I can’t think of a writer as insufferable yet as fascinating as Bret Easton Ellis. His queeny prose mistakes celebrity spotting and the Prada brand name for narrative details and his social critique is both broad and underdeveloped. And while he’s perpetually drunk on pop-culture celebrity, Ellis is an expert maker of simulacra. He’s a postmodern hyperrealist that should be approached simultaneously as the author of his works and as one of his own monstrous creations. His protagonists range from the empty (American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman) to the less than zero (Glamorama‘s Victor Ward), vessels defined and empowered not by any discernable human emotion but by the music that plays on the radio. As such, Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction resembles more an Ellis novel than Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho. The film’s bravura opening sequence rewinds itself several times until Avary has introduced the three pawns in his romantic triangle: Bateman’s equally hideous little brother, Sean (James Van Der Beek); cynical gay boy Paul (Ian Somerhalder); and the virginal Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon).
Like a jukebox gagging on the very cultural tunes it spits out, Rules of Attraction is less a film than a queasy collection of vignettes that both mourn and mock teen anomie. The film is ripe with literary and film references (The Wicker Man, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) that deliriously point to but never dwell on this teen angst. Paul and his ex-fling Richard “Dick” Jared (Richard Sams) join their pill-popping mothers (Faye Dunaway and Swoozie Kurtz, respectively) for dinner after a 15-minute karaoke rendition of George Michael’s “Faith.” This is after Paul misses his perceived date with the very heterosexual Sean because one of his outrageously gay friends is having a drug overdose and needs to be taken to a hospital. Avary undervalues the Paul character throughout the film, though these ridiculously funny scenarios perfectly evoke his bemused prioritization of cock n’ culture over anything else. The dynamics of the boy-who-likes-boy-who-likes-girl triangle are ultimately less crucial than the film itself as a collection of signs and gags which individually point to everything that is wrong with college experience.
The film’s groove is sometimes nauseating—the rewinding film stock and frequent time-lapses have a way of displacing the events of the film to memory only to then regurgitate them back to the present. When an otherwise superfluous character commits suicide, Avary fascinatingly implicates the audience in her demise via a montage of clips from earlier in the film that hinted at the girl’s alienation. In the process, he encourages active spectatorship from his audience and a more human involvement from his characters. Ellis is at his worst when he moves away from the pop-culture machine and onto his monsters coming to terms with human emotions; the effect is not unlike a bored man of 40 awe-struck at having discovered his ability to urinate. When Sean realizes he’s done Lauren harm and thinks of leaving his hollow self behind, Avary doesn’t focus on Sean’s ultimately trivial enlightenment. Instead, he evokes his callousness via a magical realist’s snowfall. A snowflake falls from the sky and lands on Sean’s face, melting and creating the illusion of a tear dripping down the side of his cheek. This is the perfect media representation of an Ellis abstraction.