Monday, January 24, 2011

Lost and Delirious

Posted to coincide with Mischa Barton’s 25th birthday.

In an ideal world, ‘Lost and Delirious’ would have been made in the ’50s, shot in sumptuous and utterly artifical Technicolor and been directed by Douglas Sirk. It would have been implicit but bubbling with repression. It would have starred twenty-something actresses in pigtails passing themselves off as teenagers. There wouldn’t have been a softcore sex scene of the Zalman King school. It would have been 100 minutes of gorgeous, borderline hilarious melodrama.

As it is, though, ‘Lost and Delirious’ was made in 2004, filmed in an autumnal palette and directed by Leà Pool. The only implicit thing about it is what actual purpose the supposedly main character serves. It stars Piper Perabo, Jessica Paré and Mischa Barton (summat about their ages). And there’s a softcore sex scene between two of the leads that’s all close ups of breasts and thighs and intertwined legs. I mention this to point up the comparison; any increase in my blog traffic is purely coincidental.

The first scene has our heroine and intermittent narrator Mary (Barton) driven to a boarding school by her emotionally distant father and his emotionally not-there-at-all new wife. Mary is depressed at the prospect of living away from home and by her inability, on occasions, to remember her late mother’s face. At the boarding school – which seems to be stuck in a ’50s time-warp with its perky gels and matronly staff members (if someone had said “good-o” or “jolly hockey sticks”, I wouldn’t have been surprised) – Mary finds herself sharing a room with the popular Victoria (Paré) and rebellious free spirit Paulie (Perabo).

A lot of time is spent on Mary finding her feet, bonding with her new friends, having her mind and emotions piqued by education (for the first twenty minutes or so, I was convinced I was watching a mash-up of ‘Mr Holland’s Opus’ and ‘Desert Hearts’ – and wondered when they were going to get cracking with the good bits from ‘Desert Hearts’) and forming a tentative friendship with avuncular gardener Joe (Graham Greene), whose horticultural talents remind Mary of her mother and who becomes an ersatz parental figure, imparting wise homilies and yada yada yada.

Then the filmmakers remember that this is a lesbian coming of age drama and throw in a softcore sex scene of the Zalman King school to demonstrate that Victoria and Paulie are more than just room-mates. They also like to make out in voluptuous close up. (To anyone arriving at this site having Googled “lesbian coming of age drama”, “intertwined legs” or “make out in voluptuous close up”: welcome. I post film reviews. There are sometimes screengrabs of a salacious nature. Like the one below.)

So: the coming-of-age/Mary’s enlightenment plot strand segues without so much as a by-your-leave into a romantic drama in which Victoria and Paulie’s relationship plays out against Victoria’s struggle with the social and academic requirements her nouveau riche family have placed upon her – a set of circumstances alien to the couldn’t-care-less Paulie. But before this aspect of the film can develop, Victoria’s prissy younger sister discovers them together and Victoria, fearing pariah-hood at school and worse from her parents, not only backs off from Paulie but makes a pretence at a torrid relationship with a boy from a neighbouring school, talking up her avowedly heterosexual exploits in front of the other girls as a face-saving exercise.

There’s an incredibly powerful scene – in fact, the last poignant scene the film offers before it hares off into melodrama – where Victoria tries to keep it together while she strives to convince her sister that there’s nothing between her and Paulie. After several excruciating minutes, her sister buys it and promises to smooth everything over with her friends (effectively quelling any nascent rumour-mongering), at which point Victoria turns and walks away, her face crumpling, tears springing to her eyes.

The tragedy is that Paulie never witnesses this. All Paulie knows is that Victoria suddenly drops her like the proverbial hot potato. As a forty minute short and the end credits rolling after this scene, ‘Lost and Delirious’ would have made an understated but devastatingly effective point about social convention, familial expectation and petty bigotry and how all of these things are just so much bullshit. Unfortunately, the film continues for another hour , painting Victoria as the villain, Paulie as the victim and Mary as the poor dumb schmuck caught inbetween.

And for a short while, it seems like even this turn of events might be effective. Victoria confides in Mary and counsels her that Paulie will need her support to carry on. Paulie, however, takes Victoria’s rejection as a call to arms and is prepared to go any distance to get her back, calling upon Mary to assist her. Okay, I was thinking at this point, so we’re into ‘The Go-Between’ territory, but with a Sapphic twist. Fair enough.

Except that ‘Lost and Delirious’ then becomes a study in Paulie’s mental instability as her behaviour grows increasingly unpredictable and self-destructive. Come the last reel, we’ve been treated to not just one but two squirmily embarrassing scenes of Paulie publicly declaring her affections and this is before we’ve even got to the SPOILER ALERT duel/immediate aftermath SPOILERS END.

Which is where we came in. ‘Lost and Delirious’ plunges into such hyper-emotional realms that it demands the Douglas Sirk treatment. Pool, however, shoots the whole thing in such low-key fashion that the narrative developments of the last third come across as risible and unconvincing. A subplot involving Paulie’s nursing back to health of an injured raptor provides a metaphor so bluntly hammered home as to be rendered facile.

So why am I writing about ‘Lost and Delirious’? Why have I expended almost 1,000 words on it already? Two reasons: (i) even in today’s post-‘Brokeback Mountain’ era, films with an LGBT focus are still relegated to the arthouse circuit, therefore even a flawed or moderately successful example is worth shouting about; and (ii) the leads acquit themselves very well.

Paré excels despite the script painting her as a bitch plus VAT for the latter stages of the film. Perabo, who is incrementally establishing herself as a damn good actress despite having ‘Coyote Ugly’ on her CV, gives it her all as the live-for-the-now outsider. Barton’s role is utterly thankless – ‘Lost and Delirious’ was adapted from a novel but without the realisation that an entirely passive narrator, though a highly effective literary device, is a bad move cinematically – and yet she aces it, capturing every nuance of Mary’s confusion, frustration (let’s face it, her peregrinations between Paulie and Victoria are a no-win situation) and basic humanity.

Paré and Perabo, then, get the showy roles. But it’s Mischa Barton who ties the whole thing together.


J.D. said...

Never been a huge Piper Perabo fan but she was very, very good in this film and really did a good job with her character, grounding her in something resembling reality even when the film goes off the rails at times. It's funny, I just watched THE PRESTIGE again and had forgotten she was in that one. She's hardly in it so maybe that's why but I do enjoy her in the few things I've seen her pop up in (THE CAVE, for example).

Neil Fulwood said...

I didn't even recognise her the first time I saw 'The Prestige'. I sat through the end credits wrestling with two WTF moments: that was Piper Perabo as the luckless assistant; and that was David Bowie as Tesla.

Dee said...

Waw! Amazing plot about this great movie :)