Songs For Swinging Lovers

Film still for Songs For Swinging Lovers

A tricksy kiss-and-tell murder mystery with noirish undertones may be the obvious way to describe Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies, but is it really more a weird erotic thriller in the Basic Instinct mould? By Linda Ruth Williams

What is arthouse darling Atom Egoyan doing directing a starry, studio-esque work of pop schlock? His latest film Where the Truth Lies, starring A-listers Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth, is an entertaining, quick-witted maze of a movie with a switch-back plot so snaky it would pass muster for a Mickey Spillane or a Dashiell Hammett (it is in fact Egoyan's adaptation of a Rupert Holmes novel). Egoyan has achieved cult status as the intellectual purveyor of multilayered texts that obsess over psychological culpability and damage, often wreaked on children by adults. Where the Truth Lies, however, is a fully paid-up genre piece, which the press notes call filmnoir but which to me plays more like an erotic thriller, with enough explicit sex to earn it an NC17 rating in the US.

Perhaps he wants to attract the kind of audience who would go to a Kevin Bacon picture expecting something at the quirky end of mainstream or might be titillated by the sexy notoriety the film has garnered. Certainly female viewers hoping for a glimpse of the flesh that set their hearts a-flutter in Colin Firth's rom-com/classic-rom back catalogue will not be disappointed. The besuited razzmatazz and risqué bantering of the duo of 1950s lounge-lizard entertainers at the film's core recalls the rat pack or the pairing of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (Lanny, played by Bacon, is the anarchic comic to Firth's withering and urbane straight-guy Vince - though 'straight' becomes a debated term). Both actors deliver impeccable performances in various rinky-dink nightclub settings and as the celebrity hosts and heroes of a national charity telethon; the story of their break-up (and of the body in the bath) is the subject some years later of an investigation by journalist Karen O'Connor (Alison Lohman), as Lanny and Vince are re-examined from the perspective of the 1970s.

The layered narrative allows Egoyan to jump back and forth between two time zones - and certainly the period detailing is as resonant as in his previous time-travel films (1915 Turkey in Ararat, 2002; the interior of Bob Hoskins' house in Felicia's Journey, 1999). In an era that predates kiss and tell, megastars Lanny and Vince pill-pop and screw their way around the female population of white America, protected as the pet entertainers of the mob ("God help you when a killer takes a shine to you," says Lanny's voiceover). So it isn't until 1972 that a curious hack like Karen has the gumption and freedom to tell the behind-the-scenes story. This is also the moment when fashionable journalists began to insert themselves into their think-pieces - which she does by fucking Lanny and then having drug-fuelled lesbian sex in a tableau set up by Vince.

Sensational mainstream-style entertainment this may be, but Egoyan still expects you to have your wits about you as you watch. In classic noir style, events are presented from multiple perspectives, here through competing voiceovers by Karen and Lanny. (Lanny narrates from the manuscript of his unpublished autobiography while Karen strives to make sense of the scattered clues as she writes a biography of Vince.) Crime-thriller moments of clue-delivery and solution-discovery dot the narrative like a trail of breadcrumbs in a fairytale forest. At one point, for instance, Lanny angrily refuses a lobster dish in a restaurant, a detail the audience files away just in case it proves significant. Is the lobster a juicy clue or a red herring? Karen is a bright girl, like the smart dames of 1940s female-investigative thrillers. Pay enough attention and you will probably be rewarded by one of a series of ' Eureka' moments as the camera closes in on her face when the penny drops. But is quick-fire plotting and celebrity exposé all there is?

Of course not. Pitched between the arthouse and the multiplex, Where the Truth Lies contains some astonishingly weird moments. Take, for instance, the scene in the 1970s segment where a woman sings Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic anthem 'White Rabbit' at a children's-hospital concert, surrounded by small patients dressed as characters from Alice in Wonderland (the Alice costume later serves as fetish garb in the lesbian sex scene). Or the apple tree fertilised by the dead girl's ashes.

Cleverness and carnality

And then there is the title, an ambiguous piece of wordplay that appears across the film's first lie. As the credits roll, the camera snoops around the plush presidential suite of a 1950s hotel, ushered along by a sinuous melo-noir string accompaniment. The shot pitches up on a drowned woman in a bath, around whose naked body appear the words "Where the Truth Lies". But does the truth lie with the body in the bath, the body on the sofa, or in the pages of one of the two books that are being written as the story progresses? Don't believe what you read in a book, Egoyan counsels, and don't believe what you see with your own eyes either. Several of the flashback sequences here are subsequently revealed to be false memories: 'truth' which lies.

This is only to be expected from a director who forensically explores the unreliability of how we recall the past. Memory is always subject to the distortions of time and the warping of desire (what we want to remember) and several previous Egoyan films have probed the tangled knots of family and community memory, often in small-town locations (The Adjuster, 1991; The Sweet Hereafter, 1997; Felicia's Journey). Egoyan's postmodern obsession with the emotional and sexual potential of video, film and television is also familiar. In Family Viewing (1987) a man records home-made porn over precious tapes of his son's childhood; in Next of Kin (1984) and Speaking Parts (1989) grief, ambition and masturbation are negotiated through the video image. Films-within-films populate Egoyan's works, glimpses of guilt or pleasure captured on tape and then twisted out of shape by a subsequent perspective, like the telethon tapes Karen obsessively replays, which signify differently every time.

But Where the Truth Lies moulds its layers of past and present, guilt and atonement, into a pulp genre format. The erotic thriller trades in sexual crime and punishment, secrets buried and revealed, and is a prime forum for reflections on voyeurism. Egoyan - as is to be expected of someone who has set a previous film in a lap-dancing joint (Exotica, 1994) - revels in the genre's sleazier elements. Here women pull on their stockings like the heroines in a Jag Mundhra direct-to-video flick. The voiceovers, though competing in terms of the truths they would have us believe, have the same sexy, hardboiled tone: "You can tell a lot about a woman by the way that she reacts when room service comes in when you're having sex," says Lanny as an attractive maid brings in the champagne, and eyes an attractive naked PA positioned for sex on the bed. As Karen slips into the film's (and the genre's customary) lesbian scene, her voiceover muses:"I'd always been fascinated by how some women could cross the line between who they are and who they would allow themselves to be - Maureen, Alice, and now me." Then Vince takes Polaroids that might do double-service as sex aids and blackmail tools.

These are lines, and scenes, straight from the kind of erotic thriller that became popular in the late 1980s. You might think that the genre rose to notoriety with Fatal Attraction (1987), peaked with Basic Instinct (1992) and died in the wake of Showgirls (1995), surviving today only on the top shelf of corner video stores in films with titles like Dangerous Indiscretion or Victim of Desire. In fact, the form has continued to thrive as a naughty diversion for respected auteurs. Those who perhaps should know better than release unashamedly salacious works of highbrow exploitation include Volker Schlöndorff (Palmetto), Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), Chen Kaige (Killing Me Softly) and Jane Campion (In the Cut). Donald Cammell's Wild Side was both a work of complex psychology and a heady cocktail of hardboiled noir tropes, hot sex and lesbian action; Abel Ferrara, David Lynch, Adrian Lyne and Brian De Palma have all explored the illicit and the explicit while sticking to their particular brand-identities ( Ferrara's The Blackout, Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Lyne's Unfaithful, De Palma's Femme Fatale).

Egoyan's latest film belongs with these examples in the way it courts the mainstream with a classier version of tried-and-tested genre staples: the noir-ish narrative, exotically underweared women, hommes fatales, sexually induced deaths and secrets behind doors. And like the film itself, the women here raise the format's game in terms of sexual stereotypes. The protagonist is an ace journalist masquerading as a teacher and the victim is a college student. Both - clever as they are - succumb to the seductions of Lanny and Vince. Perhaps they stand in for the film's uneasy combination of intellectual complexity and sexual allure, cleverness and carnality. Is Where the Truth Lies, then, a Gregory Hippolyte-style direct-to-video erotic thriller for those who like their smut laced with bigger-budget production values?

Certainly there are some gloriously lurid scenes, particularly a ménage à trois and a ménage à cinq that tear open the relationship between what is 'real' and what we would like to believe is 'real'. We see both in flashback, though it turns out that one happened and the other didn't. This is reminiscent of the moment in Ararat when Armenian art historian Ani (Arsinée Khanjian) points out the inaccuracy of the painted backdrops on the film set of director Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour): "You wouldn't be able to see Mount Ararat from Van," she says; to which he replies, "But I felt it was important." "But it's not true," she protests. Don't believe what you see in the movies, counsels Egoyan - even though the visual untruths may have psycho-sexual or historical veracity.

Too much thrusting

Confusingly for longstanding Egoyan fans, the narrative and emotional complexities here are inextricably linked with those aspects of the film that have got it into trouble with the MPAA. What the ratings board didn't like, according to Egoyan, was too much thrusting. One can also imagine that the problem was that it is thrusting of a particular kind. (Readers who don't want to discover the denouement should stop reading now.)

Early on Lanny tells us that, "Vince and me were essentially a boy-girl act. I was pleasure and he was control. I was rock 'n' roll and he was class." This should give us some clue as to where the sexual odyssey is heading. We've already seen Vince backstage kicking the shit out of a heckler who dared to call Lanny a kike (played out to the accompaniment of Lanny crooning 'Just a Gigolo'). When Vince swaggers back on stage with blood on his cheek, Lanny kisses it off, a gesture that's part fraternal, part sado-erotic. The arrows all seem to be pointing in one direction - and this limelit avowal of male love sits uneasily with the hyper-heterosexual back-slapping that characterises the duo's public identity.

Lost girls

Then comes the moment when the covert becomes overt, in a scene that may shock British viewers used to seeing Colin Firth as handsome heterosexual posh totty for women of a certain age. It is the control/class side of the partnership rather than the pleasure/rock 'n' roll element that eventually tries to consummate this clandestine desire. As Lanny fucks the doomed Maureen (waxing lyrical about his preference for the missionary position), Vince comes upon him from behind to set in train a sequence whose power derives from the ambiguity of who's doing what to whom. First of all - as we understand from Lanny's protestations - there's some confusion about which orifice Vince is aiming for; Lanny assumes it must be Maureen's, and we get the impression that they've been here before. Double penetration - straight sex masking covert male-male contact - seems acceptable to Lanny. Gay sodomy is not.

In all the kerfuffle there is indeed something extraordinary about the spectacle of a naked Firth bearing down on a panicking Bacon - nor is this an image plucked from the standard repertoire of the erotic thriller, where even the suggestion of boy-boy sex remains taboo. Lanny is outraged ("We don't fuck, Vince!"); Vince is crushed and humiliated (the brief glimpse of misery on Firth's face as he retreats is perhaps worth the whole film). But somehow Lanny's 'no' might still mean 'yes', albeit 'yes, but...'. "We love each other... but we can't be queers," he exclaims, which of course isn't quite the same as saying 'we aren't queers'.

Yet let us not forget (and Karen doesn't) that in the midst of all this convoluted homoeroticism lies a woman's corpse. The film's most poignant moments - recalling the almost unbearable scenarios of lost children in The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica - are those where Karen talks to Maureen's mother and the flashback glimpses of her childhood self. While Egoyan regularly presents us with spectacles of nubile young women conventionally eroticised, he also shows that these sex objects are someone's daughter, individuals with memories trying to make sense of their fate and pain.

For in the end this is Karen's story, and perhaps the men are not the point. Egoyan twists crime thriller into melodrama (a distinction on which the score is never certain) when he reminds us that the one for whom the whodunit plot really matters is not the journalist but the mother of the dead girl. The young murder victims of Bob Hoskins' psycho in Felicia's Journey are credited as "The Lost Girls" - those who, like The Sweet Hereafter's tiny coach passengers or Exotica's dead girl, will never have the chance to grow up. Felicia is left at the end of her film as the only one who knows the lost girls' names: "I remember the names of the ones he took away," she says. "Elsie, Beth, Sharon, Jackie, Gay, Abby, Samantha. I remember these names with every new face I meet."

When Where the Truth Lies' victim is finally named, in a ping-pong voiceover exchange, it is Lanny who says "Her last name was O'Flaherty" but Karen who immediately supplies "Her first name was Maureen." The female narrator gives the corpse its humanity, making this not just the pulp fiction of men who find, fuck and (fail to) forget but a complex tale of women remembering, naming themselves and each other.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012