'The 4th Life' detestable

BRUCE KIRKLAND - Sun Media

, Last Updated: 5:26 AM ET

There is a lot of cinephile fuss over The 4th Life because it is the feature-film debut of acclaimed avant-garde filmmaker Francois Miron.

The Montreal-based Miron is known, in rarified circles and academia, for his 20-year career in experimental shorts, as well as for his film-school teaching at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. Miron's biography, which arrived along with his first feature, calls him a visionary and hails The 4th Life as "this visually sumptuous, neo-noir nightmare."

I fully agree with the nightmare part, with a touch of neo-noir for the film's stylistic flourishes. As pure cinema, however, it is a punishing ordeal just to get through a single screening of this pretentious piece of nonsense.

The storyline is pure afternoon soap opera, albeit tarted up to appear like arthouse fare. In simplistic terms, a psychotic brunette lesbian (Andrea Sheldon) escapes from a hospital for the criminally insane, murders an antique dealer and tracks down her former bisexual blond lover (Janet Lane). They cross paths in a moody industrial town called Darkeville. More bad things happen.

There are time shifts and flashbacks, including to Lane's young life as a sexually abused teen. Not surprisingly, she turns into a cynical adult with a femme-fatale look and a sarcastic manner of speech, some of it profane.

Coming from Miron, of course you do not expect -- nor even desire -- a linear narrative with a conventional filmmaking style.

But it is not too much to ask for better dialogue: These people talk like dolts, not like snappy noir protagonists. Attitude passes (and poorly) for intelligence.

Better acting would also be welcome: Sheldon and Lane grind through the material like robots. They spout their stupid lines and never make them feel organic or convincing, while their male support players are all just dismal. The pedophile, in particular, is so arch he is idiotic. So the flashback scenes of abuse, which should be horrifying, play like a satirical sketch gone horribly wrong.

Better direction would be useful, too: Miron's reputation is not enough to excuse a film that looks like it was put together as a student project, not as the work of the professor.

As for the hallucinatory aspects of the storytelling, the invocation of German expressionism or American noir does not cover up the tawdry aspects of the film. Some scenes, including the opening montage of lesbian lovemaking, just look like soft-core porno in a low-rent video. The sexual politics of the film are messed up, to say the least.

At this point in the review, I am assuming it is obvious: I detest The 4th Life and the arthouse horse it rode in on.

(This film is rated 14-A)


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