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Principles of Lust
Penny Woolcock


Dolan Cummings

Isn't the devil supposed to be seductive? The diabolical creature at the heart of this film has to be one of the least likeable characters I've ever encountered in any story. Fortunately, the film is more interesting than any of its characters, though it is not easy to watch.

Principles of Lust is reminiscent of Trainspotting (the film rather than the novel) in its concern with alternatives to boring, conventional family life. Trainspotting opens with Renton decrying the world of 'washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers' in favour of heroin, and ends with him cheating his mates to get back to that world. In Principles of Lust, Paul discovers the excitement of new love, and then tries to maintain the high by living life on the edge, before deciding to have a crack at the boring old domestic phase of love after all.

He is guided on this spiritual journey by the obnoxious Billy, a drug-guzzling pervert who likes watching children in bare-knuckle boxing matches. Billy explains the first 'principle of lust' is that nothing lasts; you enjoy the excitement at the beginning of an affair or anything else, and when it is gone you just have to move on. 'People like us don't work at relationships,' he tells Paul contemptuously. People who live in the suburbs and wash their cars on the weekends are 'the enemy'.

Paul ultimately turns his back on Billy to return to his girlfriend and her kid, so Principles of Lust could be seen as a morality play, albeit a sexually explicit one (and how). But writer and director Penny Woolcock is clearly somewhat in thrall to Billy's ethic of extreme living, and the film ends equivocally, with Paul asking: 'Maybe you want me to tell you that it's all right to spend your life cutting some fucking hedge... But is it though?'.

It isn't, of course. Everyone wants to live an exciting life, but aside from not cutting hedges, it isn't always obvious what that means, and Billy's example of an alternative lifestyle is less than convincing. In one early scene at a party, Billy jumps up and down, throws beer over himself and goes 'Woo!' a lot, in a pathetically forced display of Having A Good Time.

If life really were a choice between dull domesticity and such inane thrill-seeking, it would be depressing indeed. In fact, the two 'extremes' both express the same narrow view of human possibilities. Instead of challenging the narrowness of conventional values, Billy's principles of lust simply invert them, favouring excess instead of moderation, anarchy instead of control and danger instead of safety. People who can only feel alive by transgressing bourgeois morals are more surely trapped by them than the most conservative suburbanite.

Importantly, Billy is not a complete loser, but a talented photographer who might have 'made something of himself' (in bourgeois parlance), or even had an effect on the world around him, if not for his self-conscious libidinousness, his refusal to take himself seriously and work towards anything greater. Far from being adventurous, or even expressing a genuine lust for life, this is an extremely passive way to live.

All this means that despite the sterling efforts of Marc Warren as Billy, his character's violent excesses can only hold off the truth for so long - to use his own worst insult, Billy is boring, and the audience is aware of this long before Paul catches on. The film itself might have shared the same fate, except that at some point towards the end, it teeters subtly into a kind of magical realism, which gives the whole film a more dreamlike quality. This is most striking when Billy invites Paul to play potlatch, a larger-than-life gift-giving ritual allegedly derived from American Indians.

The potlatch is a display of pornographic generosity that destroys rather than affirming humanity by putting everything up for grabs: not just material possessions, even those laden with value and social meaning like cars and houses, and not even just women (however revolting, the idea of women as disposable property is not new), but love itself. In a sickening coup de théâtre, Billy offers someone his entire family, explaining that the recipient can have sex with (not his expression) his wife and sister, his mother will cook for him, and his little boy will call him Daddy.

The last promise cleverly echoes the fact that Paul's girlfriend's little boy keeps calling him Daddy, a non-transferable expression of love that is a world away from the potlatch. It's heartwarming, of course, but Woolcock is quite right to observe that family life has limited appeal. By exploring its opposite, Woolcock highlights the sort of general dissatisfaction with life that is coming to define a generation.

The film-maker's own apparent sympathy for a charmless devil and his lame alternative doesn't detract from that. But be warned, it does often make Principles of Lust painful to watch.

 

 
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