(Jeremy Podeswa, Canada, 1994)


What’s up with Canadians? Their stylish, low-budget movies tend to fixate on cool problems of casual sex, erotic fantasy and all-pervasive social alienation. We’ve seen the kinky films of Denys Arcand, The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Love and Human Remains (1993). Many (including me) were beguiled by Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), certainly the best of that director’s many odes to cold, mediated sexuality. On video you can see more titles of this ilk, such as The Pornographer (Patrick Sheane Duncan, 1994). Even the most celebrated of Canadian directors, David Cronenberg – who has a sinister little cameo near the end of To Die For (1995) – wandered into this national genre, with a horrific and melodramatic flourish, in Dead Ringers (1988).

I’m willing to believe that not all Canadian filmmakers are obsessed with working over this icily erotic territory. What I do believe is that it is these particular Canadian films that are most likely to reach theatres in Australia. So, we’re probably getting a skewed perspective on Canadian cinema. This skewed perspective will not be adjusted by seeing Eclipse, directed by Jeremy Podeswa. In the small, intensively interrelated Canadian film industry, Podeswa used to edit the promotional trailers for Cronenberg’s films, among many other activities in the independent scene. [2023 postscript: His subsequent career took him to high-profile success in TV series, including The L Word, Station Eleven and Game of Thrones.]

Eclipse is essentially a sex movie. It’s not as cerebral or intellectual as Egoyan’s films; but nor is it a glossy Playboy/Playgirl fantasy, of the kind that Zalman King specialises in with his Red Shoe Diaries (1992-1997) series. The plot is a simple daisy-chain of sexual encounters, suggesting a modern take on Max Ophüls’ classic La Ronde (1950). Every time, it’s pretty much the same: two people meet, either by chance or assignation, and they get down to it.

Mostly, it’s loveless, unemotional stuff. There are stolen quickies between people who secretly do it together often, such as an older man and his maid. There are impulsive acts of desire, like that same maid when she shares a booth with a guy in her language class. There’s a bored married couple going at it listlessly, dutifully on the floor. There are men who think of generally themselves as straight, following up a gay itch, and scratching that itch with various degrees of abandon or apprehension.

We get the usual mixes and clashes: young with old, people of different classes, of different races. But there are only heterosexual and gay male sex scenes in the film; lesbianism doesn’t get a look-in, so I guess the director wanted to narrow the erotic act down to penetration, pure and simple.

Before and after penetration there are vague looks, mumbled words, sometimes a tear, or a confession, or a suddenly aggressive recrimination. As in all the Canadian sex films I’ve mentioned, the characters then inexorably spin away from each other like sad satellites, left only with the ashes of their casual encounters, and a murky pool of modern confusions about fleeting impulses and deep emotions, sensual desires and soul connections.

Eclipse feels like a (at most) 50-minute film that has been padded out to feature length. Apart from the sex scenes and the various interactions around them, there’s really only one other plot thread in the movie. It concerns a video documentary which a teenager is making about a forthcoming total solar eclipse over this part of Canada. He’s making it not for a trendy gallery – like the earlier postmodern artist of the piece – but for high school; and that’s just a little bit hair-raising considering the kind of extra-curricular stuff he gets up to. Ah well, I guess I was, despite my better self, just slightly shocked by Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), after all!

So, there are many scenes about the eclipse punctuating the sexual trysts of the film. Most of these are pretty boring: video-vérité interviews with eclipse-junkies setting up their cameras and telescopes, gathering from all corners of the globe. And then there’s a musing professor or expert of some kind, a Philip Adams/Barry Jones talking-head type. He informs us of the etymological root of the word eclipse – it comes from the Greek word for abandonment. He explores the mythological resonance of eclipses as natural phenomena. And he reflects on the almost mystical, show-stopping effect that eclipses have on ordinary, everyday life.

Did we need any of this spelt out for us? It’s easy enough just to soak up the central poetic metaphor in the film. It’s a rhyme between these heavenly bodies that eclipse, ambiguously both mutually fused and abandoned, and the earthly bodies that connect and disconnect in fleeting acts of erotic intimacy. And as well, there’s the sense that any sexual contact has the power or potential to disrupt the everyday routines of society – introducing a passing touch of something ecstatic, or even sacred. There’s an unstated pun in the film linking safety precautions (for looking at the sun) with safe sex.

I think the biggest problem with this film is simply that it insists just too much and too heavily on this whole metaphoric connection between sex and the eclipse. I wasn’t surprised to read in an interview with Podeswa that he toyed with various metaphoric counterpoint devices to juice up his drama. There’s an arbitrary feel to his eventual choice of a total solar eclipse.

He toyed at first with topical, social events, like the tour of a rock star, or a visit by the Pope – but wisely put those aside. Then he realised he needed something cosmic, something that would give a universal context for the intimate, sometimes tawdry liasions depicted. An earthquake, maybe? – no, that one was used, with a bit more casualness and subtlety, in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993). A tidal wave? – nope, Peter Weir’s The Last Wave (1977) has pretty much ruled that one out for any filmmaker coming after him. What about a meteorite? – that’s probably a bit too much like those movies about people in the early ‘60s expecting the bomb to drop at any moment and waiting for their world to end, such as Waiting for the Light (Christopher Monger, 1990) and Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993), not forgetting Australia’s own, sex-obsessed The Nostradamus Kid (1993).

So finally, Podeswa went for a total, solar eclipse. In itself, mood-wise and image-wise, it’s not such a bad choice. Movies – which the surrealist poet Robert Desnos once described as an endless “artificial night” – have often played around with the paradox of night and day changing their places. Particularly in fantasy or horror movies, of course – Neil Jordan’s film of Interview with the Vampire (1994), or Raúl Ruiz’s Dark at Noon (1992). Entire genres, like film noir, delight in snatching us away from the natural cycles of day and night, and absorbing us in a fictional world where night and darkness are sovereign. And cinephiles, as we all know, tend to be pale, vampiric types, scornful of the sunlight – one observer dubbed us the “nocturnal spectators” … and the medium of cinema itself, the projected spectacle of it, as the artificial night. And so, the prospect of total solar eclipse, a night that approaches the day and actually devours it for a moment, completely transgressing the natural cycle of things – there’s just got to be something very cinematic, inherently cinematic about that image – that dream.

But it’s on the cinematic and poetic levels that this film wobbles and falls right over. I’ve mentioned a few times a certain mystical or spiritual frisson that’s supposed to go with the eclipse experience in this middling movie. There’s a nod here towards the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, such as the Three Colours project (1993-1994) – in fact, this movie is a bit like what Kieślowski would make if he were into bisexual soft-porn. As the eclipse gets closer, Podeswa gives himself increasing poetic license to deviate from the linear daisy-chain of the erotic-encounter plot. We begin to see the characters alone, in their own spaces, reflecting upon – or trying not to reflect upon – their fate.

After all the sex is over, and the eclipse at last darkens the landscape, this montage of the characters in their diverse states of solitude becomes most intense. Some are looking soulfully past the limits of their banal lives; some are imploding miserably in a wash of tears. Others are just keeping up the loveless charade of their marriages or arrangements.

As in Kieślowski’s Red (1994), and especially the end of Blue (1993), there’s a suggested idea here which I find spurious and infuriating. It’s really less an idea than an emotional effect created by the editing, and by the insistent, swelling music. What I’m referring to is the sense that, no matter how lost or damned we are as atomised individuals, we are all somehow joined, connected, that our destiny is in each others’ hands. What a New Age fate for the modernist tool of montage!

It is meant to be a mighty screen epiphany: a little melancholic, but essentially redemptive – a small, fragile but cosmic miracle snatched from the jaws of everyday alienation and cheap thrills. Such an epiphany is almost impossibly difficult to manufacture on screen (although filmmakers will no doubt go on trying to crack the secret). Kieślowski cannot totally pull it off. And Eclipse, for all its passing pleasures and points of interest, is way below Kieślowski.

© Adrian Martin February 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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