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June 21, 2011

1

Swoon

by Franz Patrick


Swoon (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lovers Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold Jr. (Craig Chester) liked to commit crime and became sexually satisfied by getting away with them. But when Loeb decided to withhold sex from Leopold, the latter was willing to do anything for Loeb in order to prove his love which included kidnapping and murdering a Jewish kid. Based on a tragic true story in the 1920s, Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” was beautifully shot, adopting a cinematic style in that era which included a grainy black-and-white look with accompanying music common in silent pictures. However, the subject was very dark because we had to explore the mindsets of two monsters who were bored with their privileged lives. They claimed to know what love was but their inability to feel for the welfare of others begged the question whether they were able to feel anything at all. The main characters were fascinating to study because, after they were caught by the police, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was still all a game to them. I was certain that they believed they were smart enough to get away with murder, but I detected that they were simply playing with the cops as they were interviewed about the crime. They lied through their fingers, purposefully and strategically recalling incorrect details but there came a point when they started to take it seriously. I liked the fact that it was difficult for me to point at exactly where the game changed for them. “Swoon” is far from being a commercial film. There were images of cross-dressers that left me wondering about their purpose in the story, anachronisms such as the usage of modern telephones which I was not sure to be deliberate or due to the limits of the budget, and the connection of phrenology to the crime other than the fact that the two lovers were Jewish. I’m afraid such polarizing images would leave most audiences confused or frustrated. Furthermore, the picture ran a little too long. I sensed a handful of possible endings that would have worked better prior to the actual one which made me question if the director had a real control and a clear vision of his project. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film from the perspective of character study. Despite the film’s level of detail, I did not feel like I understood the two completely, but perhaps that was the point. Only an irrational and troubled mind could abduct an innocent child and murder that child for no compelling reason other than to prove a point. The story of Loeb and Leopold had been told on film multiple times (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion”). Maybe we’re not meant to fully understand.

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1 Comment Post a comment
  1. Jun 21 2011

    I think this movie is best understood through the prism of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early nineties, of which Swoon is considered a seminal work. (Of course, whether NQC, a term coined by B. Ruby Rich to characterize work by directors like Kalin, Gregg Araki, John Greyson and others, was ever really a ‘movement’ is itself debatable,) The most persuasive analyses of the movie I’ve read (from the anthology New Queer Cinema. A Critical Reader, 2004) focus on the moral ambiguity, inherent polarizarion and somewhat archaic techniques as a way of arguing that queer characters doesn’t always have to be either comic characters or pitiable AIDS victims, which had pretty much been the case with queer characters up to that point in cinema history. In that sense, it was (partly) about challenging “tolerant” viewers, to see how they reacted if presented with characters who were not immediately worthy of their low-stakes sympathy (as, say, a character dying of AIDS instinctively would be)

    It’s been a while since I read the book and saw the movie, so I might be completely butchering the argument here, but I still think it adds an interesting reflection on how the movie works, intellectually. I thought it was an interesting movie, but I couldn’t find much of the so-called ‘pleasurableness’ that Rich insisted on being a defining characteristic of NQC movies.

    Reply

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