Aug 20, 2007

On Descent

Who would have thought – Rosario Dawson signs up for the Gasper Noe treatment. Not nearly as provocative as it wants to be, Talia Lugacy’s “Descent”, one of the most talked about films at this year’s Sundance rejec… whoops, I mean Tribeca Film Festival, is an empty headed rape drama that doesn’t hold a candle to Mr. Noe’s troubling yet formally audacious “Irreversible”, an obvious antecedent. Taken from Mr. Noe’s long journey into the bowels of France are the deep shadows and garish reds, the overwhelming sense of doom without the pathos of tragedy, although the swirling cameras and overacting Europeans are replaced with petulant long takes and sullen looks of misery for Dawson, whose performance, while competent, lacks any of the urgency one would expect from such a loaded star vehicle.

In her sullen, quiet interpretation, Dawson, too old to be playing bookish, nineteen year old undergrads, never achieves the serenity and layering one sees in the performances of an Isabelle Huppert or even Jodie Foster in “The Accused”, another underwhelming rape tale that seems like “Ordet” compared to “Descent”. Dawson’s Maya, a star philosophy student and an unnamed, urban university, falls pray to a ungainly, thoroughly repellent football player (Chad Faust) who seduces her one night at a house party. She agrees to go out with him and they share a quaint dinner, his baseless personality and beedy eyes providing fodder for her entertainment, but he’s obviously not serious material. Of course, she returns home with him nevertheless and unfortunately begins to “hook up” with him, her seemingly flexible boundaries coming into contact with an awkward, passive-aggressive and extremely vulnerable personality who, sadly has a penchant for forcing himself upon young Latinas n his modest room.

Done in a single, excruciating medium close up of the two actors faces that contains a single, unnecessary cutaway to entangled legs, it’s the film’s raison d’etre, but what a shallow one it is without being contextualized in any meaningful way. The ultimate perversion of the biological imperative, the rape act is disturbing a priori cinematic representation, but Lugacy seems to have no desire for psychological insight, framing Maya in long shots that isolate her from human interactions and from background space, yet simultaneously lacks the directorial chops to cop a long take, mise en scene heavy style that would infuse the material with some existential grandeur. Cut to three months later and Dawson’s Maya drifts into a lift of aimless drug use, sexuality and sadomasochistic club life, plus a new downer haircut. Did she tell anyone what happened? Why didn’t she call the cops? “Kids” this is not – material like this doesn’t work that way. You can only withhold so much from the audience without supplying the cinematic goods – eventually they begin to distrust you. Of course, when Maya returns to school as a TA in a class featuring our football scrub/rapist, the opportunity for revenge presents itself. Fear not, castration is not in store, but the film’s final masochistic flourish, where Maya understands that no retribution can help her escape her pain, drew laughs at the screening I attended. A pity – the elements are in place for a film worth seeing, but their execution are sorely lacking.