The hip city dwellers of director Denys Arcand's new movie, Love and Human Remains, search for love without quite believing in it, which lends their efforts a halfhearted awkwardness. No lover ever quite measures up, and there's always a reason to put one's clothes on and take off — back to your own friends, apartment, and life. So that's what they do. For these bright young people, tomorrow is always another night, and nighttime swells with romantic dreams that might come true.
It swells with nightmares, too. The unnamed city in Remains is Canadian, yet under the freeway overpasses lurks a most un-Canadian serial killer, a postmodern boho Jack the Ripper who tears the earrings from the pierced lobes of hairdressers and prostitutes before offing them. The murders are unsettlingly random, and for most of the film they pop up at jolting and unexpected intervals, making an eerie counterpoint to the erotic ballet the main characters are dancing with one another.
The movie's central figure is David McMillan (Thomas Gibson, the oily Beauchamp in PBS's 1994 Tales of the City), a gay quipster in his early 30s who, after the shipwreck of his acting career, now waits tables. He shares an apartment with his ex, Candy (Ruth Marshall), a prematurely dyspeptic book reviewer who so hugely dislikes every volume she reads (without finishing) that even her editor becomes uneasy.
“Write 500 words about something you love,” the editor advises her. “It will make the things you hate seem more … interesting.”
Despite David and Candy's sexual mŽsalliance, theirs is the only true marriage in the movie, but they are too restless and self-obsessed to recognize it. David guards his tender self with a smooth and practiced flippancy as he cruises the city's bars and discos, never failing to connect with somebody, at least for the night. He is perfectly — too perfectly — adapted to the closed loop of infatuation and disillusionment in big-city gay life. He is jaded, if appealingly so. His cold glossiness invites desire and discourages intimacy, a well-recognized paradox among horny and insecure gay men who know the game well enough not to trust one another.
But to Kane (Matthew Ferguson), David's confused 17-year-old busboy underling, the older man's posing seems the height of sophistication, and because Kane thinks he wants to be like David, he falls in love with him. Their ambivalent duet reaches a kind of resolution beside the electric-blue indoor pool at Kane's house. (“I'm definitely tipping you too much,” David tells Kane as he surveys the domestic splendor, but in fact Kane is merely the son of a wealthy man.) Kane is the only character in the movie innocent enough to feel an honest emotion, but honest emotions scare people. While David patronizingly tells Kane that Kane fears his own feelings, it is David who's truly frightened.
Candy, meanwhile, despairing of men (straight, gay, and otherwise), dabbles anxiously in lesbianism with Jerri (Joanne Vannicola), an intensely earnest schoolteacher who has cruised her at the gym. A touch leads to an open-mouthed kiss that culminates in big-tits sex, but Candy is sleepless in the afterglow and takes refuge in David's bed, which happens to be available. A wounded Jerri gets the message and elects not to spend the night sleeping alone in the bed of a straight woman who seems to have gone post-coitally wiggy, but she is too lonely to give up, and she keeps after Candy like a heat-seeking missile.
Candy has another iron in the fire — Robert (Rick Roberts), a bartender who has come on to her with beguiling directness. When he admits he wants to fuck her, having made her dinner and tried to get her drunk, she storms out of his apartment in a huff. But plainly she prefers men to women, and at least Robert is a man. After a difficult hiatus, they arrange another get-together, which rapidly deteriorates into a semicomic roundelay of flying packages and slamming doors.
Love and Human Remains was adapted by Brad Fraser from his 1989 play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, and the movie retains a distinct theatrical flavor. Much of the dialogue is dazzlingly funny, but it cuts too with unseen sharp edges. Gibbons in particular delivers honed one-liners with an easy relish. (When Kane asks David how old he is, David says, expertly balancing his reply on a fulcrum of comic timing, “Thirty … ish.”) Yet David is not really a bitch: When his dominatrix friend Benita (Mia Kirshner) calls him in the middle of the night for help with a customer who wants to lick a cowboy's boots, he goes to her aid without complaining.
Love and Human Remains is Denys Arcand's first film in English; he is best known in this country for Jesus of MontrŽal and The Decline of the American Empire. He draws convincing performances from his attractive cast, but even the best director cannot conjure substance from nothing. The movie's characters aren't quite nothing, but they don't amount to much. The film's busy editing — rapid, mesmerizing cuts among scenes of Seinfeld-like brevity — captures the self-referential frenzy of modern city life, but it suggests, too, that the characters don't have much to say, that they aren't especially interested in one another or even themselves. Serious talk embarrasses them; when David's old buddy Bernie (Cameron Bancroft) tries to open up to him about feelings of failure and stagnation, David dismisses the attempt with a perfect-pitch crack: “Are you getting real on me this early in the morning?”
The answer is yes, but Bernie doesn't say it, because getting real isn't cool, and posing as cool is all these young adults have. They are each sealed inside their own coolness, like individually quick-frozen scallops, and within those icy cells of isolation they are too busy perseverating over their lonely and empty and disconnected lives to notice how conventional their wants really are.
The law of unintended consequences operates in movies as everywhere else, and surely the great unintended revelation of Remains is how terribly ordinary the hippest people are beneath the slick veneer. Hipness flows from shallowness. Striking attitudes of cool might protect people from having to shake their soggy romanticism and childish fear of taking real emotional risks with people, but it cannot substitute for, by actually doing those hard things, living.
Love and Human Remains
in S.F. and the California in Berkeley.