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Love Object (2003)
Director: Robert Parigi

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Kenneth (Desmond Harrington) is a rather intense young man who works for a firm of tech writers. His apartment bare and his devotion to the job absolute, Kenneth is promised a large bonus, if he can produce an instruction manual for a gigantic and complex piece of government software quickly enough. Tormented by the exhibitionistic tendencies of his opium-smoking neighbour (Udo Kier), Kenneth latches onto a $10,000 sex doll as a means of ridding himself of the libidinous frustration that prevents him from focussing on his work. Lacking any real fantasy or romantic life of his own, Kenneth decides to model his doll after Lisa (Melissa Sagemiller) the slightly awkward but radiant girl assigned to help him at work.

Kenneth begins to obsess over the doll, spending money he doesn't have on expensive clothes and bondage gear and while this initially yields fruits (Kenneth and Lisa become incredibly productive at work), it soon turns ugly as a date with Lisa ends in erectile dysfunction as Kenneth is consumed not only by the doll's jealous voice in his head, but also Lisa's 'imperfections' - the ways in which she fails to resemble the doll. Now hallucinating frequently, Kenneth's doll starts to control his life like a dominatrix until Kenneth snaps and does away with her. Returning to Lisa, he takes a different approach and starts to convince Lisa to dress and do her hair like the doll. When Lisa discovers that Kenneth is turning her into a doll she angrily dumps him and, having got rid of the doll but lacking a girlfriend, Kenneth goes over the edge and tries to transform Lisa into a doll permanently.

Visually, Love Object is interesting if not particularly groundbreaking. It has the same washed out colours, prominent shadows and source-less, gritty and unflattering office-style lighting that feature in a lot of low-budget film such as Haberman and Passmore's Special, and Carruth's Primer. Rather than being a deliberate choice, I suspect the resemblance of these films is down to the fact that all three of them were shot on the kind of cheaper 16mm stock whose colours bleach and shadows deepen when it is transferred to more expensive industry standard 35mm film. In and of itself, the resemblance of these three films is interesting as it effectively creates a de facto genre of low budget, high concept films that rely for their effectiveness entirely upon the inventiveness of their scripts. Instead of being connected by subject matter or theme, these films are instead linked by a shared economic model. The mere existence of films such as Primer, Special and Love Object prove that it is possible to become a film director in America without paying your dues as an assistant director or a director of adverts.

Love Object has an undeniably high concept: it is an offbeat black comedy about a man who has an unhealthy relationship with a life-like sex doll. Parigi was not the first person to be inspired by one of the 'women' constructed by the RealDoll company. In fact, there is a growing subgenre of films starring RealDolls including Guignabodet's Monique (2002), and Gillespie's Lars And The Real Girl (2007). Nor is the inspiring effect of RealDolls limited to film makers as they have also been the subjects of documentaries, been photographed by Helmut Newton and are apparently the basis for entire porn sites. The reason for the artistic success of RealDolls is that they ask, by their very existence, some pretty straightforward questions about the male libido and the way in which men objectify women. Parigi's exploration of these questions draws deeply from cinematic history.

The first sign of Love Object's debt to older films comes when Kenneth takes Lisa to buy a new suit. This is clearly an echo of the scene in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), where James Stewart dresses Kim Novak to resemble the dead woman that Stewart's character was obsessed with. In Vertigo as in Love Object, the point being made is that male sexuality is inherently fetishistic. Not only can male sexuality strip sex of any of its emotional elements, it can also strip sex of its actual physical component. In Vertigo, Stewart checks the room around him as he kisses Novak, making sure that the details are perfect before consenting to have sex. Similarly, Kenneth is horrified to discover that Lisa has a tongue stud and a tattoo. Despite the fact that both men are holding attractive and willing women in their arms, their devotion to their fetishes completely subsumes their normal sex drives and, in the case of Kenneth, failure to actualise the fetish renders him impotent.

The final act of Love Object resembles an homage to another great psychological thriller; Cavalcanti's The Ventriloquist's Dummy from Dead Of Night (1945), the classic Ealing compendium of short horror films. In this, a ventriloquist comes to believe that his unethical dummy is alive and after falling out with it, decides to kill the dummy in order to be free. However, killing the dummy brings about a complete psychological breakdown and, when the ventriloquist finally wakes up, he is heard to speak with the dummy's voice. A similar process occurs in Love Object as Kenneth's failure to have sex with Lisa prompts him to dismember and dump the remains of his doll. However, once cleansed of the doll, Kenneth sees his life fall apart and he realises that he needs the doll in order to remain focused on his work, prompting him to try and turn Lisa into a doll. In this we see a man's struggle with his own sexuality.

When we first encounter Kenneth, he has no sexuality to him. He peeks at his neighbours and listens at walls but he does not do so in order to masturbate. Instead, he seems unaware of how to deal with his own libidinal urges so he latches onto the doll (presented to him by his co-workers) and Lisa (introduced to him by his boss). His urges given a coherent shape (and a voice in the imagined phone calls from the doll) he has completely externalised his desires. Given the resemblance between Lisa and the doll, he easily transfers his desires and control of his libido across to his co-worker but before long he gets restless and starts to reclaim his own sexuality, seeking to sculpt Lisa into a more pleasing shape. When she discovers this and dumps him, his desire is brutally transferred back to a doll that no longer exists, prompting him to resort to violence in an attempt to reclaim control of his own sexual universe. The neurotic intensity that makes Kenneth a great tech writer and which saw him devote so much time and money to the relationship with his doll now takes a hideous and violent shape.

It is fair to say that Love Object is a fascinating film. The depiction of male sexual desires as things that are 1.) only loosely tied to actual women (or people); 2.) largely a question of maintenance (like the urge to eat or sleep), are genuinely interesting ideas that are seldom heard above the deafening noise of the romantic view of human sexuality that dominates most cinema. However, the whole film is infused with a terrible sense of déjà vu. Its most interesting ideas are either embedded directly in the subject matter (i.e. RealDolls) or they're reliant upon ground trampled by older and weightier films. When required to do his own heavy creative lifting Parigi is simply not up to the challenge. This is most obvious in the lack of real characterisation in either Kenneth or Lisa. This lack of characterisation is what forces the film into horror film cliché as, lacking any clear understanding of his own characters, Parigi struggles to come up with an ending that is either true to the characters or sufficiently compelling to tie the whole thing together. Lacking an ending, the film lapses into hollow spectacle utterly at odds with the low-key feel of the rest of the film.

On the whole, Love Object is certainly not the film it could have been. Painfully underwritten, it relies far too much on the undeniable cuteness of Sagemiller to give its emotional components a ring of truth. Harrington is arguably too handsome for the role and clearly lacks the experience and nous that might have allowed a decent actor to bring a little weight to what is ultimately a barely written part.
Love Object

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