The Rules of Attraction (2002): Nihilism University


For the last few posts, I’ve talked about films that were unwatchable because of content. This film is one that may have not been on your radar, because of limited attention upon release and mediocre response from critics. It came and went quickly, making it not easily accessible However, The Rules of Attraction has had a slow burn, and people are now realizing the merits of the film (and thanks to Netflix Instant).

The Rules of Attraction  is a film about college students but it is certainly not a film about college. Plot is non-existent. Characters lack moral decision-making and act in ways that baffle the audience. Based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name, there was no real way to market it to “mainstream” audiences.

It takes a lot of courage to make an attempt at adapting a Bret Easton Ellis novel to the screen. His novels lack any narrative structure, are typically extremely graphic in both gore and sex (and often both at the same time), and use an overall tome and character development that can be seen a a veiled representation of society. However, attempts have been made; in abandoning the dialogue of the book to make a more commercial film (1987’s Less Than Zero) or in attempting to show the dark comedy of it (2002’s American Psycho).

Ellis has been quoted as saying that director Roger Avery’s 2002 adaptation of Rules of Attraction is the best adaptation of any of his works, and as a diehard fan of Ellis’ work, I agree. Like the source material, Rules is devoid of a traditional plot and values style over substance. The characters are not the least bit likable or sympathetic.

All the action is set in a small, isolated private, fictional college which provides an atmosphere chaos, privilege and people with irrational decision-making abilities. Students never go to class, follow rules, care about each other, or don’t even seem to be enjoying being at college. Administrators and adults are never to be seen, save for a brilliant cameo by Eric Stoltz as a sleazy, student-seducing professor. It was an element of the movie that made me uncomfortable; the sort of discomfort that makes me realize the film is affecting me.

The film is visually mesmerizing.  The prologue introduces the three main characters in short, narrated vignettes about what happens to them at a a college party. After each scene is introduced, the scene is played completely backwards over a haunting adaptation of “Carole of the Belles” produced by multimedia composers tomandandy. Why? No reason, but to make it look…awesome and somehow other-wordly. It’s not less than twenty minutes in when we see the actual opening credits, which consist of shots of the college campus shot in reverse over yet another electronified version of Verdi’s “Triumph March” from Aida. (Think what Wendy Carlos did for Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange). At this point you are already 35 minutes into the movie, and your commitment as a viewer is easily solidified.

The rest of the film continues in a series of intertwined scenes involving the characters. Some of the scenes make sense, some of them seem thrown in for no apparent reason: a friend overdoses and is brought to the hospital, only to encounter the weirdest doctor on earth; a character goes to visit his pill-popping mother if only to make a scene in the restaurant, a tweaked out Fred Savage plays the clarinet in his underwear. If a plot was to be had, it’s the classic love triangle. Paul (Ian Somerhalder), has an infatuation with Sean (James Van Der Beek) who is completely oblivious to any relations they have. Meanwhile, Sean is obsessed with Laura (Shannon Sossymin), who in turn is obsessed with her older boyfriend Victor (Kip Pardue), who is actually sleeping with Lara (Jessica Biel). There’s also something about a girl who is obsessed with Sean and later kills herself over it, but details like that are neither here nor there in this movie. Characters are not expected to be seen as real people. Yet, there’s a sort of voyeuristic quality that makes their actions fascinating.

The stunt casting is sublime: Jessica Biel, fresh from her departure from the wholesome Seventh Heaven, plays Laura’s bulimic roommate, a promiscuous schemer who “did the whole football team.” Van Der Beek, of course best known as the do-gooder Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, plays the scowling, sociopathic Sean, who tries to cheat drug dealers, sleeps around, and masturbates without shame. Shannon Sossyman doesn’t have much to do but float through the movie as the only “sane” character, connecting the stories together.

The highlight of the cast is without a doubt is Ian Somerhalder. His androgynous attractiveness is hard to ignore, and he carries every scene he is in. It’s a darn shame that this didn’t give him his big break, as this is several years before his breakout role in  The Vampire Diaries.  Not only is he mesmerizing to look at, but he seems to be keenly aware that he is in a dark comedy. Your typical mainstream movie-goer may not either, hence the lack of people who really appreciated it.

The scene that most needs mentioning is the schizophrenic montage of Victor’s adventures in Europe. Late in the movie, it is the only action that takes place outside the college and takes on a life of its own in which his quickfire narration best captures the spirit of Bret Easton Ellis’ focus on excess and characters’ dissociate viewpoint. We travel with Victor through his smorgasbord of drugs, women, travel, and debauchery. It’s a heightened visual treat embedded in a film that know how to exploit visual arousal.

This is a film that is not to be taken at face value. It’s eye candy, both for its cast, scenes, and direction, and a vague satire on the obsession with excess. Roger Avary waited nine years since his fantastic work on Killing Zoe (1993) to direct this, and hopefully we won’t wait as long for his next stint as a director. [Alas, we may have to wait, as Avary was convicted of manslaughter while driving under the influence and spent some time incarcerated.]



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  1. Glad you discussed this film, because not many talk about it anymore sadly. I love it, I think it’s a bit depressing though. The restaurant scene with Dick is hilarious! 🙂

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