Sex as a weapon

Kids and Love and Human Remains rattle us with apocalyptic sensuality

Pretty soon, the periodic eruptions of reprehensible behavior--a mob of angry kids kicking and beating a man with skateboards, say, or Casper dipping a fresh tampon into fruit juice, then sucking it dry--remind you of '50s shlockmeister William Castle, who threw real skeletons at B-movie ticketbuyers and vibrated their seats during scary moments. Clark is just as clumsy with his shock-the-unscrubbed-masses gimmickry, but more condescending and not nearly as honest.

Can anyone who watches TV news even a couple times a week doubt that there are too many lost children out there, dabbling in experiences that will inevitably lead to their premature destruction? It's a terrible reality that Clark is happy to jump on and ride for all it's worth, not so much out of concern for making a good movie as scoring easy hits in a conservative era.

Once you figure out it's trying to hoodwink you, Kids does offer some very modest pleasures. Clark's nicest accomplishment here reflects his experience as a still portraitist. The young actors handpicked by the director are an aesthetically intriguing mosaic of pug noses, bubble lips, wet eyes, and gangly arms and legs. Just like the photographer Bruce Weber did with his documentaries Let's Get Lost and Broken Noses, Larry Clark turns Kids into a pop-up book of favorite visual obsessions. You may not come away with the profound experience of a truly thoughtful movie, but you will have taken a colorful stroll through one man's artistic grocery list.

French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand also has a background in reconstructing reality--he started off in the early '60s as an award-winning director of documentary shorts. It was another 23 years before he became a world cinema favorite with The Decline of the American Empire, a mordant movie cousin of Return of the Secaucus Seven with the generational baggage unloaded and the libidos turned to full throttle.

He attempted to turn literary with his next feature Jesus of Montreal (1989), which stumbled rather ham-fistedly through some broad comparisons between contemporary commercialism and personal salvation. Still, the movie drew a huge international audience, and cemented Arcand's reputation as a filmmaker who loved eccentric characters, who positioned all the lights and mikes and camera angles and dialogue around the actors so their performances could be united with his somber vision.

That same weird blend of misanthropy and hope fires Arcand's latest, Love and Human Remains, but this is by far his grimmest peek into the politics of betrayal. In the unspecified, cement-coated city Arcand imagines, death lurks close behind every romantic overture, whether it be in the form of a rapist-serial killer, whose exploits run as a counternarrative to the protagonists', or an incurable, fatal virus that never leaves anyone's thoughts.

David (Thomas Gibson) is a handsome no-account who returns after a mysterious absence to the city where he was raised. A former child actor, he now waits tables, drinks beer, cruises the nightclubs for easy sex with men, and attempts to advise on the troubled love life of his roommate Candy, an ex-lover (Ruth Marshall) who's desperate for a committed relationship. She finds it after a one-night experiment with a lesbian schoolteacher (Joanne Vannicola), but then must decide between her and a gallant bartender (Rick Roberts).

Meanwhile, the desperately lonely David begins his own search for a faithful lover under an umbrella of callous sarcasm. His dear friend Benita (Mia Kirshner), a psychic hooker who specializes in bondage fantasies, nudges him into a rocky flirtation instigated by a 17 year-old busboy (Matthew Ferguson). They ply the beautiful boy with heroin, then Benita massages his forehead and channels the electric shock of all his unexpressed sexual desires.

Once a rampaging murderer is introduced to cast suspicion on every character, the film alienates all those who're expecting a reasonable emotional payoff for their attention. There are no highs and lows here, only a subtly building sense of trepidation eased by the witty intelligence of the characters. When the killer is unmasked, his identity matters much less than the long shadow of foreboding his myth casts over everyone involved.

Love and Human Remains is a kaleidoscope of merging, morphing sexual identities, illuminated by the determination of Arcand and cinematographer Paul Sarossy to locate the bleak core of these entanglements. Rarely does a character offer a joke along with a smile, and even rarer are the scenes where any decision proves satisfying. What motivates everyone is fear--of being alone, of discovering themselves, of dying.

No one would ever mistake the people in this film as real, but Denys Arcand has enough confidence to take the unruly, at times fantastic material and shape it into a plain-spoken allegory of shifting personal allegiances. Although not everyone will appreciate the variety of relationships in Love and Human Remains, anyone who patiently submits to its gradual spell should leave the theater feeling he or she's glimpsed true love in its most unglamorous form--the impulse for companionship that binds all of us in universal dependency.

Kids. Excalibur Films. Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Chloe Sevigny. Written by Harmony Korine. Directed by Larry Clark. Opens August 25.

Love and Human Remains. Sony Pictures Classics. Thomas Gibson, Ruth Marshall, Matthew Ferguson. Written by Brad Fraser, based on his play. Directed by Denys Arcand. Opens September 1.

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