Once upon a time there was a popular comedy team, "Cheech and Chong." Chong had a daughter and named her Rae Dawn. She is beautiful and she plays "Julie" in Erin Dignam's 1991 "Denial," a poignant poem of lost love and obsession.
There is another beauty in this warm, upbeat movie, and that is Robin Wright, portraying "Sarah." "Sarah," a sometime actress and tall, dark, handsome loner, "Michael" (Jason Patric), are lovers, as they were in real life, pre Sean Penn. "Michael" inhabits the realm of obsessional love with "Sarah becoming his "sickness," as he calls it--or her. "I'm sick" he tells her. "I'll help you" she says. "You are the sickness" he replies.
They tangle with each other and untangle as they seek each other's warmth without burning up. But they only seem able to push and to pull away from each other. She is loving and playful and has many actor friends. He has no one but her, and his jealousy.
When he leaves her, she is unable to forget him. He becomes her sickness, her obsession, as is often the case with the lovers we have lost, the ones that still have the power to bestir us. Her past then becomes her present.
Why does she look back? Perhaps to understand what happened, to know how and why her love was lost. Perhaps because she's imbued by the feelings and memories that love left behind. She craves the intensity and the poignancy of her lost love, the melting sensation in the stomach, the fluttering around the heart.
"Denial" may suggest that love affairs are imcomprehensible to those not involved, and that love doesn't necessarily have a neat ending. "Denial" doesn't present answers regarding lost love, perhaps indicating that we can only answer to and for ourselves.
The writer-director, Erin Dignam, is a poet of love, and Robin Wright embodies that poetry by dancing sylphlike through this swirling, dreamy film. Wright is a woman with the mien and voice of a girl, able to evoke the inner world of youthful, passionate love.
We wonder about "Julie" (Rae Dawn Chong). Is she in love or in awe of "Sarah" or is she just an observer? We find her quietly and thoughtfully watching "Sarah" seemingly with longing, but there is little interaction between them.
"Denial" lacks nothing in crisp cinematography and excitement, from the train scenes that frame the movie, to the cliff-top, ocean scenes, to the lovely house and grounds where much of the magical action takes place.
"Denial" is imbued with the haunting piano chords of Harold Budd which complement the songs on the sound-track. It's an intriguing love story without special effects, car chases, "Matrix"-like calisthenics or gunshots to jolt you and "move you to the edge of your seat." There are no heroic death scenes.
Here are excerpts from Dignam's lyrical script. "Julie" in voiceover:
"I've always just wanted to leave... Live another life... Start over again... Different... An unknown person... So that what is written on me is with my own hand.
I didn't know if I'd ever see her ["Sarah"] again But two years later I saw her... in an airport. Again things had changed Again there was little acknowledgement of what we both knew."
What is it that they "both knew?" Has something gone on between them that we've missed? Is it the acknowledgement" that Sarah is a lightweight, that she's out of touch with reality, a "loon" as her friends call her? "Julie" implies that "Loon" makes things up. "Loon" was an alternate title for the movie.
"Then Sarah opened a book and showed me a poem, And 'wasn't it beautiful?' Sarah said. Apollo stood on the high cliff 'Come to the edge...' he said 'It's too high...' they said 'Come to the edge...' he said 'We'll fall...' they said 'Come to the edge...' he said And they did... And he pushed them... And they flew."
A shame that "Denial" went straight to video. If the movie came from Europe, or the director's name was Bergman, Rohmer or Bunuel, its reception and fate would probably have been more sanguine.
Erin Dignam and Robin Wright, with a fine performance by William Hurt, later made "Loved" ('97), another subtle, clever, underrated movie. Both merit revival and writer-director Dignam deserves another film.
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