SKELETON CREW

The French-Canadian Denys Arcand has been directing films since the early '60s, but he first attracted the attention of this country in the mid-'80s with The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal. Both were gab fests set among Canadian intelligentsia--academics in the former, avant-garde actors in the latter. Both had a sort of likable pretentiousness borne of Arcand's fine feel for sexy Canadian swank--his people weren't saying anything we hadn't already heard, but they looked great, and they were charming and funny.

Arcand's new film Love and Human Remains, his first in English, is adapted from the play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, by his countryman Brad Fraser. As with Empire, it's about a circle of acquaintances--here, urban Generation Xers--talking, talking, talking between visits to various beds. The subject comprises love, sex and friendship, and the relationship, or lack thereof, of the three.

Indeed, the film looks quite a lot like one of the TV sitcoms of the popular new stripe, led by NBC's Friends--attractive singles trading quips and sexual tension. Fraser gave his vision a few kinky twists, though--one member of his circle of friends is a serial killer, another is a psychic dominatrix.

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The focus is on a pair of devoted roomies, David (Thomas Gibson), who was once a child star on TV but now waits tables, and Candy (Ruth Marshall), a glum book reviewer who longs for a lover but can't find one who can compete with David. David is inaccessible to her because he's gay--and foolishly promiscuous--and Candy has begun to wonder if perhaps she wouldn't be better off giving lesbianism a whirl.

Around these two float five others: Benita (the luscious Mia Kirshner of Exotica), the aforementioned gifted psychic and bondage queen for hire; Kane (Matthew Ferguson), a dumb, rich kid with a tentative crush on David; Jerri (Joanne Vannicola), a gay woman from the gym with a wicked crush on Candy; Robert (Rick Roberts), a bartender who asks Candy out; and Bernie (Cameron Bancroft), a pal of David's who represents straight-white maleness in the style to which it has become accustomed--he loves football and sleeps with a different woman every night. We soon become aware that either Robert or Bernie is the fellow who's been killing young women and taking their earrings as souvenirs.

The murder plot doesn't really work on a thriller level. Arcand either isn't interested in scaring us or doesn't have a clue how. It does, however, give the story someplace to go, a climax toward which to build. In this, it's a useful device. It helps the film avoid the non-ending of Empire, in which Arcand seemingly just rolled the credits when he finally got sick of hearing these people talk.

I wouldn't want the task of too vigorously defending Love and Human Remains as a profound work, but I enjoyed it. As shot by Paul Sarossy, the actors are highly attractive, Gibson and Marshall especially--they have that clean-scrubbed sexual elegance that one associates with urban Canadians.

And Arcand has directed them well. Fraser's dialogue calls for deadpan delivery, but Arcand's approach to this sort of style is sensible. He doesn't make his cast drone like robots or pose like mannequins. Arcand is like a Hal Hartley without the self-consciousness; Hal Hartley plus showmanship and a sense of pace.

The term "character-driven" is a buzz word popular among movie-business types. Usually, it's a euphemism for a film that's light on car chases or lacks a highly structured plot--not one, necessarily, with richer characters than other films. But Arcand films really are character-driven--they hinge on the quirks with which the actors animate their roles. That's why, in spite of Arcand's sly prurience, his films are never quite campy.

It's also why Love and Human Remains overcomes some of its own feebleness. Fraser's main point--about David's refusal to admit that he needs love instead of just sex and the occasional beer with a buddy--isn't anything too mind-expanding, and when Fraser tries to "get real" (David's phrase) in his dialogue, he stumbles into silliness at times. But Arcand just plays the silliness as part of life. Instead of forcing us to laugh at actors spouting pretentious absurdities, Arcand and his cast make us laugh with characters spouting pretentious absurdities. At the moment of highest crisis, one of the characters suddenly blurts out the question, "Do you think I'm fat?" to another, and all at once it seems as if, when you boil down all the social alienation and existential dread they've been prattling on about, it's petty anxieties like this, more than anything else, that these people have on their minds. As staged by Arcand, it's a dramatically valid moment--it's ridiculous, and it's real.

 
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