Saturday, February 20, 2016

Amorous / ** (2014)

Generally speaking, a movie must usually be tasked with two primary objectives: setting a scene, and then filling it with plot and characters. Joanna Coates’ “Amorous” has the former down to a science; the camera catches images within the lens that are evocative and spacious, and serve the purpose of creating a world well suited to what is about to transpire. Then the question becomes one of direct concern: what exactly do these images mean to the faces that are about to populate them, and what must drive them beyond the necessity to be caught up in all sorts of random frivolity? The four leads, each of whom have come together after apparent alienation in the big city to lead a life of contentment in the English countryside, are less displaced by a sense of cultural alienation and more caught up in the confusion of the impulse. They don’t even seem eager or happy to wind up where they have arrived. And that’s troubling for any audience that is attempting, wholeheartedly, to find an entry point into this story in order to generate empathy or general interest in what transpires. What they get is not so much a study of characters as it is a simplified examination of behaviors, all of them too far out of context to be the source of any significant dramatic depth.

The title ought to have suggested something more intricate and liberating. Think of the connotations of gray areas in human relationships: as dynamic as they are precarious, they offer windows of insight into the cohabitation of individual lives, particularly those that don’t subscribe to the limitations of monogamy or sexual orientation. One of the greatest of more recent examples of this premise is Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” about three friends in Paris who explore themselves – and one another – during the onset of the 1968 college riots. But that movie didn’t just observe situations or impulses, it understood that the source of our interest must come from comprehending the psychology of the individuals, who are byproducts of a decisive time and place that molds their aspirations. What brings the people in “Amorous” to such decisions? Coates has clearly studied Bertolucci’s impulses but is more obsessed with notes instead of rhythm, giving her film a curious sense of detachment as the young characters talk, interact and share intimacy like it were some sort of textbook experiment instead of an organic impulse.

What little there is of a story sets the events in motion as it must. A young woman named Leah (Rea Mole) has inherited a beautiful piece of property from relatives, and invites three of her friends (or strangers, who knows?) to live with her in the country, far away from civilization. All transplants of London, they are survivors of a social structure that has, we assume, frowned on their free-spirited nature to love and be loved; they seek an escape in which there is no need to follow rules or dwell within moral lines, because such notions violate the will of their being. To emphasize that prospect, certain ground rules become obligatory, including one in which the four (two men and two women) will rotate coupling in “the marriage bed” in order to explore their intimacy with one another. That essentially sets the stage for the movie to offer up scenes where they are interchangeable sex objects, but that’s obligatory; with a premise this ambiguous, nothing is left off of the table of remote possibility, especially if it gives the actors an opportunity to shed clothes and show off their chiseled physiques and shapely anatomy.

The complexity of this scenario is simplified – often crudely – into story devices that feature each of the individuals getting to know one another in child-like passages. In between sex and masturbation, there are indoor camping trips, playful chases, singing sessions and breezy walks along the property. Normally those sorts of scenes would evolve into something more meaningful, but no; as they dissipate, they are replaced by impromptu ballet recitals and countless encounters of adult playtime, sometimes involving alternating mental or sexual goals (not to mention various stages of undress). In keeping with the theme of observing sexual liberation, Coates has at least managed to cast her film with fairly attractive young faces. Josh O’Connor, who plays Max (the figurative leader of the four), has piercing eyes and a charming boyish smile, while Hanna Arterton as Charlotte is effectively unassuming about her own delicate porcelain features. To watch them collectively is to find a curious sense of intrigue in their antics, despite the screenplay’s genuine disinterest in their origins; I would happily watch them again in a film that took their experiment to the height of an actual purpose instead of mere exhibition.

Alas, their beauty – and indeed their underlying chemistry – fills “Amorous” with a sense of lost possibility. At a mere 82 minutes, the film plays like a draining exercise of clumsy rhetoric, moving us through a cycle of scenes that have no direct correlation with any point or significance. A lot of dialogue is shared between the players, but it is often hushed or circular, creating no noteworthy exposition. The addition of a fifth character – a former boyfriend of one of the girls – offers brief hopes of a dramatic edge, but the screenplay abandons him in a fit of protest; because he must arrive to upset the balance that these four have manufactured for themselves, he is therefore a liability to the calm surface that Coates hopes to maintain, even as the movie draws close to what should amount to a rippling climax. What is she hoping to suggest by resisting any narrative turbulence? Are any of her points sound if they seem to be stirred from the same sense of monotony that fills many of the on-screen events? There is a decisive moment in the last act when the characters partake in a mock funeral, which culminates in the burning of a casket. It is clearly symbolic, but of what? Their lost innocence, or their general sanity?

How about that photography, though? It’s breathtaking. Shot almost exclusively in still images across the sunbathed stretches of some rural terrain, the movie has a wondrous sense of how to establish locations; they are such intoxicating compositions that the movie, rightfully, uses dozens of them for good measure. I also admired how restrained both the director and her cinematographer are in understating their presence, as if merely observing people from a distance rather than overwhelming their routines. Almost everything we see in “Amorous” at least occurs without some level of external influence, from the quiet moments to the playful banter and even to the sexual encounters, which don’t happen as a result of dialogue hooks or transparent flirtation. For the sake of acceptance, there is some eventual clarity in why they decided to vacate the city in favor of the silent comforts of a secluded little house – perhaps because a quiet environment is the best place to remove one’s self from the pressures of peers and alienating distractions. Had they been willing to travel a little farther, I reckon they would have even been able to wander into a much more interesting story.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama/Romance (US); 2014; Not Rated; Running Time: 82 Minutes

Cast:
Josh O’Connor: Max
Hannah Arterton: Charlotte
Rea Mole: Leah
Daniel Metz: Jack
Joe Banks: Simon

Produced by
David J.A. Grant, Matthew Holt and Daniel MetzDirected by Joanna Coates; Written by Daniel Metz and Joanna Coates

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