Indecent Proposal

Cybersex galore in Faustian film with gay twist

From Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” to David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” the annals of American cinema are filled with movies about how rotten Hollywood is. Although “The Dying Gaul” is set in the film industry, it’s not really a part of this tradition. It takes place in this milieu only so executive Jeffrey (Campbell Scott) can offer struggling screenwriter Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) a Faustian bargain. The actual filmmaking process is never depicted.

Robert has written an autobiographical script about a gay man caring for his lover, who’s dying from AIDS. It’s called “The Dying Gaul,” a reference to a Roman statue whose significance Robert explains in an early scene. Jeffrey will give him a million dollars for the script, but he wants to change the protagonists to a heterosexual couple. Due to the story’s basis in reality, Robert is unwilling to alter it but needs the money badly. Jeffrey’s purchase of the script is a way of obtaining power over the writer, and provides many opportunities to have sex with him on company time. Unbeknownst to his wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a screenwriter with a stalled career, he begins an affair with Robert.

While “The Dying Gaul” is Lucas’ directorial debut, it follows a long string of acclaimed plays and scripts. He adapted it himself from his 1995 play, setting in the period when it was first performed. Apart from the usual hurdles of transposing theater to cinema, “The Dying Gaul” is particularly challenging because much of it takes place on computer screens. It reflects a time when the Internet seemed wild and uncommodified, and sex chat rooms were a novelty that compelled reflection on identity’s mysteries. While a number of recent films––such as Mike Nichols’ “Closer” and Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know”–– have incorporated cybersex, “The Dying Gaul” devotes more time to online discussion than anything else I’ve seen.

Spending hours in front of a computer isn’t particularly cinematic, so “The Dying Gaul” attempts several ways around this dilemma. It uses visual tricks—in one scene, Robert is enveloped by darkness, broken only by the dim light of his laptop, and red lights flashing periodically through his window. Most of the time, the characters speak the messages they write aloud. This allows some Robert Altman-inspired overlapping dialogue, but it feels like a clumsy solution to a difficult problem; the cybersex eventually gets quite tedious.

Scott and Clarkson raise their characters above the venal stereotypes they could easily have become. Jeffrey, who initially seems like the slimiest of the trio, winds up as the most benign. He genuinely likes Robert’s script and wants to help him; he’s also quite aware of the bottom line and thinks heterosexual moviegoers’ hatred of gays is intractable.

At first, what Jeffrey wants is simple—sex. However, Robert feels like he’s cheating on his late lover and is incapable of a no-strings-attached affair. Elaine initially seems like a victim of her husband’s success, far kinder and more appealing than he. However, his predatory sexuality looks harmless in light of the metaphysical manipulation she eventually puts Robert through.

The viewer is likely to identify most with Robert, but he’s not the stereotypical noble AIDS widower. His lover’s death has made him meaner and more difficult. Just how mean he’s become remains an open question, and the answers Lucas comes up with aren’t particularly edifying. There’s a strange tension between Robert, who has a son from a previous marriage, and Elaine, although it’s too diffuse to be called sexual.

Ultimately, no one in “The Dying Gaul” is entirely likable, even if Robert and Elaine seem nice on the surface. It’s a difficult film to review, as most of its problems only become apparent in the ending, which shatters one’s expectations of how these characters would behave. If the film isn’t really about moviemaking, its true subject is power and how people without it exploit others to get it. Unfortunately, the finale of “The Dying Gaul” suggests that it mistakes a conclusion involving one more death—in a film thoroughly haunted by mortality—for a sign of automatic depth and profundity.

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