Dreamlife of Angels

Teknolust creates color-coded clone beauties in a world every bit as unreal

You know you're in a sci-fi movie with a concept much higher than its budget when minimalism is being used as a shorthand for futuristic. In the years to come, or so it seems, we will all prefer near-empty rooms in monolithic bright color schemes. This can work -- Gattaca and THX 1138 pulled off their sparse dystopian designs with aplomb -- but it can also play pretentious, as in 2000's Thomas in Love. In Teknolust, the second feature from Conceiving Ada writer/ director Lynn Hershman Leeson, the design (and everything else, actually) walks right on that fine line between pretension and deeper meaning. It'll be no surprise if this film finds devotees and detractors in equal measure.

Those who put it down will point to the fact that, even within the film's own world, little of the story plays as realistic. Scientist Rosetta Stone (Tilda Swinton, hidden under a massive poodle of a hairdo and big ugly glasses) has created three genetic duplicates of herself (Swinton, times three) whom she keeps shut away in a series of secret rooms in her house. Problem is, they lack a Y chromosome (don't all women?), and their health will deteriorate unless they inject semen into one another's hands on a regular basis. Ruby, the most outgoing of the three, gets assigned to collect, so she spends her evenings in casual sex encounters, making sure that she never goes back to the same man more than three times, as she has mathematically assessed that that's the most you can do without fear of attachment.

Despite the fact that the sex is always done explicitly with condoms for collection purposes, those men who engage in it, among them Henry Fool's Thomas Jay Ryan and San Francisco monologuist Josh Kornbluth, find themselves coming up impotent afterward, with a nasty rash and a bar code imprinted upon their brows. The folks at the genetics lab Rosetta works for dub this as some sort of "bio-gender" warfare. In fact, it turns out to be a computer virus that has jumped from machines to humans, via the partially synthetic clones.

Sound strained? It is, a little. But Leeson isn't going for straight realism; there's a dream logic at work here, made dreamier by the music of Gladiator co-scorer Klaus Badelt. The plot is almost entirely allegory, especially when the duplicates decide they want to be free, and Ruby falls for an artistically inclined copy shop employee (Jeremy Davies, all tics and murmurs, as is his wont). Children need to break free from their parents, who in turn must stop living vicariously through their offspring! Techheads need to enjoy the real world! Live for the moment! Sex is easy, but intimacy is hard!

What -- you knew all those things already? Damn. Still, if you like to have such themes re-emphasized in a mass of swirling colors and strangely clipped dialogue, you'll dig this. Despite the twisted sexual element of injecting semen into one's hand, it's no David Cronenberg-esque mechanical-perversity flick. The film plays more like the stylistically similar Gattaca, Andrew Niccol's movie about an imperfect person trying to work his way into a "perfect" world. The main difference, of course, is that Gattaca played as a believable story within its established futuristic context, and Teknolust doesn't go for any kind of consistent reality at all, which will hamper its mass appeal but possibly garner a cult following.

Amid the weirdness, however, there are elements that everyone can enjoy, most notably the multiple performances by Ms. Swinton. Though the duplicates are color-coded by outfits matching their names (Ruby, Marine, Olive) and hair (black, red and blond, respectively), they all have their own traits, and would be evidently different from their creator even if not for the follicular signifiers -- in fact, it takes a while to realize that it is indeed Swinton in each role. The Scottish-born actress has always had one of the most versatile faces, used to androgynous effect in the likes of Orlando and Love Is the Devil, and more traditional beauty in The Deep End. For a lead actress, Teknolust is perhaps the ultimate showcase, and Swinton takes the ball and runs with it. When the three duplicates spontaneously break into a surreal dance number to impress their creator, it's like Bizarro-World Charlie's Angels, albeit with more true spontaneity than anything in the soggy summer sequel it plays off of.

 
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