The Principles of Lust (18)

Bold, brainy, and (gasp) British, too

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 14 March 2004 01:00

You don't usually expect extremity in British films, or intellect for that matter, so The Principles of Lust comes as a startling exception. It features not only brutally nasty scenes of bare-knuckle fighting among 11-year-old boys, plus some graphically boisterous group sex, it also has the temerity to allude to French philosopher and novelist Georges Bataille. Writer-director Penny Woolcock is surely asking for trouble: at the press show, snorts were heard at Bataille's name, presumably from critics who don't hold with such fancy foreign muck on our screens.

Problematic and contentious though it is, The Principles of Lust, one of the last British productions of FilmFour, at least dares to be confrontational, asking questions about society, libido and the male malaise. In Woolcock's Sheffield-set film, based on a novel by Tim Cooke, hero and narrator Paul (Alec Newman) is an aspiring bohemian struggling to write a novel but stuck for inspiration. As luck would have it, he crashes his car - always a surefire way to get a story up and running (cf 21 Grams) - and meets Billy (Marc Warren), a volatile, leather-trousered Genuine Article first seen upside-down roaring abuse through Paul's windscreen.

Ostensibly a photographer, Billy is more properly a flâneur and a self-styled plumber of the soul. He promptly inveigles Paul into a life less ordinary by taking him to a pub where his girlfriend - the taciturn, enigmatically smirking Hole (Lara Clifton) - does a strip that's as jolly as it is raunchy.

Paul meanwhile falls for social worker and single mother Juliette (Sienna Guillory). No sooner has she taken Paul home after an exploratory bout of foot-licking than he's forced to confront the reality principle in the form of Harry (Alexander Popplewell), a small, solemn boy in Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas, who has Paul singing "Old McDonald" by the next morning. The film's central opposition is established: Paul can either follow Billy into the great dark unknown, or settle into family life and face the peril of becoming one of those suburbanites that Billy derides as "the enemy ... the living dead" (defending one such elderly "zombie", Paul can only weakly protest, "But he's washing his car.").

The principle of Principles is not so far from Fight Club, in which the square-john hero was mentored by his demonic alter ego, by way of protest against consumerism and the decline of the American male.

Woolcock's story is not nearly so apocalyptic, and Billy's rebellion comes across as more personal than genuinely ideological. Certainly Marc Warren is seductively feral, with his perpetual snarl and uncanny resemblance to Malcolm McDowell in his prime (a comparison Warren must be heartily sick of by now). Even so, Woolcock appears to present Billy in an ironic, rather than strictly Byronic light, as a self-aggrandising prat drunk on second-hand rhetoric. Only Juliette sees through him, realising that his show-stopping account of an horrific childhood is cribbed straight from Bataille.

The spectacle of extremity, with which Billy captivates Paul, is also what Woolcock uses to mesmerise us. The kinetically grisly fights are certainly jaw-dropping, with 11-year-old boys biting, ripping, reducing each other's already beefy heads to chunks of bloody meat. Then there's the film's other startling moment, shot in a real-life Sheffield swingers' club where Billy, happily stuck into the mingle, cheerily announces to Paul, "Do you know where we are? We're right at the bottom." That claim comes across as outright posturing and an arrant insult to Sheffield's swinging burghers. In fact, Billy's rebel attitude is not only contemptuous of everyone except himself, but also conforms perfectly to the commodification of extremes that these days is considered perfectly mainstream, less a radical philosophy than a lifestyle option. His programme is straight out of an FHM feature on "100 Things A Man Should Do Before He's 30", and it's a wonder he and Paul never get round to snowboarding.

The problem is, however, that between wild-eyed hedonism and the adult responsibility embodied (however seductively) by Juliette, the film doesn't quite manage to offer a richer shading of possibilities. One reason is because Paul himself never seems capable of a more nuanced position: as played by the rather testy Newman, he's less convincing as a hero on an odyssey of self-discovery than as a weak-spirited adolescent with a bad case of homoerotic hero worship. This makes for some sharp comedy at his expense, but it's hard to care for someone who so much comes across as a petulant waster. By compensation, Warren's Billy comes across as all appetite, demonic principle rather than human being; still, it's an alarmingly energetic performance, and sometimes nastily witty. Meanwhile, Guillory, in what might have been a thankless role, is appealingly raw and neurotic in her own right, and gives the film some of its most impromptu energies in the scenes of everyday domesticity, which are often as compelling as the crazy stuff.

Woolcock's documentary background gives the film an urgency that holds it aloft even when the drama defies belief - not just in her casting of real-life plug-uglies in supporting roles, but in the hand-held camerawork, improvised feel, and in the way she catches the rough-edged incidentals, such as the unflattering blotchiness of Juliette's face after a sex scene.

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Something feels oddly out of time about the film: the dream of being a dole-queue artist perhaps fits more easily into the social landscape of a more culturally engaged period such as the Eighties than into the consumerist present. There's also the questionable equation of working-class life with lurid abjection (Ken Loach would go spare), and it's hard not to see Billy and Paul as middle-class brats on a gratuitous jaunt of social tourism. Even so, it's hard to think of many recent British films so likely to start arguments.

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