Saturday, June 22, 2013

Eroticism, Illness, And Cooking Make For An Erratic Compulsion

The Good: Beautiful direction, Moments of character
The Bad: Inconsistent characterization of Amy, Pacing, Meandering plot
The Basics: An independent film with great (cinematic) direction and poor storytelling direction, Compulsion fails to land.

As Summer Blockbuster Season 2013 roars into its second month, this weekend marks the return of some in-the-bank blockbuster fodder (Brad Pitt and Disney are taking on Man Of Steel). Before going to those movies, I’m opting to take in another independent film and today it is Compulsion. Compulsion is an independent film that is likely not to gain much traction – even for fans of indie films – largely because it lacks focus. Based upon another film (301, 302), which I have not seen, Compulsion meanders through cooking and creepiness for far too long before it actually gets to a point.

That said, Compulsion is one of this summer’s most professionally created indie films. Built on the celebrity of Heather Graham and Carrie-Anne Moss (and to a lesser extent Kevin Dillon), Compulsion is a little film that feels little, though it looks gorgeous.

Amy is pretending to have a cooking show in her home kitchen when Detective Reynolds arrives. He asks her about her neighbor across the hall, Saffron. Amy seems shocked that Saffron has gone missing, but is able to provide Detective Reynolds with little information. Reynolds breaks into Apartment 302, Saffron’s, apartment, where he begins snooping through her effects. Amy flashes back to preparing her home studio with the help of her boyfriend, Fred, who is financing the massive renovations. Saffron, at the time, is a struggling actress looking for a comeback and supplements her income writing a column in a glamour magazine. Amy feels unfulfilled by Fred (he seems to appreciate his bird more than he does her) and she realizes who Saffron is immediately as she is a fan.

What follows their meeting (to conceit is Amy returning Saffron’s mail to her) is Amy seeing her neighbor out in the real world following one of her shopping trips for ingredients. Saffron, struggling with being an aging actress, contrasts Amy, who is aching to get her chance in the spotlight. Amy seems more upset by the fact that Fred is eating crappy food with a co-worker than the fact that she catches him feeding her. Amy’s obsession with quality food annoys Fred and her jealousy leads her to cook Fred’s bird, Sebastian. With Fred kicked to the curb, Amy turns her attention to Saffron, who tries to reject Amy’s pushing into her apartment (physically and with food). When Amy attacks Saffron for trying to dispose of the food she has brought over, Saffron reveals her tumultuous relationship with food and body image and opens the door to a substantive friendship with her neighbor.

Director Egidio Coccimiglio deserves a lot of credit for making Compulsion look as good as it does. While it is easy to make Heather Graham (Amy), Kevin Dillon (Fred) and Carrie-Anne Moss (Saffron)look good, Coccimiglio has a beautiful eye for sets, lighting and the opening sequence makes the cooking process feel like a porno. Compulsion is a color-rich, beautifully shot film, despite the very small scope of the movie. In fact, it reminded me of Bound (reviewed here!) in terms of scale and the artistry of the filmmaking.

Almost immediately, Amy is presented as an inconsistent character. While her character is supposed to be obsessed with cooking, there is a lack of realistic character definition for Amy. Amy is building an exceptionally classy-looking set and cooks gourmet food that costs a bundle to make. But, at the same time, she talks like a simpleton and she is emotionally a child. Her obsession with food is exceptionally well-created defined in Compulsion, but her stage persona is inconsistent. She talks like a high school girl about sex and sexuality and, in combination with the meals she prepared and the apartment she has, she comes across as cheap as opposed to cleverly performing.

Saffron, while only a supporting character for the first hour (the object of Amy’s attention), is far better defined. She instantly is characterized as a woman with a complex relationship with food. When the flashbacks to young Saffron reveal how her mother pressured the young actress to keep her weight down, the scene seems more inevitable than shocking. When Saffron reveals the extent of her issue – she is a long-term bulimic – the movie takes a turn that more clearly defines why Saffron is such a recluse. What is not explained adequately is why Saffron ever lets Amy into her apartment. Amy pushes her way into Saffron’s apartment, but Saffron keeps leaving the door unlocked and – while she rejects Amy’s food – she does not strongly reject Amy at any point.

The movie actually falls apart completely for the character of Saffron when the root cause of her bulimia is revealed. It makes no sense that her character, even years later, would leave her doors unlocked and why she would let Amy push her around makes less sense (i.e. she is coping with her early trauma through her bulimia, it seems like she would not accept the way Amy bullies her (especially given that she has a lock on her door and could use it). For the last fifteen minutes, the film falls apart into a downward spiral/pointless sex scene that seems much more desperate (in context and in terms of making the movie) than it “reads” as an organic plot/character development. The inevitable sex scene feels less passionate or compelling and more like an obvious conceit.

While the story meanders and develops in a predictable way (the moment Saffron’s refrigerator is revealed to be filled with dishes Amy cooked, it seemed strangely obvious that Amy would react violently when she discovered it), the acting is not at fault. Heather Graham delivers a creepy, unsettling performance by bugging out her eyes and speaking in sweet, but authoritative, tones. Carrie-Anne Moss is, as usual, a fine actress who does well with what she is given, but the role of Saffron takes so long to become interesting, that she seems to have very little to do for the bulk of the movie.

Ultimately, Compulsion is teased with a premise that seems titillating, but is executed in a way that fails to engage. Not clever or erotic, Compulsion takes forever to even reveal itself as compelling for the themes of mental illness that it barely scratches the surface of, as opposed to truly committing to. That makes Compulsion not worth the time.

For other films featuring mental illness and reality-bending, please check out my reviews of:
Sucker Punch


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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