Dorian AKA Pact With the Devil
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (3rd October 2011).
The Film

Dorian/Pact with the Devil (Allan A Goldstein, 2004)

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Apparently produced in 2001 but unreleased until 2003, first turning up on VHS in the UK and DVD in Hong Kong, this loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray relocates the narrative to modern-day New York. A joint Canadian-UK production and one of the last films to be produced by notorious British producer Harry Alan Towers, Dorian opens with a striking titles sequence which features the film’s titles (presented with plain white text on a black screen) intercut with time-lapse footage of the city streets; throughout the film, time-lapse photography is used to mark transitions between sequences and points of ellipsis. From here, the film proper starts with a series of fragmented, disorienting shots of a crime scene that are heavily distorted visually (as if filmed through a lens smeared with Vaseline). Detectives are investigating the crime, and it is apparent that someone has been murdered ritualistically. Slowly, it is revealed that these distorted images are from the point-of-view of Henry (Malcolm McDowell), a friend of the deceased. Henry is interviewed by a detective, Giatti (Ron Lea), and Henry’s point-of-view drives the film, with the interview between Henry and Giatti taking place in the diegetic present and the rest of the film being presented in a non-linear fashion, via a series of extended analepses/‘flashbacks’ that are tied together by Henry’s narration. The first of these analepses takes us back to 1980, when Henry first met Louis/Dorian (Ethan Erickson); the second takes place in 1990; and the climax takes place immediately prior to the crime that is being investigated, in 2002 (the year after the film was produced, and the year before it was officially released).

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Henry tells Giatti that in 1980, he was managing a photographer, Bae (Jennifer Nitsch), when he met Louis, and as Henry relays his story to the detective, his recollections are presented onscreen via images of a fashion shoot in a brightly-lit, almost clinical, studio – imagery that has become almost iconic of the 1980s and that decade’s obsession with appearance. Henry claims that when he first saw the young and handsome Louis at the shoot, he ‘knew he was something special’. When Louis expresses an interest in photography, Henry suggests that he should ‘try getting in front of the camera’, indicating that success as a model may enable him to explore his love of photography.

The glossy fashion shoot is placed in juxtaposition with shots of rundown streets in New York City, as Henry stalks Louis, talking photographs of him with his girlfriend Sybil (Amy Sloan). In voice-over, paraphrasing closely a passage from Wilde’s novel, Henry notes that, ‘I learnt from Bae that Louis and his girlfriend Sybil were considering marriage, an institution I’m not a champion of. Marriage makes one unselfish, and unselfish people are colourless. They lack individuality, and above all they aren’t egotistical, a quality that I had every intention of nurturing in Louis’. Henry arranges for Louis to be used as a model, but after Louis struggles during his first shoot, Bae tells Henry that Louis isn’t a natural. Again paraphrasing Wilde’s novel, Henry asserts that ‘Being natural is just a pose, Bae, and the most irritating one I know’. Meanwhile, in his narration Henry claims that Louis ‘loved to be watched. It made him feel alive’, a comment that seems to underscore the film’s exploration of the objectification of the male in modern society.

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At Henry’s home, this time paraphrasing George Orwell rather than Oscar Wilde, Henry tells Louis that ‘Age makes me rather sad [….] By fifty, every man has the face he deserves. How’s that for terrifying?’ To this, he adds, ‘Of course, you could always turn the tables like Dorian Gray’. ‘Who?’ Louis asks. ‘The hero of a brilliant Oscar Wilde novel’, Henry tells him before outlining the novel’s plot: ‘Dorian was so handsome that an artist painted his portrait. Dorian makes a wish: the portrait grows old while he stays young forever’. ‘Kind of like a pact with the devil?’ Louis declares before adding, ‘Sounds great to me’. Referring to a portrait photograph taken by Bae, Louis suggests that ‘If this picture changed, instead of me, I could deal with that’. From there, Henry suggests that Louis have ‘a new professional name: Dorian’. ‘It’s a little pretentious [but] I kinda like it’, Louis observes.

As Louis achieves success, he becomes alienated from Sybil, partly thanks to Henry, who provides women for him. Sybil succumbs to a life of drug abuse, and eventually she overdoses and dies. Arriving at the apartment they shared, Louis finds that, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, the image of himself in his prized portrait photograph has aged visibly. As Henry tells Giatti, in the diegetic present, that Louis ‘grew increasingly more paranoid’, a ten year-ellipsis takes place, the film cutting to September, 1990. The 1990s find Henry concerned about Louis’ ‘partying’. ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’, Henry asks Louis. ‘This is what’s going on’, Louis asserts before revealing his portrait, hideously contorted, the face riddled with sores. With the aim of placating Louis, Henry proposes a book, to be titled Dorian: A Model Life, and Bae is enlisted to take the photographs for it. ‘How long have you known Henry?’ Louis asks Bae. ‘For an eternity. I was one of his first clients’, Bae tells him enigmatically. It isn’t long before Louis and Bae fall in love.

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Louis tells Henry that he is in love with Bae. Henry finds this hilarious, telling Louis that he cannot have a relationship with Bae. ‘I just want a normal life’, Louis asserts. ‘A normal life? You want a nice, normal life? [….] I can make you ordinary. I can make you completely, inescapably ordinary’, Henry threatens, preparing to slash the picture. Louis knocks him to the floor and takes the knife, telling him to ‘Leave it alone, Henry. That’s my picture’. This act of aggression leads to a breakdown of the relationship between Henry and Louis; and after acting as a guide to two visitors to New York, Mariella Steiner (Victoria Sanchez) and her husband Rolf (Christoph Waltz), Louis becomes involved in a ménage-a-trois. In the present, Henry tells Giatti that for the next two years, Louis ‘lived like a kept man’ and acted as ‘a gigolo’ for the Steiners. However, this leads to a breakdown of the relationship between Mariella and Rolf, culminating in Rolf threatening to shoot Mariella and, as Louis tussles with Rolf, Rolf is accidentally shot and killed. With this, Louis’ picture begins to deteriorate even more dramatically, weeping blood. Shortly after, Louis disappears, and Henry tells Giatti that there were ‘rumours’ about Louis: ‘Someone would run into him at some fleshpot somewhere on the planet, some dive where they sell any kind of pleasure – boys, girls, whatever you like. Pretty sordid stuff’. According to Henry, Louis ‘landed in a sex scandal in Bangkok’ but was never charged and fled to ‘other remote parts of the world’ until Bae ‘had a big retrospective in Tribeca’, a week before the film is set. Louis return to New York precipitates the conflicts that led to the crime that Giatti is investigating.

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In some ways this is a good film that is cheapened somewhat by the regular onscreen couplings (Louis-Sybil, Louis-Unnamed Woman, Louis-Mariella, Louis-Bae) that appear every fifteen minutes or so and are shot in a glossy, voyeuristic way, like scenes from a mid-1990s erotic thriller or a Zalman King production. Nevertheless, despite updating the material Dorian is in many ways a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel: much of Henry’s gnomic dialogue (‘Decadence fascinates me [….] Art is a sickness [….] Love is an illusion’) is paraphrased from the novel, such as Henry’s assertion to Louis that ‘You are perfect, flawless. I wish I could change places with you. The world cried out against us both, but it has always worshipped you. I’m so glad that you never had any talent: you never carved a statue or painted a picture or produced anything outside of yourself. Your life has been your art, your days are your solace’. (McDowell is also offered the chance to dryly paraphrase Matthew 16:26, featured heavily in Tinto Brass’ 1979 Caligula – in which McDowell played one of his most famous roles – when he asks Louis, ‘How does that quotation go: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”’)

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The decision to update the novel also works well, offering an opportunity to explore the increasing obsession with appearance, and the objectification of the male, since the 1980s. In this new world that prizes vanity and suggests that ‘looking good’ is the same as ‘feeling good’, despite lacking any apparent talent, Louis is the ideal celebrity solely because of his beauty: as Henry tells Louis, ‘You’re the luckiest man in the world, Dorian. There are no limits, with the sweet smile, that boyish grin’. In private, Henry advises Louis, ‘Please, Louis… do not think. Intellect destroys the harmony of any face. Beauty is a form of genius, Louis. It needs no explanation. It’s one of the great facts of this world, like sunlight or springtime [….] Beauty cannot be questioned. It has the divine right of sovereignty; makes princes of those who possess it’.

McDowell, whose character is clearly meant to be the film’s equivalent of Wilde’s Lord Henry Wotton, is the highlight of the cast, and he clearly has fun with his role. In this film, he’s at his creepy best, spitting out pithy aphorisms like a predatory philosopher who seeks out and exploits younger men such as Louis. His relationship with Louis is profoundly ambiguous, both in terms of the interest that Henry shows in Louis (Henry may or may not be sexually interested in Louis) and whether or not he is a manifestation of a supernatural force, the ‘devil’ alluded to in the film’s alternate title Pact With the Devil.

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On a purely anecdotal level, it is perhaps worth noting that the film was produced prior to the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, which feature prominently in a number of shots, and it’s possible to speculate that this may have been one of the reasons for the film’s delayed release.

The film runs for 84:50 mins (PAL) and appears to be uncut.


Video

The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with anamorphic enhancement. I’m not sure if Dorian was ever intended to be shown theatrically, or if it was always designed to be part of the straight-to-video ghetto, but the aspect ratio of this presentation is roughly commensurate to what one may guess is the film’s original aspect ratio (ie, the modern standard theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1). The compositions within the film (ie, the mise-en-cadre) seem suited to this aspect ratio, and many of the DVDs that have been released with a ratio of 1.33:1 are presumably ‘open-matte’ presentations of the film, displaying much more dead space at the top and bottom of the frame.

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The film itself is not very visually exciting, other than the use of time-lapse photography to denote the passage of time. Dorian is shot in a very ‘flat’ way, with much use of time-saving mid-shots and very static camerawork. In fact, what’s striking about the film is how much it looks like a mid-1990s straight-to-video production: almost all of the movie is shot with the soft-focus, brightly-lit gaze of mid-1990s fare. (Director Allan A Goldstein also worked on the 1994 film Death Wish V: The Face of Death, which has a similar aesthetic to Dorian.) The utterly redundant couplings that are interspersed throughout the film, shot voyeuristically and accompanied in the soundtrack by soft rock, make the whole picture seem redolent of mid-1990s erotic thrillers. It’s got a very ‘soft’, overlit and functional aesthetic that is well-presented on this DVD release.

Audio

The film is presented with an entirely functional, if unspectacular, two-channel stereo track. This is clean and problem free. Sadly, there are no subtitles.

Extras

The sole extra is the film’s trailer (1:42), which with its soft rock music and flash-cuts makes the film seem like a production from Troma Studios.

Overall

Film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray have been surprisingly popular during the last two decades or so; and this film, although a lesser production, is actually fairly interesting. In many ways, it is a very faithful adaptation of the novel, and by updating the narrative it makes a socially-relevant point about modern society’s emphasis on surface appearance and the association of ‘looking good’ and ‘feeling good’. In fact, in its attempt to update the themes of Wilde’s novel, Dorian is arguably a better adaptation than the more slavish 2009 high-profile picture Dorian Gray (directed by Oliver Parker). However, on the other hand Dorian is a very ‘flat’, visually uninteresting picture that, as noted above, has the dull aesthetic of a mid-1990s erotic thriller. Nevertheless, fans of Malcolm McDowell will find much to enjoy in his performance here.


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