Roger Avery’s (who co-wrote 1994’s Pulp Fiction) adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel The Rules of Attraction (2002) opens during “The End of the World Party,” which is held at an upper-crust liberal arts college on the East Coast. Avery first introduces us to the beautiful and intelligent Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) as she narrates her story of wanting romance. But she instead gets drunk and raped before the filmmaker rewinds – through the entire party sequence – and introduces us to Paul (Ian Somerhalder), a gay undergraduate who is beaten by a jock after making a pass at him. Finally, Avery rewinds the film to introduce us to Sean Bateman (the brother of Patrick Bateman, the main character in Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho and MaryHarron’s 2000 film adaptation), who’s played by James van der Beek. Sean seduces a beautiful blond woman (Kate Bosworth) only to realize that he can’t remember the last time when he’s had sex sober. Avery then rewinds the film through the entire semester to show us how these three end up in such awful positions.
Once the rewind takes place, we watch as Sean, Lauren, and Paul begin to ignorantly form a love triangle. Paul lusts after Sean and invites him out for dinner, believing it to be a date. Sean agrees to go out with Paul, thinking it’s merely an excuse to party. Avery perfectly captures the rupture in perception in a split-screen sequence with one side of the screen depicting Sean’s subjective account of their night out, while the other side shows us Paul’s.
Sean lusts after Lauren, whom he (incorrectly) believes has been leaving him anonymous love letters. Lauren thinks Sean is cute and all, but she’s too busy saving herself for her boyfriend Victor (Kip Pardue), who is away on a trip through Europe. Add in a subplot about drug dealing, a suicide, an attempted suicide, and a very uncomfortable dinner scene (in a film about college, the students are never shown in class) and you’ve got the film in a nutshell.
I’ve had an evolving and increasingly conflicted opinion about the film over the years. The film came out in the fall of my freshman year of college and, at the time, I thought it was a cynically hilarious illustration of the college life that nearly every young boy holds up as an ideal (sex, drugs, and alcohol!). I loved the film’s pitch-black dialogue and Avery’s style, which added even more dazzle to his portrait of young adult moral disintegration. I’ve re-watched the film twice since it debuted, and my reactions to it have continued to evolve. In 2006, as a soon-to-be college graduate who discovered that la dolce vita isn’t nearly as sweet as it seems to be, I found the characters unsympathetic and the film’s focus on undergraduate life shrilly handled.
Having re-watched the film six years later, on the eve of finishing graduate school, I’ve realized my earlier impressions were wrong. Avery isn’t glamorizing this lifestyle; he’s criticizing these “emotional vampires,” who are vain and presumptuous to the point of being unable to relate to one another (“Nobody knows anyone. You will never know me,” Lauren tells Sean).
The (potential) problem with Avery’s film is that his embrace of style inspires an aesthetic paradox. The split-screens and rewinds, superimposed with an amazing soundtrack – featuring the Cure, the Rapture, and Donovan – is viscerally intoxicating, which led me to my first impression that the film was glamorizing an ideal. On the contrary, the energetic form, juxtaposed with the content, is what gives Avery’s satire its bite: la dolce vita may look appealing, but it is morally hollow.