Written and Directed: Lisa Cholodenko
Interesting from a lesbian director as well as girl-on-girl content perspective, Lisa Cholodenko's second big screen effort is neither as probing nor as tight as her first film High Art. Nonetheless Cholodenko is going a long way towards proving herself an expert observer of human behaviour.
As in High Art, in Laurel Canyon we follow the choices of a naive yet quietly ambitious young girl who is captivated by the world of an older, more experienced and ultimately damaged woman. Kate Beckinsale's wide-eyed transformation from conservative medical student to pot-smoking, sex-kitten is utterly believable and is the best performance of her career so far where she isn't wearing skintight black leather. The film however belongs to Frances McDormand, the older woman who steals every scene with her tough, sexy, yet still vulnerable portrayal.
Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Beckinsale) - a couple teetering frightfully on the edge of matrimony - are both embarking on the next phases of their medical careers; Sam as a resident psychiatrist and Alex as a medical researcher. Their choices take them to LA where Sam has arranged to borrow the empty house of his mother with whom he has a somewhat estranged relationship.
The mother (Frances McDormand) is Jane, a successful record producer and music business reveller - the type who smokes heaps of pot, throws regular pool parties, lives in an enormous house and casually displays pictures of herself with Iggy Pop, Springsteen and Joni Mitchell on her bookcase. As one of the characters casually mentions in the film, to live in Laurel Canyon is proof that you've "made it". Not only has Jane made it, but she's in danger of being "past it" - a lost, old soul in the new world of music marketing, teen labels and "we have to have it by Christmas" record deals.
When Sam and Alex arrive, not only is the house not empty as promised, but Jane is in the middle of making a record with a new band and sleeping with the band's bratty lead singer Ian, who fancies himself as the hottest thing since Madonna's "Sex" book. The beach house is occupied by Jane's ex-boyfriend, so the young couple are stuck living with Jane, at least temporarily.
Sam is mortified by the world Jane inhabits, but he is completely mistaken in what he perceives Alex's reaction to it will be. Far from being repulsed, Alex is drawn in, both by the charisma of Jane and Ian and by the knowledge that maybe, in her perfectly formed life with Sam, she might never get to experience this kind of freedom of sexuality again. The desires she feels mean nothing to her emotionally, but the thrill of the experience is everything, overriding even her deepest-held fears and compounding moral dilemmas.
Meanwhile, Sam becomes drawn to Sara (Natascha McElhone, in the most interesting role she's had since The Truman Show), a woman he works with at the hospital. She tries to attract him with promises of freedom and conscience-free sex, but in the end is forced to admit that she cannot separate her heart and her head, that she wants more from Sam than just a quick fling.
Alex on the other hand is having no difficulty separating sex and love. She loves Sam, but gradually becomes involved with Jane and Ian (the kisses between Beckinsale and McDormand are fascinating both for their unexpected chemistry and the confronting thought of Jane coming on to her son's girlfriend). She's more than willing to let her darker side walk free for just a few precious moments.
Unfortunately, as with all sexual liberation on film, the world must and does come crashing down. To Cholodenko's credit though, she stops short of blaming anyone for their indiscretions. It's nice to have characters just admit "things happen" for once, admit that their own worst (or best?) impulses took hold and left them no choice but to obey. Moralists may disagree, but sometimes being swept along in the current is the only way to stay afloat. Consequences or not, everyone involved needed these events to happen, simply to enable them to view their lives from a different perspective.
We have to ask, is the ultimate message here simply the classic "sex is easy, love is hard"? Or is it that we should experience everything because who wants to wake up when you're fifty and find you aren't living the life you were meant to? Ian's easy morals and sexuality appear initially as immature, the choices of a man trying to avoid real emotion, but I felt that he truly did love Jane, so that would be too simple an explanation. Jane loves her son, so couldn't give in to her impulses towards Alex. She recognised, almost too late, that some impulses have too high a price. This could describe their entire mother/son relationship, a series of mistakes Jane made that Sam has been punishing her and himself for their whole lives.
The scenes that don't work are Sam's dimestore attempts at psychiatry, particularly the berating of a young boy's mother, presumably meant to signify that this is a conversation he wishes he could have had with his own mother at that age. In retrospect I can see what Cholodenko was trying to do - showing Sam asking his patients to show that same understanding and forgiveness he will soon be expected to provide for his own mother, girlfriend and, to some extent, himself - but in the midst of all the sexual undercurrents it feels clunky and out of place, a distraction in a narrative that needs none.
Through it all there is one absolute. When we have relationships with people we are responsible for how the things we do affect them. There is no running from that responsibility, even when we want to. A walk on the wild side is fine, but where does that leave the people we actually love? Whose responsibility is it to say no?
The film doesn't know the answers and doesn't offer them, leaving us with an excellent character piece that has what feels like a truncated, cop-out ending. This was the thing that frustrated me and left me hollow, simply because if you lead audiences into these murky emotional waters, you should at least have the decency to offer a vague plan about how to get back out again.