How do you solve a problem like Paul Schrader?
It’s difficult to think of a director with a filmography as varied in quality as Paul Schrader’s. Having penned the scripts for Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ and directed many celebrated films from First Reformed to American Gigolo, Schrader is known for his contemplative interrogation of faith, masculinity and sleaze. But he’s also directed a series of dead-on-arrival duds: just look at the bizarrely bad Lindsay Lohan–James Deen joint The Canyons.
I had high hopes that Forever Mine, written and directed by Schrader in 1999, might fit into his modest collection of under-the-radar hits, perhaps in the mould of 1979’s Hardcore. Alas. The film is a dour bore, spending its two-hour runtime practically begging out for some tongue-in-cheek camp and a better plot.
At a garish Florida hotel in the 1970s, Alan Riply (Joseph Fiennes) is an earnest cabana boy at the beck and call of a series of mouthy businessmen and their trophy wives. Enter Mark (Ray Liotta) and his young wife Ella (Gretchen Mol), who Alan immediately becomes infatuated with. After somehow seducing her, he creepily follows her back to New York where they continue their affair. Ella gets a bout of Catholic Guilt and confesses all to her husband; he arranges to have Alan killed (naturally). Unbeknownst to Mark and Ella, Alan survives the attack and returns to exact his revenge and get his girl. Essentially, the plot is an immiscible combination of a Pornhub category and the very, very very early draft of something Brian De Palma may have scribbled into a notebook before discarding and writing something far better. The Wikipedia entry gives up describing the plot halfway through, which feels pretty apt.
Often, a successful erotic thriller can take what is—on the surface—a porny fantasy and turn it on its head. Atom Egoyan’s Exotica is an expert example of this: taking a surface tale of stripping and voyeurism and transforming it into something fascinatingly complex and emotional. But in Forever Mine, Schrader takes this rich-woman-and-the-cabana-boy trope and asks us to take it seriously, instead of unveiling something deeper or leading us down the road of elaborate, campy spoof. What we’re left with is a glum-faced and humourless schlepp—an exhaustingly moralistic film which makes sex look like a total ordeal and women look like dainty tchotchkes to possess and control.
Perhaps this is due to the absence of erotic thriller stock characters. Gretchen Mol as Ella is no femme fatale; when we first see her she’s in an almost virginal white swimsuit, her face possessing a round, homely, young-Renée-Zellweger-esque sweetness. Costume designer Marit Allen garbs her in whites, pastel pinks, frills and curls, an over-decorated cake concealing a sickly interior. She does that Movie Thing where she kisses through her tears, slack-mouthed and passive, as men around her fight for the right to own her. She goes to confessional and asks the man on the other side what to do with her life, what to feel.
This is Paul Schrader, so obviously there’s religion involved. The writer-director was raised on strict religious teachings and studied philosophy and theology at college. He then wrote a book on transcendental filmmaking: an austere visual style that makes space for spirituality (First Reformed, his eleventh-hour masterpiece, typifies this). His works would go on to obsess over the intersection of faith and lust. Perhaps it has never been so shallowly employed as it is in Forever Mine. Ella’s saintly goodness—her crucifix lying guiltily on her sweaty, post-coital chest—seems to invite us to forgive her for her trespasses while her godless love rivals crudely fight for her pious honour. Colour me unconvinced.
Joseph Fiennes, too, is just far too creepy to be remotely erotic. Though we greet him on a sunny shoreline and his surname is ‘Riply,’ Alain Delon/Matt Damon he most certainly ain’t. Perhaps we’re meant to view him as a passionate man doggedly trying to ‘save’ the woman he loves. Instead, he comes across as a weirdo in need of a restraining order, sending love letters emblazoned a bloody fingerprint. His sordid fixation is communicated through shuddersome eye contact, his looks more Handsome Squidward than rough-and-ready. It’s also a bit gross watching this and knowing, at the back of my mind throughout, that his full name is Joseph Alberic Iscariot Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes.
Ray Liotta is, well, Ray Liotta—he shouts and gets sweaty.
But it’s probably the sheer lack of believability that I struggled with the most here. And hey: I know that half the fun of an erotic thriller is to test how far you can suspend your disbelief while still having a good time. I have to give Forever Mine major props for a very inventive murder, for example (crushed/burnt within a sunbed). However, you can imagine my shock when I went to research the film for this piece and discovered that fourteen years had apparently passed in the middle of the film. FOURTEEN YEARS PASS and I didn’t even realise. None of them even age, at all. The sheer stupidity of Ella and Mark not recognising Alan—just because he put in one coloured contact lens, grew a beard and put on a cringeworthy ‘rican accent like an ersatz Carlito Brigante—is just truly, truly laughable.
The academic George Kouvaros generously views Forever Mine as recasting “monomania and isolation” as “engagement of romantic love”. Many contemporary reviews also compared the plot’s melodrama to the works of Douglas Sirk, which, again, feels hilariously kind. We don’t deeply empathize with the insularity of our hero’s plight like we may with a Sirkian protagonist, nor do we look afresh at the idea of cinematic romantic love.
Weirdly, though—despite both of their characters feeling antithetical to the very cookie-cutter erotic thriller plot Schrader has crafted—there is a genuine lust in Forever Mine‘s sex scenes. It’s there when Alan and Ella are both at a disco, which is all strobe lighting and locking-eyes-through-the-neon; it’s there when they tumble into the sheets and a saxophone swirls into the score (Zalman King is quaking). The characters themselves may be awful, but I hold hope that Fiennes and Moll must be good actors, and will definitely try to seek out more of their work (the only other Joseph Fiennes film I have seen is the very, very bad Shakespeare in Love, again, no fault of his own I don’t think).
“By the time I made [Forever Mine], it was so unhip; it was so uncool,” Schrader back-pedalled in a 2005 interview. “Forever Mine was so old-fashioned passionate when it was made […] the film I wanted to make should have been made ten years before. It had lost its historical slot.” He’s certainly correct in saying that erotic thrillers’ popularity had waned by the late 90s. But then I think of so many other intriguing outputs from the genre post-1999—Unfaithful, Swimming Pool, In The Cut—and his excuse rings rather hollow. Unlike Jade, this erotic thriller isn’t even worth watching because it’s that bad: it’s just altogether quite nothingy, bad in an utterly mundane, anonymous way.
But hey, aren’t even the most anonymous films worth writing about, particularly in the context of such a celebrated filmmaker and a forgotten-about genre? Whatever your opinion, it’ll be intriguing to see how the inconsistent Schrader fares next. His upcoming film—The Card Counter, starring Oscar Isaac—is in post-production. Let’s flip a coin and see how it lands.
Words by Steph Green
Watch Forever Mine on Amazon Prime
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