Awkward and atrocious in equal measure, though still possessing a somewhat admirable earnestness and sincerity, House of D is a pathos-ridden coming-of-age tale injected with an off-putting mixture of adolescent sexual panic and well-worn simplistic stereotypes (the Holy Fool and the Racially-Specific Fount of Wisdom among them.) Triple-hyphenate actor/director/writer David Duchovny, boasting a Harold Bloom-tutelaged Yale Masters Degree in English Literature, attempts to pass off his feature debut’s many contrivances via the film’s press notes, defending them as necessary touchstones of great literature, hence great cinema. Yet House of D is clearly more a work of bookish intellect than cinematic instinct: minus an intuitive director’s soulful visual and aural rhythms, the film is ultimately a misguided, offensive hodgepodge of underdeveloped themes and ideas executed by a gaggle of on- and off-screen talent going through the zombie-like motions of mediocrity.
This is particularly distressing considering Duchovny’s three previous directorial efforts (“The Unnatural,” “Hollywood A.D.,” and “William,” all episodes of The X-Files), which balanced a keen filmic sense, a heady metaphorical complexity, and myriad changes in tone, from broad comedy to soul-searching drama. No doubt that television’s established, often repetitive tempos can more easily cover artistic ineptitude, but there remains a lucid thematic through-line in Duchovny’s trio of episodes (a precise focus on little behavioral details that profoundly delineate individual characters’ yearnings of the heart) that seems the product of a great talent. I recall, with particular fondness, an introductory moment from “William” wherein Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully arrives for a late-night rendezvous at F.B.I. headquarters, striding forward with her usual dogged determination until she pauses mid-stride and awkwardly adjusts a mis-fitting high-heel. The character’s many mysteries, powers, and failings seem encapsulated in this throwaway instant, and it illustrates Duchovny’s empathy with and understanding of those moments out of time that demonstrate and define a person’s humanity.
Only one sequence in House of D approaches Duchovny’s X-Files work: a beautifully realized middle-school dance (a pageantry of intentional awkwardness) in which the film’s going-on-13 lead character, Tommy Warshaw (Anton Yelchin), struts his way through an overemphatic mass of hormonal pre-teens like a Saturday Night Travolta while searching for his adolescent crush Melissa (Zelda Williams). Duchovny lovingly illustrates Tommy’s false sense of masculine bravado; indeed, it’s readily apparent throughout House of D that the writer-director is attuned to the mind games boys and girls play with each other (a running gag has Tommy joking with his friends that Melissa is “flat-chested,” prompting her own entourage to a hilarious “small balls” riposte.) Yet only in the school dance sequence does action and subtext coalesce into something magical (and the sheer awfulness of the rest of the film makes me suspect I was merely hypnotized into hysterics by Duchovny’s brilliant sideline gag: a rotund, heavy-metal-obsessed youth screaming unanswered “Sabbath!!!” requests to the DJ.)
From a visual standpoint House of D is a resounding failure, a film so dispassionately photographed and edited that it’s downright shocking considering the collaborators involved. One would think that working with established feature cinematographer Michael Chapman would yield dividends (however unintentional), yet the film—set primarily in the 1970s—is consistently flat and underlit, looking and feeling as amateurish as any number of NYU student films (this coming from a person who’s made his fair share). An opening sequence set in present-day France—where the elder Tommy (Duchovny) bicycles past numerous Parisian landmarks—unintentionally establishes House of D‘s tonal dissonance. Accompanied by a disconnected, eardrum-bursting voiceover, each scene element calls unwanted attention to itself, and this destructive detachment proves repetitious throughout the film, be it in the explicit form of that eternally cloying, look-at-me! scene-stealer Robin Williams (playing a retarded school janitor named, oy vey, Pappass), in the inexplicably Freudian relationship Tommy shares with his pill-popping caricature of a mother (Téa Leoni), or in the implicitly racist friendship the young protagonist strikes up with unlikely mentor Bernadette (Erykah Badu), a loud-mouthed prostitute—sporting a Pam Grier ‘fro—imprisoned in the titular Greenwich Village penitentiary. Especially in the latter case, the outrageous inability of Duchovny and his editor Suzy Elmiger (of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker!) to delineate any coherent sense of cinematic space between Tommy and Bernadette inspired this viewer to a kind of cathartic frustration, a desperate wonderment at how so much obvious talent could be wasted with such apparent ease. A saccharine epilogue featuring Robin Williams pancaked in old age makeup provides something of an answer to that rhetorical, a culminating tug-at-the-heart-strings sequence so unspeakably dreadful that its horror is, like most of House of D, better left far outside the realm of words.