I decided to watch The Rules of Attraction, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name, thanks to my wife’s recommendation. I think her exact words were that she hates the movie and that it reminds her of a Gaspar Noe film. Well, say no more, my dear: making comparisons to Noe is a surefire way to pique my interest. Having now watched the film, I can say that the Noe comparisons are a bit of an exaggeration. While it’s true that this film employs a slew of gimmicks to add flash to the events portrayed on-screen – everything from rewound images to split-screen rendezvous – these choices largely keep the film kinetic while not adding anything deeper to the scene. Noe films a movie from a first-person perspective in order to get you the viewer to relate to the character; director Roger Avary allows the opening credits to play over video of people walking backward just to do something different.
I tend to think of the film more as Cruel Intentions by way of Garden State. The film centers on Ellis’ typical brand of amoral yupper class intelligentsia, the twist being that this time the characters are college students. They refer to each other by their major as though it really defines who you are. But much like Zach Braff’s quirky 2004 exploration of the post-grad letdown, The Rules of Attraction is colored by shot compositions meant to draw your eye and funny inserts to break up the grim monotony.
The movie is grim, though. We open with our three primary characters – Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon, Wristcutters), Paul (Ian Somerhalder, “Lost”), and Sean (James Van Der Beek) – each suffering some form of indignity to illustrate to the viewer how low they have sunk. Rewind to the previous fall, and we see snippets of each of our protagonists’ lives, see their calculated cunning. Often, we hear their thoughts in voice-over, the words no doubt taken directly from the book. When bisexual Paul leaves Sean for the weekend, we hear Paul’s panicked cry of love for his charming friend ring out in his mind… and the voice-over switches quickly to Sean lost in thought about the sexual appetites of girls in his class. They go to listless parties which never seem to end, reminding me of the Postal Service lyric: “I know that it’s not a party if it happens every night.” Drugs and sex flow freely. While Sean Bateman may talk about being in love, the sinister face he wears and his family history indicate otherwise.
This causes problems in the long run. Torn between wanting to explore the deeper despair of these characters and wanting to look at them at a surface level, not much is accomplished effectively. There’s a running plot-line about Sean’s attraction to Lauren, but there’s nothing behind it. Why does he like her, if he even really does? Why should she like him, or why should she like her boyfriend Victor who is now studying abroad in Europe? Why does Paul follow Sean around like a puppy dog? A discussion on IMDb indicates that these questions may be partially answered by the intentional “randomness and disembodiment that is prevalent in the movie.” Instead of feeling like the camera pinballs between stories in a nonlinear yet cohesive fashion, the film instead feels like dozens of barely related vignettes. Does the scene where Jay Baruchel seems to overdose serve as more than an aside?
Perhaps the scene that is easiest to use as an analogy for the entirety of the film is one that appears at approximately the midpoint of the movie. A homely girl draws a bath, removes her jewelry and bathrobe, then climbs inside to slit her wrists. What could drive somebody to take this sort of drastic action? As it turns out, this heretofore unseen and certainly unnamed girl, much like our friend Paul, has held a secret infatuation with Sean Bateman that has no hope of ever being reciprocated. After her time in the bathtub, we flash back to multiple scenes from earlier in the film where this Jane Doe was standing in the background, looking on as the main action unfolds. Okay, the suicide scene itself is flush with gorgeous imagery (e.g. the bloody bath water), and zips through the prior scenes that she had been a part of with the same frantic energy of the rewound shots. The slowly dripping faucet is a
tortured acceptable metaphor for the life slowly dripping away nearby. But this girl is unknown to the audience, which makes her suicide attempt an empty act. We may sympathize to some degree with the concept of unrequited love, but she as a character is easily forgotten because she was never known to us in the first place.
None of the characters are known to us. We hear their thoughts, but by the film’s end do not feel any closer to a single one of the protagonists. We are likely not intended to identify with them, but we should at least have enough of a grasp of who they are as characters that their actions do not come across as total fabrications of plot necessity. I’ve already questioned Sean Bateman’s alleged “love” for Lauren – if I were being generous, I might argue that the boy is an enigma whose motivations cannot be so easily pinned down. So what use, then, is the narration except as a way to maintain some fidelity to the book? We don’t get close enough to the character to find out how he really feels, so what use is knowing the lines he’s thinking in his head?
When I finished The Rules of Attraction, I felt that it was mostly alright. The more I think about it, however, the more I come to realize that it’s got a smile with glistening white teeth, but an empty head. It tries to make up for its aimlessness and false profundity by wowing us with film school magic tricks, but underneath there’s nothing going on. It’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing; it’s a slug in wolf’s clothing.