Laurel Canyon (2003): Cholodenko’s Tale of Sex and Love, Starring Christian Bale, Frances McDormand, and Kate Beckinsale

A follow-up to “High Art,” her acclaimed 1998 Sundance Film Fest entry, Laurel Canyon is not as deep or provocative, but it again shows the skills of the talented writer-director Lisa Cholodenkos in getting good performances out of her casts, and in crafting sensual tales, in which the characters’ latent libido gets manifest expression.

Like “High Art,” which is a more original and stunning work, “Laurel Canyon” is an intimate character study. Christian Bale, just before he became a major Hollywood star (“Batman” and “Terminator” franchises) plays Sam, a handsome, bright fellow, engaged to Alex (Kate Beckinsale). They are Harvard Medical School alumnus: Sam is beginning his first year as a resident, and Alex is writing her dissertation. However, as a couple they seem to spend more time in bed than at work.
When the story begins, Sam and Alex arrive in L.A. to visit his mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), a successful record producer, who lives just north of the Hollywood Hills. Upon arrival, they are shocked to observe her “lifestyle,” her bohemian entourage, which includes her latest live-in rock musician.
In role (and generational) reversal, Sam is the square, stiff shirt and his mom is the hedonist fun-loving woman who enjoys her affair with her Brit-band charges’ lead singer (Alessandro Nivola), a young, handsome swinger who is her son’s age.
While Sam immerses himself in work and tries to resist the attention of a sexy colleague, Sara (Natascha McElhone), Alex, left to her own devices and with plenty of times on her hands, becomes increasingly curious of Jane’s “alternate” lifestyle. Distracted, Alex begins neglecting her work and hanging out with the band in the studio. Before long, an exchange of meaningful looks between Alex and Jane leads to a full-blown lesbian affair, to the surprise of all involved.
Would Sam and Alex be able to maintain their relationship together? Would Jane be successful in reaching out and reconnecting with her son, who simply doesn’t get her—and what she stands for. Jane indulges in drugs, swills whiskey sours while naked in the swimming pool, believes in and practices free love, and so on.
Cholodenko uses the story’s locale, a narrow winding highway that links the suburban San Fernando Valley with Hollywood, as a symbol of her characters’ journey, which is curvy and both conventional and unconventional, throwing them into a loop. The couple, representing the epitome of yuppies, is clearly destined for an upwardly mobile and prestigious but also boring lifestyle.
Jane is the instigator of change for all involved, a free-spirited, foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, tough-dealing record producer who refuses to act her age as prescribed by societal norms. Instead of the quiet hideaway Sam expected, in which Alex could work on her thesis, while they looked for their own home, Sam and Alex are thrown into a totally different milieu, one that changes their very basic values and assumptions.
Looking much more desirable than she had in her films for the Coen brothers (she’s married to Joel Coen), such as “Fargo, McDormand gives a terrifically loose, highly sexual performance, one that calls for exposing her body, which she does naturally in a pool scene.