With his film Death in Love, writer and director Boaz Yakin accomplishes a rare feat. He populates his story with self centered, manipulative nihilists who spend most of their time doing horrible things to themselves and others, and yet, while nihilism generally doesn't work in movies, and while the film itself is significantly disturbing, it works. One can't stop watching. The characters, as superficially contemptible as they are, intrigue us.
No character names are provided throughout the film, or in the credits, so in some ways it is difficult to write about. The story involves a Jewish family living in New York in the early nineties, mainly established by the fact that the first World Trade Center bombing is in the news. The mother of the family (Jacqueline Bisset) was interned in a Nazi concentration camp as a young girl, and had an amorous affair with the Mengele style doctor there, earning herself greater privileges than the other inmates. The film flashes back and forth between modern New York and the concentration camp, often intercutting shots of sex, both late and modern, with graphic torture and experimentation.
The father of the family (Stu Richel) is a barely seen, notable mostly for his acquiescence to his much more aggressive and unstable wife. The younger son (Lukas Haas) is a mentally unstable pianist. The older son (Josh Lucas) works at a fake modeling agency, conning average looking women into signing up and paying for head shots and acting lessons, with no real chance of ever getting a modeling job. The main focus of the story is on the older son: his inability to emotionally connect with women, his violent affair with his boss (which oddly never involves sexual penetration) and his attempts to go legitimate in partnership with his new, fast talking co-worker (Adam Brody).
Not a lot more can be said about the plot, mostly because the film is much more character driven and experiential than concerned with maintaining a coherent storyline. A lot of hefty themes are wrestled with, along with a lot of naked flesh. The film is very non-judgmental. It doesn't attempt to comment on the betrayals, backstabbing and cruelty that everyone seems to indulge in. Yakin is content merely to observe, and to meditate on the fundamental disconnection of everyone from their fellow humans. Even the ubiquitous and graphic sex on display is strangely distant and passionless, as if the participants themselves are watching it on a film instead of partaking physically. This is a film about human isolation and distance, and the havoc it wreaks. Not exactly a happy subject, but Yakin infuses it with drama and interest. It is difficult to look away.
The direction is confident and purposeful. We see what Yakin wants us to see, and he isn't ham fisted about it. He hits subtle visual beats throughout the film, reminding the viewer that he wants them to see one situation in light of another, to compare and contrast them. The acting isn't bad either. Josh Lucas particularly, who also produces, throws himself into his role as the uber-cynical con man. One thing that takes a while to get used to is the very stylized dialogue. Usually one doesn't expect naked people to declaim complex philosophical discourses while lounging in bed post coitus, but it happens here. This becomes easier to take as the film goes on, and it becomes apparent that this is an intentional choice on Yakin's part, which also serves to emphasize the feeling of separation and surreality of everything. And the actors are up to the task, rolling the sometimes lengthy monologues out with ease.
Death in Love is a film that will be disturbing to many people, as it was to this reviewer. It's hard not to feel a little queasy when watching two people writhe together in ecstasy intercut with Nazi experimentation. But that feeling of disquiet is exactly what Yakin is going for. He plays his cards close to the vest in this one, and it's hard to divine exactly what point he's trying to make, but his execution is masterful. Be aware of what you're getting into, but this is one to watch.