Friday December 1, 2000
"Cleopatra's Second Husband," a diabolically clever psychological suspense movie, arrives today, just now getting an L.A. theatrical release after scattered bookings elsewhere. It marks an assured and daring dramatic feature debut for writer-director Jon Reiss, whose documentary on the rave scene, "Better Living Through Circuitry," received wide acclaim. (Reiss worked on both movies at the same time, and he finished work on this 1998 L.A. Independent Film Festival entry a few weeks ahead of completing photography on "Circuitry.")
Robert Marrs (Paul Hipp) and his wife, Hallie (Bitty Schram), are hardly an atypical L.A. yuppie couple. Robert is an aspiring photographer who, through shrewd investments, is able to afford a pleasant lifestyle that includes a spacious, tastefully decorated, vintage Spanish-style house. Prone to sinus problems, migraine headaches and similar chronic health problems, Robert is a slight, nice-looking young man whose passive nature allows Hallie to dominate him easily, perhaps even unconsciously. Self-absorbed to the extent that she is oblivious to his needs and desires, she is intent on becoming pregnant but rebuffs his sexual overtures unless the timing is right for her to conceive.
She nonetheless has worked out a plan for a vacation in the country that she thinks will provide a calm atmosphere that will increase her chances of becoming pregnant and has lined up a young couple, Zack (Boyd Kestner) and Sophie (Radha Mitchell), who are friends of friends, to house-sit. The Marrs have barely started their rather edgy vacation when Robert gets an offer from an important photo magazine to publish his work, an unexpected windfall of such significance that he uncharacteristically asserts himself, and he and Hallie return home.
Robert is outraged to find their fish dead in the aquarium and suggests Zack and Sophie leave, but they ask to stay on a few days to find an apartment, which it's obvious they have no intention of trying to locate. Hallie, out of sorts at her husband for cutting short their getaway, insists that the couple be allowed to remain a full week--more than enough time for these guests to wreak havoc. Zack is rugged, sexy and as assertive as Robert is meek, and Sophie is quite a dish. They make love frequently and loudly. And when Sophie comes on to Robert, he succumbs swiftly. The fun and games now begin in earnest.
Were Robert and Hallie bound by love rather than convenience and convention, they would not be so vulnerable to such manipulative, amoral opportunists. Not incapable of kindness, Sophie's just along for the ride, but Zack is an all-out sociopath.
Robert and even Zack might both have passed their lives more or less uneventfully, but having met, they bring out in each other aspects of themselves that are confounding in their extremity.
Joseph Losey's "The Servant, " with Dirk Bogarde and James Fox, as master and servant who reverse roles as their ambiguous relationship develops, comes immediately to mind, but Reiss takes this similar situation to lengths that are deeply disturbing in their implications for human nature, and even the creation of art. Reiss illustrates clearly how disturbing a disassociation between a work of art and its inspiration can be, and he goes on to turn upside down the conventional notions of what can destroy or liberate an individual.
"Cleopatra's Second Husband," which finds in Hallie and Robert's relationship a parallel to that of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, is so consistently inventive and compelling that it sustains a seemingly downward trajectory that would be an increasingly morbid turn-off in lesser hands.
Robert and Zack truly are not what they at first seem, and they reflect in each other human impulses at their darkest. What Reiss is able to pull out of Hipp and Kestner is amazing, and the uncanny rightness of their casting is echoed in the presence of Schram and Mitchell as well.
In the more demanding of the two women's roles, Schram really nails down Hallie, a woman who isn't such a bad sort but is simply shallow and obtuse, which, ironically, makes her resilient rather than vulnerable. Provocative, well-shot (by Matt Faw), brisk and unpretentious, "Cleopatra's Second Husband" works up a considerable chill.
Cleopatra's Second Husband, 2000. Unrated. An Indican Pictures release. Writer-director Jon Reiss. Producers Jill Goldman, David Scott Rubin, Jacqui de la Fontaine, Jon Reiss. Executive producers Peter Getty, Linda Stewart, Claire Best. Cinematographer Matt Faw. Editor Toby Yates. Music Cary Berger. Costumes Scott Freeman. Production designers John Di Minico, Thomas Thurnauer. Art director Anahiti Mosallai. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Paul Hipp as Robert. Boyd Kestner as Zack. Bitty Schram as Hallie. Radha Mitchell as Sophie.