Saturday, 12:00am
10 May 2003

Past caring

No one marketing the film could decide why this dated tale had any relevance now. Critique by Rick Poynor

Web-only Critique written exclusively for

Until I saw the street poster for The Rules of Attraction, I had no plans to see the film. I am not a fan of Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote the novel, set on an American university campus in the mid-1980s, and while I enjoyed Pulp Fiction, co-written by Attraction’s director, Roger Avary, that rather heartless exercise in stylistic bravura has always seemed overrated to me. I was intrigued by the trashing Attraction received on BBC2’s Newsnight Review (especially from a marvellously splenetic Tom Paulin) but not so much that I couldn’t have waited to see it on DVD.

So it certainly wasn’t the line ‘from the corrupt minds that brought you American Psycho and Pulp Fiction’ that induced me to stop and take a closer look. It was the poster’s main image, showing four characters from the film – two men and two women – and a bed. No one who has seen Peter Saville and Nick Knight’s cover for Suede’s Coming Up album (1996), with three bohemian pleasure-seekers on a mattress, could fail to spot the poster’s inspiration. Saville and Knight used Paintbox to build up the image in a series of digital slices. They left some parts of the figures in a relatively untreated photographic state, while other parts became brightly hued silhouettes. The look has been endlessly recycled by image-makers ever since. The Rules of Attraction poster even has a similar, tonally graduated green for the background.

The poster image, unlike Avary’s hyperactive direction, is enigmatically static and restrained. A lower-case list of adjectives suggests that Attraction is ‘wasted sexual debaucherous manic hypocritical erect violent cynical’ and a little circular device promises that this is ‘the uncut version’. There is no such word as ‘debaucherous’ (the adjective is ‘debauched’) and it must be a sign of something that the UK distributors, Icon, expect people to be attracted by an evening of hypocrisy and cynicism. If it wasn’t for the poster’s verbal content, you might imagine that the film consisted of attractive young people sitting around looking cool. Only the bed and a discarded bottle of Jack Daniel's, propped against a blue teddy bear, hint at something darker. And why the cuddly toys? One of the men is holding a bunny by the scruff of its neck.

The film’s affectless tone is depressing. Within minutes of it starting, the woman student leaning against the bed frame on the poster is raped while unconscious by a lout who vomits over her head while a fellow student videotapes the whole episode. Most of the students are charmless, seedy, self-obsessed bores. They snort cocaine, watch porn, masturbate and exploit each other without mercy – even the lecturer expects a blowjob for good marks. There is a crass suicide scene set to the strains of Harry Nilsson (‘can’t live if living is without you’). Redemption, when it arrives, is hollow and unbelievable. You are long past caring what happens to any of these narcissists.

A soft toy may have flashed past during one frenetic sequence, but the teddy bears shown on the UK poster are actually a reference to the teaser poster used in some American cities. This shows fourteen ‘plushie’ couples posed in various sexual positions, with the line ‘We all run on instinct’. After the film was given an ‘R’ restricted rating in the US, allowing those under seventeen to see it with an adult, a new poster was produced for the American release. The four lead characters’ heads, painted by New York artist Eric White, swirl inwards from the corners in the kind of clumsy but compelling montage that might have advertised a 1960s bad trip movie directed by Roger Corman.

According to Avary, on his website, the painting contains hidden penises – well, there had to be something controversial about it. The clammily lurid quality of the brushwork makes this the most apt of the posters in terms of the film’s subject matter and mood, though the converging heads are a literal enough way of expressing ‘attraction’. A third version of the US poster, based on a grid of photos of the stars, opted for inoffensive glamour. This is ducking the issue, but it probably makes more sense than the UK poster’s attempt to present the characters’ crippling inability to feel as a selling point. Are their fashion-plate looks supposed to make this interesting? What all these alternatives suggest is that no one marketing the film could decide why this dated and downbeat tale of spoilt-brat nihilism had any relevance to audiences now.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.