Interesting from a lesbian director as well as girl-on-girl content
perspective, Lisa Cholodenko's second big screen effort is neither
as probing nor as tight as her first film High
Art. Nonetheless Cholodenko is going a long way towards
proving herself an expert observer of human behaviour.
As in High Art, in
Laurel Canyon we follow the choices of a naive
yet quietly ambitious young girl who is captivated by the world
of an older, more experienced and ultimately damaged woman. Kate
Beckinsale's wide-eyed transformation from conservative medical
student to pot-smoking, sex-kitten is utterly believable and is
the best performance of her career so far where she isn't wearing
skintight black leather. The film however belongs to Frances
McDormand, the older woman who steals every scene with her tough,
sexy, yet still vulnerable portrayal.
Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Beckinsale) - a couple teetering
frightfully on the edge of matrimony - are both embarking on the
next phases of their medical careers; Sam as a resident psychiatrist
and Alex as a medical researcher. Their choices take them to LA
where Sam has arranged to borrow the empty house of his mother
with whom he has a somewhat estranged relationship.
The mother (Frances McDormand) is Jane, a successful record producer
and music business reveller - the type who smokes heaps of pot,
throws regular pool parties, lives in an enormous house and casually
displays pictures of herself with Iggy Pop, Springsteen and Joni
Mitchell on her bookcase. As one of the characters casually mentions
in the film, to live in Laurel Canyon is proof that you've "made
it". Not only has Jane made it, but she's in danger of being
"past it" - a lost, old soul in the new world of music
marketing, teen labels and "we have to have it by Christmas"
When Sam and Alex arrive, not only is the house not empty as
promised, but Jane is in the middle of making a record with a
new band and sleeping with the band's bratty lead singer Ian,
who fancies himself as the hottest thing since Madonna's "Sex"
book. The beach house is occupied by Jane's ex-boyfriend, so the
young couple are stuck living with Jane, at least temporarily.
Sam is mortified by the world Jane inhabits, but he is completely
mistaken in what he perceives Alex's reaction to it will be. Far
from being repulsed, Alex is drawn in, both by the charisma of
Jane and Ian and by the knowledge that maybe, in her perfectly
formed life with Sam, she might never get to experience this kind
of freedom of sexuality again. The desires she feels mean nothing
to her emotionally, but the thrill of the experience is everything,
overriding even her deepest-held fears and compounding moral dilemmas.
Meanwhile, Sam becomes drawn to Sara (Natascha McElhone, in the
most interesting role she's had since The Truman Show),
a woman he works with at the hospital. She tries to attract him
with promises of freedom and conscience-free sex, but in the end
is forced to admit that she cannot separate her heart and her
head, that she wants more from Sam than just a quick fling.
Alex on the other hand is having no difficulty separating sex
and love. She loves Sam, but gradually becomes involved with Jane
and Ian (the kisses between Beckinsale and McDormand are fascinating
both for their unexpected chemistry and the confronting thought
of Jane coming on to her son's girlfriend). She's more than willing
to let her darker side walk free for just a few precious moments.
Unfortunately, as with all sexual liberation on film, the world
must and does come crashing down. To Cholodenko's credit though,
she stops short of blaming anyone for their indiscretions. It's
nice to have characters just admit "things happen" for
once, admit that their own worst (or best?) impulses took hold
and left them no choice but to obey. Moralists may disagree, but
sometimes being swept along in the current is the only way to
stay afloat. Consequences or not, everyone involved needed these
events to happen, simply to enable them to view their lives from
a different perspective.
We have to ask, is the ultimate message here simply the classic
"sex is easy, love is hard"? Or is it that we should
experience everything because who wants to wake up when you're
fifty and find you aren't living the life you were meant to? Ian's
easy morals and sexuality appear initially as immature, the choices
of a man trying to avoid real emotion, but I felt that he truly
did love Jane, so that would be too simple an explanation. Jane
loves her son, so couldn't give in to her impulses towards Alex.
She recognised, almost too late, that some impulses have too high
a price. This could describe their entire mother/son relationship,
a series of mistakes Jane made that Sam has been punishing her
and himself for their whole lives.
The scenes that don't work are Sam's dimestore attempts at psychiatry,
particularly the berating of a young boy's mother, presumably
meant to signify that this is a conversation he wishes he could
have had with his own mother at that age. In retrospect I can
see what Cholodenko was trying to do - showing Sam asking his
patients to show that same understanding and forgiveness he will
soon be expected to provide for his own mother, girlfriend and,
to some extent, himself - but in the midst of all the sexual undercurrents
it feels clunky and out of place, a distraction in a narrative
that needs none.
Through it all there is one absolute. When we have relationships
with people we are responsible for how the things we do affect
them. There is no running from that responsibility, even when
we want to. A walk on the wild side is fine, but where does that
leave the people we actually love? Whose responsibility is it
to say no? The film doesn't know the answers and doesn't offer
them, leaving us with an excellent character piece that has what
feels like a truncated, cop-out ending. This was the thing that
frustrated me and left me hollow, simply because if you lead audiences
into these murky emotional waters, you should at least have the
decency to offer a vague plan about how to get back out again.
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