Friday, July 17, 2009

Death in Love

He is a con man with serious relationship issues, yet he is the healthiest member of his profoundly damaged family. It turns out their extreme emotional dysfunction is the result of their mother’s troubling history in Boaz Yakin’s highly sexualized (but not the least bit erotic) family drama Death in Love (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Inconceivably, a selfish couple fleeing the Holocaust abandons their daughter in order to save themselves. To survive the concentration camp, the teenager becomes the lover of a cruel Mengele-like doctor. Of course, such decisions were completely understandable, given the circumstances. However, despite the safety of her position, the girl shows no empathy or compassion for her fellow prisoners. Her passion for the Nazi researcher seems legitimate, but she turns her back on him as soon as the Allied forces approach the camp. Eventually, she will settle in New York and raise two unfortunate sons.

The eldest son has just turned forty and driven away his younger girlfriend with his pretentious monologue on the sexual pitfalls of aging. The only mystery is why she stayed so long in the first place. However, he suddenly misses her once she leaves, which is established only too clearly. He can take little solace from his train wreck of a family. His mother is manipulative and abusive, his father is a doormat, and his younger brother, the composer, is a complete freak. At least he attempts to break the cycle of abuse by moving the anti-social younger brother in with him.

Yakin’s film immediately suggests comparisons to The Reader due to its sexually charged story involving National Socialist atrocities. While it is quite problematic, it is at least superior to Daldry’s film, because it never asks the audience to sympathize with the Nazi doctor or the morally questionable mother. In fact, it clearly condemns their behavior, arguing it continues to exert a poisonous influence on the mother and her offspring years after the fact.

To be fair, Death has more than just a kernel of an intriguing story. There are always dramatic possibilities when the sins of the past manifest themselves in the present. In this case, Mommie Dearest’s old flame seems to have come back to eliminate the competition. However, Yakin’s enthusiasm for perversely sexualized imagery, particularly that stemming from Number One Son’s S&M relationship with his boss, actually sabotages the narrative drive of the story, and his overwritten dialogue becomes much like the act his characters frequently simulate. Still, he gets effective assists from cinematographer Frederik Jacobi and composer Lesley Barber, whose work gives Death a moody Euro-art film sheen.

Jacqueline Bisset is perfectly cast as the ice-queen mother, conveying all sorts of emotional pathologies churning below her coolly sophisticated exterior. Josh Lucas doggedly tries to make his con artist brother likeable, but is not able to really sell his stilted dialogue. (The audience also sees his bare backside way more than is necessary.) However, Lukas Haas is just a mess of affectations as the twisted second brother. Easily the best performances come from supporting players, including Vanessa Kai as the game-playing boss and Adam Brody as a charming new co-worker at their boiler-room agency.

Ultimately, Death in Love is undone by its indiness. Had Yakin been forced to tone down his sexually transgressive material and focus more on storytelling, the final product would have been far stronger. While interesting at times, it remains a deeply flawed film. It opens today at the Quad.