Pride Goeth Before the Fall
Mike Figgis had arrived. After his 1995 hit Leaving Las Vegas vaulted the British director into the lofty orbit of the auteur, he could have done anything. He could have directed the phone book if it had suited him. Instead, Figgis turned a four-page script treatment by Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas into One Night Stand (1997), a gentle and mildly successful film about infidelity and sexual jealousy. Then, almost as soon as he'd reached the spotlight, Figgis was on his way out. After tussling with studio financiers over money and casting, he packed up his 16mm camera, his passion for atmospheric little art films, and his disdain for the Big Hollywood Movie, and set off for the deserts of Tunisia to make the autobiographical epic that has haunted him for the last two decades. The resulting film, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, is pure Figgis: alternately ponderous, stupefying, and gorgeous.
Mike Figgis has arrived again. It's midafternoon in the cool, dimly lit tearoom of the Whitney Grill, and the 51-year-old director strolls in sporting a loose-fitting dark suit and a mound of curly hair that corkscrews haphazardly around his cherubic face. Tanned and affable, he cuts the figure of a well-groomed Chia Pet. "It's quite funny about filmmaking," he says with only a trace of a lilting Newcastle accent. "The more you think about it, the worse it gets."
This only partially explains The Loss of Sexual Innocence, which Figgis has been thinking about ever since he first penned the script in the early Eighties as part of an eight-hour experimental theater piece. Set in modern-day Newcastle and Tunisia and 1950s Kenya, the film meanders through the short, unhappy life of Figgis's alter-ego protagonist, a stoic documentary filmmaker named Nic (Julian Sands). Sandwiched stubbornly between scenes recounting young Nic's sexual awakening and subsequent loss of innocence is a baffling sequence involving long-lost twin sisters (both played by Saffron Burrows) who share a Kieslowski-like moment in an Italian airport. And interspersed throughout it all are visually magnificent and contextually opaque scenes of Adam and Eve (Femi Ogumbanjo and Hanne Klintoe) falling from grace in a Garden of Eden littered with such Big Symbols as snakes, white stags, and apples.
Strangely enough, the Adam and Eve sequence almost kept Figgis from making The Loss of Sexual Innocence. "I've tried to get the film financed and it has always proved very, very difficult," he explains. "I almost got it financed about six years ago, but there was one sticking point. One distribution executive said he would only make it if Adam was a white man. He was happy with Eve being black. They asked me to change it, and I said no." The exec, Figgis says, was uncomfortable with the idea of a white Eve being "rogered" by a black Adam. So, unwilling to compromise, Figgis set out on his own and shot the film on a modest budget in a mere four weeks. "You have in your collection of unmade scripts certain ideas that are dear to you," he says. "If you don't make them within a certain time frame, they are probably going to recede. I had the feeling I should do this now, before the beginning of the next century. It's a script I don't think I could write now. I couldn't write that simply. When you're young, you try to be clever in a certain way."
And when you're older, you try to be clever in other ways. As is his wont, Figgis shot The Loss of Sexual Innocence with a Super 16 camera to achieve the grainy, moody look that has become his oft-imitated trademark since Leaving Las Vegas. "I like the way the image reads when it's blown up to 35mm," he says. "It's not pristine. There's something almost impressionistic about it." He cites the Dogma group of Danish directors led by Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) as validation of his minimalist tendencies. "There is a kind of unilateral dissatisfaction with mainstream filmmaking amongst a certain group of filmmakers. I think the Dogma people are admirable. I can't agree with everything they say, though, because I'm a musician and one of their main points is that you shouldn't use music."
As with nearly all of his films, Figgis scored The Loss of Sexual Innocence himself. But instead of his usual free-form jazz ramblings--he is a trumpet player and appears in most of his films as a background musician--he transposed the spare dialogue with well-known classical piano sonatas by Mozart and Chopin. "They tend to have a childlike association because they tend to be the first pieces that an aspiring child pianist would learn. I think it does give the film a certain academic tone--you're listening to familiar music, so there's a formality to it. It's almost like a formal, 19th-century way of looking at one's childhood."
And Figgis's childhood in particular. Like the film's existential antihero, Figgis came of age in British Kenya, where, he says, decadent expatriates were constantly shooting one another, while such celebrities as Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway were regularly dropping in. Indeed, Figgis remembers Papa literally dropping out of the sky on one occasion. The novelist had crashed his plane in Kenya (for the second time in as many years; he was apparently not much of a pilot), and Figgis's mother temporarily served as his secretary. "He was presumed dead," Figgis recalls. "My mother collected articles about the crash. I think he was the only writer ever to read all his own obituaries."
Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, Figgis claims, were a major influence on The Loss of Sexual Innocence. Fair enough--but what's the deal with Adam and Eve? Why would Figgis find a parallel between his own bildungsroman and Paradise Lost? "It's a comment on the way we photograph," he explains elusively. "The buildup is photographed very differently, moving in from wide shots. As innocence recedes, the camera gets tighter, subjectifies their sex." Or fetishizes it, maybe? "Exactly. It's a deliberate comment on the way we film. Part of the loss of innocence is a cinematic problem. We insist on making sex a naughty, wicked, voyeuristic aspect of our lives. Vast fortunes are made of this corruption of what is actually a very innocent thing. That was in my mind, though I think it would be a stretch to expect an audience to understand it."
The Loss of Sexual Innocence starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.