Marcel Langenegger and Mark Bombeck's Deception (2008) is some kind of minor camp classic. It posits Ewan McGregor as Jonathan McQuarry, an accountant too shy to get laid--which, considering the man's filmography (there was a point before he started playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas' excruciating prequels when he seemed contractually obligated to bare his bottom in every project), is reason to start sniggering right there.
So: Jonathan has trouble meeting girls (pffftkhkhkhkh…'scuse me); enter Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman, refreshingly villainous after doing all those heroic X-Men sequels and gloomy romantic leading roles). Wyatt introduces Jonathan to The List, an exclusive club whose members (all good-looking and smashingly successful) call each other, arrange a meeting, and have hot yet discreet sex in expensive hotel rooms (sort of like a cross between eharmony.com and American Express).
Jonathan meets a slew of beautiful women, played by everyone from Paz de la Huerta to Rachael Taylor, though easily the most remarkable of the lot (their cover-girl glamour tends to get monotonous fast) is Charlotte Rampling, she of the unsettling cool grey eyes and mysterious smile, still a stunner at the age of sixty-plus (they have to put her on a Forbes magazine cover as a "Wall Street Belle," of course, to explain the fact that she looks far too intelligent to have ever walked a fashion ramp).
Now, if Jonathan had stuck to the Belle we might have had something, but instead he meets "S" (Michelle Williams, looking as trashy as ever), a woman who he had caught a glimpse of in the subway a month back, and has since been obsessing over. This should have lead to some extra-steamy sex, but Jonathan is so lovestruck he can't even pork his inamorata; he has to sit up in bed looking at her while she (and a good portion of the audience I saw the movie with) sleeps peacefully.
So far, so lame. Turns out this isn't some profound exploration of human sexuality and obsession; turns out it's actually a financial thriller, with a blackmail plot involving Jonathan's accounting job so elaborate and unwieldy one imagines it would have been easier to be appointed into the present Bush administration and steal money straight from taxpayers (Jackman is certainly handsome enough, and it isn't as if Republican candidates have never been drafted from Hollywood before). Jonathan's head spins so fast he can't even follow-up on the water pipe leek in his overexpensive apartment bedroom (a detail so blatantly and repeatedly noted it's bound to figure in the plot--and Langenegger's such a hamfisted moviemaker you can hear him dragging said detail into position a mile away). The moviemakers are so worried about keeping their elephantine extortion scheme moving forward they forget along the way to make our hero care about the death of an innocent bystander (which is okay, I suppose; we forget to care about our hero, too).
If you think the blackmail is ridiculous, wait till you see Jonathan's designs for revenge and reversal (Hint: he manages to obtain a fake passport, an airline ticket, and a way of blocking Bose's electronic fund transfer to a bank in Madrid. All this born full-blown, seems to me, within the few seconds that Jonathan stares at a photograph--and still he has to depend on "S" not just changing her unreliable mind, but showing up at the right place and right time with a handy pistol in her purse)).
I didn't care; I really didn't. I'd given up about an hour before, and just sat back to enjoy the many moments worthy of catcalls and flung popcorn bags (this amidst the several patrons with their heads bent back, snoring unashamedly). I'm ready to go so far as to call this a cult classic, only poor Langenegger (whose feature debut this is) doesn't have the talent to make the picture as delirious visually as it is narratively (Langenegger can't generate much thrills out of the suspense sequences, while the sex is shot and edited to resemble perfume ads).
It's not as if erotic thrillers have to be logical to work--Alfred Hitchcock's great Vertigo (1958) featured an absurdly cumbersome murder, and a film as recent as Richard Rush's much underrated Color of Night (1994--which, come to think of it, owes much to Vertigo, or at least Hitchcock's earlier Spellbound (1945)) manages to juggle half a dozen suspects and still make the real killer's unmasking a surprise.
Then there's Brian De Palma, who not only uses ridiculously intricate storylines but makes a fetish of them. Take something like Femme Fatale (2003)--the real suspense isn't whether or not Rebecca Romijn-Stamos will come out okay in the end; it's if De Palma can (after the bizarre whirls and twirls of his hypernoirish postmodern narrative) still land right-side-up on his own two feet.
These films transcend their hoot-worthy storylines through a prodigious use of style--through throbbing reds and oily golds and luminous greens splattered across the big screen, through unforgettable uses of light and shadow (a nun's startling silhouette; an image-multiplying prism; a gemstone's brilliant sparkle) while intricate, largely wordless sequences unfold in their own hypnotically sweet time, revealing filmmakers every bit as obsessed as their protagonists with their one great, true love (cinema, of course).
Looked at on those terms, at the tremendous platters of moist flesh on display (and if you think there aren't any in Vertigo, look again--at Hitchcock's lovingly giant close-ups of Kim Novak, dunked (in seawater) and undunked, rouged (thickly) and unrouged), Deception is more like a weenie on a toothpick--but a tasty weenie, nevertheless, full of spice and odd, at times off-putting, flavors. Not bad for a quick, unnourishing nosh.
First published in Businessworld, 5.9.08