Rules of Attraction, The (2002): Directed by Roger Avary

In an ideal world, Roger Avary¬ís “The Rules of Attraction” should have exploded into the public and critical consciousness. Critics would rave about Avary¬ís avant-garde use of non-linear time and narrative structure. They would marvel at Avary¬ís confident and crafty handling of three parallel stories and his witty and insightful dialogue. Audiences would make stars out of Avary¬ís relatively unknown cast, including Jessica Biehl, Kate Bosworth, Shannyn Sossamon, and James Van Der Beek. “Rules of Attraction” might have even won some recognition and prizes at both independent film festivals.

Ironically, all this did happen, but it happened to another film with which Avary was involved, Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster indie “Pulp Fiction,” a Cannes Fest winning film which Avary co-wrote, co-winning for it the 1994 Original Screenplay Oscar.

This is Avary’ second directorial effort, after a promising debut in 1994 with the violent crimer “Killing Zoe,” which also divided critics and was a commercial failure for the then new company, October Films. In his new work, Avary has created an intriguing portrait of disaffected youth, but the film went largely unnoticed during its brief theatrical run, with some critics (such as E.T.’s Leonard Maltin) dismissing it as a “bomb,” while others perceiving it as brilliant.

Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, “Rules of Attraction” tells the story of the debauched lives of rich kids at an exclusive liberal arts college. Each of the three main characters in the tale preys upon and yet depend on each other to define themselves. As one of the characters notes, they are “emotional vampires,” feeding off of each other to make sense of their meaningless lives, and in the process killing each other, both spiritually, and, in one shocking scene of violence, literally doing so.

What makes the movie repellent for some, while exhilarating cinematic experience for others, is its intriguing subject, bold approach, shifting tone, and experimentation with narrative structure, at times to the point of schizophrenia. The film’s fragmented narrative reflects the sense of dislocation that all of the characters feel. They are lost souls adrift in an amoral landscape of nihilism and, near the end of the film, a strange yet vital optimism.

The main complaint about “Rules of Attraction” was that its characters were shallow, unsympathetic, and deplorable. However, the same could be said about Anthony Perkins¬í madman in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Let¬ís face it, we sometimes enjoy watching psychotic murderers in movies, such as Hannibal Lecter, for which Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lamb,” and the lead yuppie killer of “American Psycho,” played by no other than Christian Bale (now star of the “Batman” film franchise).

For me, what elevates “Rules of Attraction” above its nasty characters is the innovative way in telling its story. On the most obvious level, the film doesn¬ít present a linear, chronological narrative. Instead, it goes back and forth in time, presenting the same scenes from different perspectives. At other times, Avary uses split-screen effects, a popular device of 1970s Hollywood pictures, to further challenge our frontal lobes.

In some of the picture’s most exhilarating moments, Avary depicts a wild drug-and-sex fueled European vacation in the form of the ultimate speed freak¬ís home-video montage.

All this restless experimentation would amount to little effect, it there was no substance behind it. Like some of the European Surrealists, Avary disfigures and bends the narrative structure in order to reveal how fragmented the lives of the rich and the young are. Avary’s characters live in a world where sex, drugs, suicide, and rape co-exist with the possibility of redemption.

In fact, the only “good” character in “Rules of Engagement” is a virgin who is saving herself for her absent boyfriend. She is the only glimmer of hope in the bleak world of Avary¬ís film, whose disjointed style reveals the chaos beneath the flashy fa?ßade of those who have too much time and money on their hands.

By Jeffrey Wang