Figgis fashions a false Eden

June 25, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Loss of Sexual Innocence" proves once again what a frustratingly uneven director Mike Figgis can be. This is, after all, the filmmaker who made the mournful contemporary parable "Leaving Las Vegas," only to follow it up with the emotionally empty "One Night Stand."

In this latest work, Figgis weaves together a collection of filmed short stories using the common thread of the Adam and Eve tale, resulting in a tangle of meditations on sex and sin. Or at least that's what Figgis must have had in mind. Much like its title, "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" is belabored, pretentious and often willfully opaque.

Julian Sands, who starred in Figgis' first movie, "Stormy Monday," and who has appeared in most of the director's subsequent films, plays Nic, a British movie director caught within a deteriorating marriage. But when the audience meets Nic, he's a 5-year-old (played by John Cowey) living in Kenya, where he witnesses an appalling act of sexual colonialism, a piece of perversity so shocking that it presumably colors all of his sexual relations to come.

"The Loss of Sexual Innocence" continues to follow Nic's sentimental education, jumping around in time from ages 5 to 12 to 16 to middle age, although audiences might be forgiven for being a tad confused when the tow-headed 5-year-old grows into a portly, dark-haired pre-teen, only to blossom into a once-again-blond Sands.

Punctuating Nic's reminiscences -- which are meant to be emblematic of some sort of fall from grace -- is Figgis' re-imagining of the story of Adam and Eve, played here by South African actor Femi Ogumbanjo and Scandinavian actress Hanne Klintoe. This sensuously feral pair re-interpret the biblical story of original sin, looking at each other's naked bodies in childlike wonder, only to have their purity marred by Eve's discovery of the fatal fruit (played here by a fig).

Filmed by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme in shimmering, painterly hues of burnished copper, these are some of the most visually ravishing sequences in the movie, even if their connection to Nic's story remains irksomely thin.

By the time Nic has become involved with a beautiful Italian woman (Saffron Burrows), whose own short story is the most compelling thing about "The Loss of Sexual Innocence," Figgis will have lost most film-goers, at least those who will find its attempts at depth confounding rather than tantalizing.

Figgis, who originally conceived these stories as part of an experimental theater piece involving film, clearly harbors some ingenious ideas, as well as an instinctive sense of what makes an image powerful. But without more narrative coherence to connect them, "The Loss of Sexual Innocence" remains a minor addition to his filmography.

`The Loss of Sexual Innocence'

Starring Julian Sands, Saffron Burrows, Stefano Dionisi, Kelly MacDonald, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Hanne Klintoe, Femi Ogumbanjo

Directed by Mike Figgis

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated R (strong sexual images, pervasive nudity, violence and language)

Running time 101 minutes

Sun score *1/2

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