starts and finishes in mid-sentence. Just like the book. Echoing some of that stylistic ego of its author Bret Easton Ellis. I’m sure many can sense that kind of edgy pretension that one can feel from Ellis’ work. But starting in medias res but by mimicking the book in the way he does from the very beginning; director Roger Avery primes the chaotic nature The Rules of Attraction. Giving us a sense that the corrupt nature of these spoilt brats never truly ends. The final lines of Ellis’ most well-known book; American Psycho take on solid form. THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.

“From the corrupt minds that brought you American Psycho and Pulp Fiction”, the marketing screamed. With its teddy fornication poster, to its Clockwork Orange (1971) riffing teaser spot, Roger Avery’s adaptation of The Rules of Attraction knew exactly what it was selling. Although the hubbub wasn’t as loud as what we often see from mainstream movies now, the outcome was so very similar. The film split critics but captured a glut of the audience that went to see it. Consensus scores are not the best way to evaluate a film’s success, but I always remember how distinct the viewpoints were between the film’s lowly Rotten Tomatoes score (now at a Rotten 43%) and the higher-rated Imdb score (at time of release it was in the 7.0 range out of 10, it’s now at the still decent 6.9). The A.V Club listed the film in its New Cult Section. Roger Ebert felt an indifference for the film's characters and hoped they get better. When I first saw it on it’s UK theatrical release in 2003, I fell for it in a way I never really did with American Psycho, although that has changed over the years. My best friend who I watched the film with, walked out at a notable sequence. It’s that kind of film.

At the time of writing this film adaptation of Rules is 17 years old. In America, it is almost reached the lawful age of sexual maturity, yet the ramblings of the current culture wars still reek of this debauched little number. It’s no surprise that Bret Easton Ellis claimed that the film adaptation is the closest anyone had got to capturing his novel universes. Mary Harron smartly undercuts so much of American Psycho (2000). Capturing the shallowness of its era as well as the ugliness of the toxic masculinity of the time. Roger Avery goes all for leather in Rules. He gives us little respite. Attractive youngsters being entirely unattractive in a way only young people can. Controlled, nee overwhelmed by the id, wading rudderless in a sea of hollow depravity. But while many college/coming of age movies, leave its characters – and audience – with life lessons. Rules simply does not give a damn. Avery himself allegedly stated that the film is the assassination of teen comedies. Rules lumps us with people with no need to be depressed glaring glassy-eyed at the world as if it were a hopeless void. No life lessons here. Detention in purgatory. Simply said: Fuck Maturity.

Three kids attending a liberal arts college fall into what can only be considered as a love triangle of misconception. Sean Bateman (brother of American Psycho’s Patrick) keeps receiving glittery post from an unknown recipient in the mail. To Sean, this is a slight distraction from the borrowed drug money he owes from a couple of townie tweakers. Sean believes the notes are from his classmate Lauren, a cynical woman who pines for her beau, Victor, who is currently travelling Europe. Lauren is a virgin and starves off any urges to cavort with any of the campus boys by reading a rather large medical book of venereal diseases. Lauren’s dedication to Victor is strong but there are hints that she may have an interest in Sean. Lauren used to date Paul; a bisexual man whose attraction to Sean is set off by a misheard exchanged between the two. The film is less of a conventional plot as opposed to a series of loose vignettes. Much like American Psycho, the characters are driven by their base urges, so much so they often neglect their misunderstandings. So far so college am I right?

The film's disjointed plotting must have been something of a comfort to director Roger Avery. The other screenwriter of Pulp Fiction (1994) is once again swimming in a world of time-hopping narratives. As stated by the director, the jumps from point to point and hollow relationships between the characters were done so to resemble people's splintered memories of college. But was also a chance for him to direct another film with flashy flourishes and nihilistic themes. Avery’s first feature-length film; Killing Zoe, was labelled by Roger Ebert as Generation X’s first heist caper and is executed as such. A film in which characters are surrounded by the colour red and they delve deeper into the bowels of the bank they’ve decided to Rob. Avery also uses Otto Nemenz Swing & Tilt lenses to create the distorted feeling of being on heroin midway through the film. Rules is a mutation of this. While Killing Zoe has Eric Stolz’s Zed character holding the ability to ensure of earth-shattering orgasms to sex workers that he meets within minutes of sleeping them, Rules plays on the idea that these kids obtain absolutely no joy from their carnal pursuits or anything else for that matter.

Avery captures the novel's stream of consciousness with a variety of self-involved narration from a variety of characters. A handy way of capturing the distorted leaps in transition that occur in Ellis' book. There is also the splintering of the narrative in a way that candidly reminds you that this corrupt mind enjoyed teasing structure with Mr. Tarantino. The film punctuates acts through parties and leaps through seasons with little desire to notify the viewer, distorting the sense of time. Both the leaps and narration not only provide an insular feeling but give a sense that these characters have harboured these lustful misunderstanding for longer than they care to admit.  

The use of split-screen finds itself being used in a small dorm room scene in which we’re provided with what looks to be a fantasy and a reality. Paul invites Sean to his room for some pot. The screen splits in two as we see Paul and Sean kiss and initiate sex (perhaps an eye-opening moment for young Dawson Creek fans). The other half of the screen has Paul masturbating in the same instance. Perhaps to the thought of what’s happening in the former half. It looks to be a rather straightforward dream sequence yet actually becomes more interesting for fans of the book. In the book, Paul holds comprehensively described accounts of himself and Sean being sexual partners. In Sean’s accounts, these encounters are absent. This allows both accounts to be ambiguous and contradictory. Avery’s use of the split-screen allows that ambiguity into the relationship if only for a second. Either Paul is pursuing and fantasising over a straight guy. Something we have already seen him do earlier in the film, or he’s having a difficult intimate relationship with a closeted bi guy who by all accounts, wants to keep it that way. It’s easy to find the moment to be cut and dry, however having read the book, I personally enjoy the idea that Avery appears to be giving the fans a hefty nod to the duo’s vague relationship.

The film’s biggest trick lies in the middle of the film. A five-minute, split-screen meet-cute in which Sean and Lauren encounter each other in a class they share. A flashy sequence, but not one without substance. In The Sundance Anatomy of a Scene series, Avery details that he wanted to visually illustrate connection within a world of disconnection. Admittedly borrowing film language from Douglas Sirk; who used the frame to unify and divide characters within the frame. Avery uses the split to depicts the differing routines of the two students before melding into a singular moment. It’s a sequence so playful and in line with what one would typically expect from a sweeter college comedy, it feels like it’s been lifted from an entirely different film. This moment pertains to be the film's emotional centre. Sean and Lauren seldom share a scene together. The scene plays up the dissimilarity between the two characters. But the removal of Sean sunglasses by Lauren provides a spark of connection. Initiating a small, elusive moment of association in a film that enjoys disrupting connection at every turn. It’s also the rise before the fall.

For a film full of stylistic tricks such as the split screens or whole sequences where time moves backward you still need cast the right good-looking people to make all the ugly antics click. Rules is a film known for its stylistic traits but also features career-high performances from many of the people involved. Let us not mistake dead-eyed and disaffected for flat. Whether it’s James Van Der Beeks glazed Kubrickian stare or the way Shannyn Sossamon holds a cigarette in a manner that screams “sardonic swagger”. Each performance seems to grab hold of the film’s energy. Van Der Beek especially thrives in the film. Rules was released with the young actor having one last year has the so-called eternal optimist that was Dawson Leery. Sean Bateman gives Van der Beek the type of role that could break the shackles of the sweetheart character that made him known. Van der Beek holds a similarity to Ryan Phillipe. Both seemed more well known as late 90’s heartthrobs, here, much like Phillipe in Cruel Intentions (1999), both equally known their way around sleazy and corrupt slimeballs. One of Van der Beek’s best moments lies in the split-screen sequence. The small moment when Sossamon’s Lauren removes his sunglasses and that small flicker of emotion is glimpsed. It’s an earnest moment only bested by Sossamon’s tiny giggle moments later. Sossamon, who looked fast-tracked to be a major star after a formidable run of mainstream hits also hits her stride in this movie as a Daria Art School Dream Girl. It’s easy to see why a college kid (especially Sean) would fall for her. That air of devil may care attitude. The hint of being unattainable to anyone but Victor, yet the films playing with form as already highlighted a pain that is already made its mark. Ian Somerhalder may now enjoy a tv career of cavorting with the undead, but his naïve and catty bi-guy performance mines a lot of the more “approachable” humour. If you can call it that.

Credit should also go the film’s secret gem Theresa Wayman. Shannyn Sossamon’s actual roommate at the time. Her small yet pivotal role is wordless yet harbours all the feelings that the other character pretends to have. Wayman’s major scene still holds an unbelievable amount of potency. Mostly due to the combination of Wayman’s eyes wincing at the pain, and the distortion that takes hold of the musical score. Even now this moment, the hidden heart of the film, brings around destabilising feelings. The BBFC has since cut the “bathtub” sequence for home screenings due to a technique that is used. When I first watched it at the cinema in 2003 with a friend as stated previously, he immediately left his seat after this scene. Returning 10 minutes later. Understandable.

And yet an unforgettable moment is completely lost on many of the vapid characters. This is enforced when the film introduces us yet another tactless character during the film's third act. The introduction of Lauren’s beau Victor (Kip Pardue) is perhaps the most loved sequence of the movie. Possibly because it is the most flashy and inimitable sequence of the film. A rapid 4-minute hedonistic headrush, in which Pardue’s character leaps from city to city in Europe in a cornucopia of base indulgence. The sequence when isolated is an amusing four-minute short. However, when fitted into the film it brings around a larger point of how all this indulgence is without feeling. A young man with the means to travel Europe, notes his meaningless sexual deviances longer than any of the landmarks and experiences he breezes by. All the while his girlfriend pines for him, despite possibly wanting to feed her needs with someone else. It all becomes swings and roundabouts as everyone involved becomes entangled in their unrequited lusts. These people pine for connection and yet yearn for lust.

I find that I tend to lean into certain youthful black comedies and The Rules of Attraction is no different. I wonder if it is because we are moving further into a culture in which people bicker even more about what is politically correct. Ellis' book and in turn Avery’s film capture a dark psychosis which would perhaps be more lost on a more “sensitive” movie. As I loved the film from the time it was released to now, a part of me wonders if there is sometimes a bit of honesty in the vacuous. Avery detailed that there was a generational dissonance between critics and fans of the film and that if you have never met the type of characters in Rules of Attraction then how could you relate? I am inclined to agree with this. The American Pies of the world sell you the lie.

That said. One thing about that meet-cute moment I still really love is that the class they missed was on the Post-modern condition. A quick google shows that there was a good chance they had read up on Jean-François Lyotard, who argued the notion of knowledge in postmodern society as the end of 'grand narratives'. I find that funny to see that in a film in which the plot has no real beginning or a true sense of...