There really isn’t much of a plot to The Loss of Sexual Innocence, the new film by writer-director Mike Figgis. An English filmmaker named Nic (Julian Sands) is trapped in a dead marriage. He goes to Africa to make a documentary about the environment, and during the trip he begins an affair with an Italian woman (Saffron Burrows). The affair ends badly, too.
And that’s basically the story. But Nic is a compulsive memorist who constantly relives scenes from his childhood and adolescence. Not only do we share these glimpses into his past, we also see Nic’s dreams and even his wife’s dreams. These strands – and yet another strand springing from the deepest fount of Western culture – are woven together in abrupt, non-linear patterns.
All of the narratives revolve around sex and our need for it, no matter how debased the form. Like Eraserhead, Sexual Innocence attempts to translate the trappings and nuances of sexual feeling into cinematic language. But where Eraserhead tried to evoke our deepest dread, Sexual Innocence aims for a melancholic wonder by linking sexual feeling to carefully measured images of decay, solitude, and helplessness.
These things alone would make it a movie that seems to be begging for popular rejection. But The Loss of Sexual Innocence’s biggest risk – the thing that’s sure to alienate a lot of people who see it – is an overly literal retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. Shot in a yellowish haze, the intermittent segment features a stupendous looking black Adam and white Eve (newcomers Femi Ogumbanjo and Hanne Klintoe). The sequence has some startling touches, to be sure: in close-up we see Eve’s vagina as she urinates, and the couple is expelled from Eden to the sound of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Its painful modernizing touches aside, the problem with the Adam and Eve material is that it takes up time that should have been used to explain why Nic is a fitting symbol for all mankind. Figgis is trying to make a big statement about the human condition in Sexual Innocence, but he hasn’t bothered to complete his sentence. It would be interesting to know just how much of his movie he actually believes. Does he really think that mankind has come unstuck from Nature in some fundamental way? And what exactly does that phrase "sexual innocence" mean to him anyway?
By their very nature, projects like this one almost have to go wrong in critical ways. And Sexual Innocence compensates at least partly for its strained allusiveness through fluid editing and a handful of beautifully crafted performances. Julian Sands never gives off the languorous vapors that a lot of actors would have brought to Nic – he’s never a drag. Burrows gives such individuated detailing to both halves of a pair of twin sisters that it seems like we’re watching two actresses at work. And Gina McKee, in one of the flashback sequences, gives a glowing mini-performance in a single shot.
The Loss of Sexual Innocence isn’t for everyone. (It may only be for Mike Figgis.) The Religious Right won’t scream bloody murder about it only because they’ll never hear of it, but even hardcore cineastes may come away unhappy. It’s a movie that’s memorable more for its game attitude than it is for its accomplishments.
– Tom Block