Shattering the rules of college films

By Daniel Rogers
May 27, 2004

What makes a cult film? This is a complex question, as there are many factors that lead to a film achieving cult status.

One type of cult film is a mainstream Hollywood production that is released to public and critical disdain, only to gain an audience later on, but for all the wrong reasons – people celebrating how poor a film is. An example of this would be Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.”

We are then presented with another kind: the type of film that gains instant cult appeal, a film that stands as the complete antithesis of everything that Hollywood cinema stands for. Something so outlandishly made it creates its own set of rules and its own audience.

This brings us to what I consider to be the greatest cult film of recent times, 2002’s “The Rules of Attraction,” directed by Roger Avary.

The plot revolves around a love triangle on a liberal-arts college campus. The cynical, nihilistic Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) becomes fixated on the virginal Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon), from whom Sean thinks he is receiving love letters. All the while, Lauren’s ex, Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), yearns for Sean, to such an extent that he creates a relationship with him in his mind.

The film’s genius comes across in its visual style and its hopeless, misanthropic tone. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, I will not be talking about specific plot points; I will instead examine the film stylistically as well as look at the tone of the film as the key to its cult appeal.

“The Rules of Attraction” is all the more impressive as an example of how to adapt difficult material. The movie is based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, and previous adaptations of Ellis’ work have been reworked both in terms of plot and in the reversal of his bleak ideology, as in 1987’s “Less Than Zero,” directed by Marek Kanievska, and the faithful but somewhat flat “American Psycho,” directed by Mary Harron and released in 2000. Avary’s screenplay departs from the plot of the novel, not even attempting to adapt the last 100 pages or so. He even changes one of the major characters completely (Lauren turns from a sex kitten in the book into a virgin in the film).

Avary proves it is keeping the tone which is paramount to a faithful adaptation. When interviewed by Creative Screenwriting about the task of adapting the book, it becomes clear that Avary understands the world of Ellis very clearly: “The novel is an indictment on the ruling class. It attacks the luxurious debauchery that exists within the ruling class, and reveals that they’re dancing on the rim of a volcano without even knowing it. He shows how that jaded nihilism leads to the ultimate collapse of social structure.”

To have someone who understands the text he’s adapting obviously goes a long way in creating a successful film, and this backs up the point that for an adaptation to work, an understanding of the style and narrative come as a package, and this has to be emulated on screen.

Avary’s directorial style also replicates the highly stylized nature of Ellis’ writing, but we’ll come to that later.

Back to ideas about cult film, the first instance we get that we are on a unique ride is in Avary’s casting. One of the tools Hollywood uses to determine the genre of a film, and in turn sell the film, is its casting. If a film stars Arnold Schwarzengger, it’s a fairly safe bet some kind of action film will ensue. But what of James Van Der Beek would a viewer expect, then? A lighthearted, PG, teen romp. Ironic, then, that the first time the viewer sees Van Der Beek in “The Rules of Attraction,” he stands bruised and battered while forcing whiskey down his throat. Very soon the audience will be treated to a shot of him masturbating to Internet pornography. Next we see an extreme close-up of his face, red and strained during sex – and this is just the first 10 minutes. Dawson this is not! Avary is taking the conventions of Hollywood cinema and smashing them to pieces.

Avary’s faithful rendering of Ellis’ book is vital, as he is the first director to put these rather dark and unconventional ideas onto film correctly (“Less than Zero” became a clumsy anti-drug morality tale, while “American Psycho” had a distinct feminist reading attached to it). Avary’s understanding of Ellis comes across in the sex scenes, primarily Bateman’s.

Like the book, the film has a set technical depiction of Bateman’s encounters, which is done to mirror the book in the notion that sex seems the same every time for Bateman.

The technique Avary uses is to film close-ups of the actors’ faces during sex; the fact that we never see the two bodies joined emphasizes the emptiness of the act and shows the impersonal nature of the encounters, almost like an act of self-gratification for Bateman. Avary incorporates Ellis’ point of the sex scenes being almost joyless for Bateman, and he does this through his screenplay, going inside Sean’s head, having him commentate on and narrate over the sequences. In both the film and the book, the sex scenes are quite graphic and alarming – in the book, the language Ellis uses does this; in the film, it’s the frankness and suddenness that is alarming – but never erotic, sensual or tender, which is the norm for Hollywood entertainment. Rather, they are repetitive and mechanical. This is exactly the point Avary and Ellis are making: The debauchery has alienated the ruling class to such an extent that they can no longer even enjoy the very things that corrupted them in the first place.

The main reason “Rules” works as a cult film is its depiction of college life. Think of every film you’ve ever seen set on a college campus. Chances are, you’re thinking of something such as “Animal House” or “Road Trip.” College is a great experience, with no problems, just one big party. The next crazy adventure is never far away.

Except that anyone who has been to college knows this isn’t true.

“The Rules of Attraction” acknowledges this. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to show college as an alienating experience. Interestingly, we can see the same character types as we do in all teen-orientated college films. Sean Bateman could be viewed as the typical stud of the campus, Paul as the sensitive yet unsure gay guy, and perhaps most importantly, Lauren as the sweet virginal girl that the stud longs for, wanting more depth in a relationship (for example, “She’s all That”).

Here, though, the characters and their actions only push them further away from themselves; the more they try to get what they want, the worse they feel. Some viewers complain that “The Rules of Attraction” is unrealistic, that college is not as hedonistic as Avary implies, but is it any less realistic than fighting for your right to party against the college’s dean, staging an elaborate demolition of a college parade? Three years at university, and I have never seen my dean!

Sex, drugs and alcohol are a part of college life – there is no point in pretending otherwise – and indeed they are included in the other college films I have mentioned. What “The Rules of Attraction” does, however, is show it all in an alternative light. This film shows a bunch of rich kids with nothing but time and their parents’ money to waste; they spend all their time having sex and taking drugs to such a point that they no longer enjoy it – hedonism has become a daily routine. One of the film’s characters, Victor, says after touring Europe at breakneck speed: “I no longer know who I am, and I feel like the ghost of a total stranger.”

Another interesting point is that in other college films, there are always distinct types of people. In Animal House we have jocks, nerds, big fat party animals, an uptight dean, etc. Avary does not present these character types. Everyone blends in. Everyone shares the same problems and lack of ideals, which is why I think a lot of critics had trouble with the film. Out of a whole college, there is no hope. These will be the people who become the elite of society, yet they never attend classes, drink excessively and experiment frequently with sex and drugs (as many people do at some point, but it is not a commonly represented mode of thinking). It is a bleak idea and says a lot about society. To even entertain the notion that there is a whole generation of people like this about to make their way in society must shake the ruling classes to the core. That they can see people know the true side of them and their ilk must terrify them, and the idea is shot down and deemed unrealistic.

Avary shows people at a troublesome time in their life, an age when no one knows who they really are. They are taken away from home and put into an alien environment where sex and drugs are readily available. This is no different from other college films, but instead of seeing this experience as light and funny, we witness people hitting meltdown, from which many of the characters will probably never recover.

For evidence of this, look no further than the suicide scene, which is one of the most harrowing scenes committed to film. It’s impressive for a scene that is cut in a number of countries, with Great Britain’s censorship body labeling it so realistic it could be interpreted as instructional. The power of the scene comes not from the graphic detail of the razor slicing the flesh (which, in its uncut form, is disturbing, to say the least) but in Theresa Wayman’s performance and Avary’s use of music and mise en scène. As the life of the girl (whose name the audience never finds out) fades away, Avary cuts to a prolonged shot of a dripping tap, the drips becoming less frequent until finally it stops, signifying the character’s passing. In what could be argued as an obvious metaphor, the scene is given greater meaning and extraordinary power through the choice of music: “Without You” by Harry Nilsson. Not only do the lyrics match the narrative (the girl commits suicide due to unrequited love), but the somber mood of the song and Nilsson’s crooning compliment the visuals perfectly, making the scene affecting, sad, scary and even strangely mesmerizing. That it provokes these emotions even in a censored state is a testament to Avary’s talents and style.

If there was any justice, this film would have been seen and understood by many more people; sadly, this was not the case. Not that it really matters – this film will live for years, and as time passes its reputation will grow and it will gain a following among anyone who wants to see a provocative, innovative and intelligent piece of filmmaking. “The Rules of Attraction” will be talked about for years. Its unique ambiguity makes it quite unlike anything else I have ever seen. That’s why it is the best film to come out of America in years.

Related link: The official "The Rules of Attraction" site
Related link: "Rules" director Roger Avary's official site
Related link: "The Rules of Attraction" listing @ IMDb

Related YouthQuake article:
Bret Easton Ellis: Author of the book "The Rules of Attraction"