The Principles of Lust



UK 2003 : Penny WOOLCOCK : 105 mins

The Principles of Lust could be seen as ‘the British Fight Club‘ – both feature brutal, bare-knuckle boxing, and an unhealthy friendship between a mild-mannered middle-class chap and an enigmatic, inhibition-free wild-man. The ‘Tyler Durden’ figure is Billy (Marc Warren), who literally crashes into the life of aspiring novelist Paul (Alec Newman from Long Time Dead) when they’re involved in a minor car accident. Paul has, that very day, embarked on a relationship with single-mother Juliette (Sienna Guillory, unrecognisable from The Time Machine). But bad-influence Billy, a photographer specialising in ‘forbidden’ underworld activities, leads Paul rapidly astray into drugs, gambling and general excess.

While Fincher’s movie was a deliberately stylised, explicitly psychological exploration of contemporary male insecurities set in a fictional metropolis, Lust unequivocally takes place in modern-day Sheffield, South Yorkshire. And Woolcock has built up an impressive reputation with TV dramas (like Tina Goes Shopping) which are aggressively rooted in, and proceed organically from real-life situations – the film’s atmosphere is, unsurprisingly, grittily naturalistic within LoachLeighAmber traditions.

All of which makes it massively troubling when Billy takes Paul to a bare-knuckle boxing match in which eleven-year-old boys quite literally take chunks out of each other’s faces. This takes place quite early in the narrative, and we aren’t prepared for its sickening convincing ferocity – the boys’ fathers egg their kids on, cheered by a baying, betting, ringside mob. There is nothing in the film or its end-credits, to indicate that this practice is, in fact, fictional – and though anyone who knows about betting will know the “odds” quoted on the participants are nonsense, this is reportedly a scriptwriting oversight rather than the film-makers subtly suggesting the sequence shouldn’t be taken literally.

Woolcock has said that, while she’d heard of under-age bouts among Britain’s ‘travelling’ communities (formerly known as ‘Gypsies’), the boys involved would have been significantly older than eleven, with much less brutality on show. In which case, one must ask why Woolcock (whose script is very loosely based on an unpublished novel by Tim Cooke that does not feature bare-knuckle youths) elected to fabricate such a shocking scene.

Is it purely for dramatic effect, to emphasise the sordid depths to which Billy (“Billy the Id”, perhaps) has sunk? Is this some kind of distorted, wildly unfair attack on the Amateur Boxing Association, which allows youngsters to fight in its contests – albeit gloved and headguarded, and under the strictest safety conditions? Is it Woolcock’s intention to present Sheffield’s working-class as little better than bloodthirsty monsters, happy to see their children mutilate each other in the interests of gambling? Unfortunately, whatever Woolcock’s rationale, the scene’s naturalistic style and context means many viewers will come away thinking that such activities do actually go on.

But this is far from being its only major defect: the film hinges on Paul’s dilemma as he stands at a fork in his creative life – does he follow Billy down the Road of Excess hoping he’ll end up, like William Blake, at the Palace of Wisdom? Or does he opt for the quiet life with nice-girl Juliette and her sweet little toddler son? It’s an absurdly black-and-white choice, and there’s never much doubt in our minds which way he’s going to go – though it’s fairly clearly implied that this means the end of his authorial ambitions (perhaps not a great loss to literature, as we see him grind out only one, rather bad, sentence).

The final act, as Paul makes his fateful decision, is a real botch-job: there’s one last hazardous adventure with Billy, which involves an utterly incomprehensible form of high-stakes gambling in a seedy pub, then the film ends with our hero laughing as a comedy-caricature tramp does a dance in a city-centre fountain, while one of the kiddie Fight-Clubbers walks sullenly past in a hooded top, his cheek bandaged just in case we’ve forgotten that pivotal, disastrous sequence which so unbalanced all that followed. Some hope: this one colossal mis-step means that The Principles of Lust must, no matter what Woolcock’s otherwise good intentions, be condemned as a socially irresponsible – and therefore truly shocking – misuse of cinema.

17th March, 2003
(seen 30th January, Pathe Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam – Rotterdam Film Festival)

For all the reviews from the Rotterdam Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young