Oh the “joy” that is watching experimental cinema. It’s been months and months since I’ve watched a truly “art-house” film. Persona was the last one (back in January) and before that we had to go all the way back to September for Stroszek. However, I wouldn’t call either of those films exceptionally experimental. Maybe Bergman’s Persona in some ways. I would say the closest I’ve come to a film that simply told normal narrative structure and cinematic artifice to go fuck itself was Inland Empire (thanks David Lynch for a career of works that continue to defy any clear interpretations). Well, we can now add director Todd Haynes’ (Far From Heaven) debut Poison to the small list of films I’ve seen that defy practically any characterization. It was one of those films (like Todd Solondz’ Happiness) where I was forced to ask myself “what the f*** did I just watch?” And at least with Happiness, I knew what the plot was about/the thematic imagery (the “wtf” quotient came from the disturbing sexual content). Regardless, Poison was an intriguing film even if its experimental structure and thematic obliqueness left me with more questions than answers.
Broken up into three segments (that have nothing at all do with each other besides an exploration of the darker sides of sexuality), Poison bounces back and forth between three distinct and equally disturbing tales. In the first story, “Hero,” a young boy (that has been bullied and abused by his peers and was perhaps sexually abused) murders his father and his mother claims that he simply flew away when it was over. Set up like a documentary, we watch as the town tries to put together the pieces of the incident and slowly unravel the events that occurred that day. In “Horror,” a send-up of 1950s science fiction/horror films, a scientist accidentally ingests a formula that is the derived form of the human sex drive. It turns him into a murderous, leprous sex fiend. Everyone who comes into contact with him also becomes infected with his leprosy and he quickly finds himself hunted by society. And lastly, in “Homo,” a prisoner in the 1940s develops a sexual obsession with one of his fellow inmates as he reflects on the homosexual awakenings he experienced as a boy in a reform school (and the sexual cruelties that his fellow prisoners often inflicted on others).
I’m actually unsure how to even approach analyzing this film because some of its flaws are part and parcel of the entire indie film movement of the early 90s (back when indie films were really indie and not just a place for established actors/directors to regain their “street” cred). Virtually all of the acting in the film is horrendous (though that’s completely intentional in “horror” to sell the whole 1950s B-movie theme). I can’t remember a single interesting performance from “Hero” and the love interest in “Homo” was a shallow mess. However, Todd Haynes found a true, feral talent in Scott Renderer as the protagonist of “Homo.” His quiet intensity was a thing to behold, and in the vignette’s climactic (and incredibly disturbing moments) he released a fierce rage and passion that had been boiling beneath the surface the whole time. On that same note, the sound design in the film was a mess but I’m guessing that Todd Haynes didn’t exactly have much of a budget to go on. And while I actually think I understood the points of “Horror” and “Homo,” I have absolutely no clue what “Hero” was supposed to be about or what it contributed to the film. Yet, the strongest moments from “Horror” and especially “Homo” mostly made up for the film’s rough edges.
It struck me half-way through “Horror” that any story created in the early 1990s (i.e. at the tail end of the worst of the AIDS outbreak in America) where a man getting in touch with his sexuality and then suffering a devastating disease that he spreads to everyone around him made my a gay filmmaker couldn’t be anything other than an allegory for the HIV crisis. The most remarkable aspect of Haynes’ accomplishment with that short was the way that I could easily have seen that as some propaganda film by the “right” of the era about sexual promiscuity because what is all horror if not a moral story (think about the “rules” of horror films and you’ll see what I mean). It could get a little silly for its own good but it was endlessly watchable. “Homo” was the real accomplishment of the film and was obviously the most personal part of the film. It was unflinching in its portrayal of repressed sexual longing and the violence that occurs in systems that keep us from exploring sexuality in a healthy manner. It was difficult to watch but the most truthful stories always are. There is a very graphic rape scene that hit on a more visceral level than even some of the most infamous moments on Oz, yet there was always a ring of truth and brutal honesty to the whole story.
This is one of those films where I know that 90% of my readers will not enjoy a single second of it. You’ll either be offended by it because you’re religious (the head of the National Endowment of the Arts was forced to resign after he gave Todd Haynes the grant to make the film under pressure from the religious right) or think it’s pretentious, bloated garbage (which is a more acceptable response). I don’t love this film. It’s simply too oblique for me to form a strong emotional attachment to it, but it was obvious that Todd Haynes is an artist with a unique vision and his own bracing stories to tell. Still, if you want a film that toys with the very building blocks of cinema and ultimately could care less whether you understand the director’s intent, Poison has the chance to challenge you in the way that few movies ever do.
Final Score: B