Written and directed by Mike Figgis

Pretentiousness masquerading as profundity; self-indulgence masquerading as art. The Loss of Sexual Innocence, the dreadful new film from writer/director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, One Night Stand), joins the ranks of the worst films ever made. This statement may, on the surface, seem harsh and heartless but will probably strike anyone who actually sees the picture as a gross understatement.

Presented as a series of snippets from the life of an English film director, the movie reveals the events that have made Nic (Julian Sands, still best known to moviegoers for Room with a View) the man he is today. All of the episodes involve sexual matters or incidents equating the body with feelings of shame.

As a 5-year-old living in Africa, Nic witnesses a disturbing sexual situation in which a teenage black girl, clad only in stockings and underwear, reads aloud to an elderly white man. As a self-conscious 12-year-old, back in Britain, the schoolboy is shamed by his gym teacher and taunted by classmates because he is overweight. At 16, now slim and attractive (in the person of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, most recently seen in Velvet Goldmine) but still quite shy, he explores his budding sexual feelings with his hesitant and rather rigid girlfriend. Even the scenes of Nic as an adult depict a certain dysfunction and unease surrounding sex, as he is trapped in a troubled marriage with a woman who drinks to drown her unhappiness and who dreams about stripping in a nightclub while an oblivious Nic plays the piano.

These sequences are intercut with scenes of Adam and Eve (naked throughout the film) and their fall from grace. After rising, as fully mature adults, from a lake, they meet one another, explore their new surroundings, happen upon a tree bearing (forbidden) fruit — complete with a snake slithering around the trunk — and discover sex before they are driven, frightened and shamed, out of the Garden of Eden. Oh, puh-lease.

The different episodes are preceded by written titles. Adam and Eve appear under the heading "Scenes from Nature." Another chapter is labeled "Twins" and features Saffron Burrows (Circle of Friends) playing twin sisters who are separated at birth. One is raised in Britain, the other in Italy; they pass one another in an airport. The characters in this very long sequence seem to have dropped out of a Calvin Klein advertisement. They are all sun-drenched, beautiful specimens with bored expressions and an air of enveloping narcissism.

The significance of the twin theme is unclear, but then the entire movie is so tedious and pedantic one doesn't waste much time mulling the possibilities. The question that keeps running through the viewer's mind is: What was Mike Figgis thinking? There have been some truly awful movies over the past few months — Welcome to Woop Woop and 200 Cigarettes spring to mind — but none has been as affected or self-reverential as this one.

Even on the most basic storytelling level the film falters. Why give Nic blond hair as a child and again as an adult, but not as a teenager? The 5-year-old is not referred to by name in the opening sequence, so when Rhys-Meyers pops up in the next scene and is addressed as Nic, it's not at all clear that this is supposed to be the same individual we saw earlier. A little later, a very blond Julian Sands appears, followed by a scene of a pudgy 12-year-old with brown hair who looks nothing like the angular, poutishly handsome Rhys-Meyers. Would it have been so difficult to give each actor the same hair color?

Benoît Delhomme's cinematography is the film's one praiseworthy feature. Shot in Super 16mm and developed with an assortment of photographic processes, the film proves visually arresting — veering from highly textured, washed-out images to bold, saturated colors of almost carnivorous intensity to moody infrared landscapes. The one cinemagraphic misstep is the reliance on a handheld camera, which draws even more attention to the film's overly calculated, artsy feel.

The music also proves unusually annoying. Figgis, an acclaimed composer and jazz musician, has selected several grating classical piano pieces whose simplistic, singsong repetition of notes would constitute cruel and unusual punishment if piped into a prison yard. (Somebody, please, shoot the piano player!)

Figgis' work has gone steadily downhill ever since his impressive feature debut, Stormy Monday, a hypnotically atmospheric film starring a sultry Melanie Griffith. For this reviewer, nothing has come remotely close to that achievement: not the popular Internal Affairs and certainly not Leaving Las Vegas, despite the rash of accolades and critics' awards it received. Even diehard fans will be shaking their heads over this latest work, however. Figgis has stated that The Loss of Sexual Innocence is his most personal movie — the similarities between the director and Nic are too obvious to be dismissed anyway — but what a pity that his worst film should be the one with which he most closely identifies.

Opens June 25 at the Tivoli.

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