The far-out stylistic--and maybe thematic--revelation of the year, "Liquid Sky," pushes the comedy of erotic and social depravity to delirious, scathing, science-fiction extremes. There hasn't been such a brilliantly realized perverse idea for a movie since Bertrand Blier's "Going Places," and it wouldn't be too far-fetched to describe "Liquid Sky," opening today at the Inner Circle, as a "Going Places" Gone Intergalactic.
A nasty satirical update on the Sleeping Beauty legend, "Liquid Sky" derives its title from a euphemism for opiates. It chronicles the last days on Earth of a hellbent-for-oblivion celebrity of the new wave fashion world, a freakishly haughty model named Margaret. Portrayed by Anne Carlisle, she resides at a rooftop apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side that becomes an observation post and then feeding ground for an alien explorer.
Concealed inside a saucer-sized flying saucer, this creature is visible to us as an enormous voyeuristic eye, and it's evidently first attracted to Margaret's scroungy little nest by the presence of her roomie's stash of heroin, hidden behind a pale, blankfaced decorative mask that bears a peculiar resemblance to the zombified heroine herself.
The visit proves even more nourishing than the smack-happy alien presumably anticipated. A parade of additional stimulation turns up in the form of various suitors for Margaret's grudging sexual favors, which tend to be extorted in vicious, sadomasochistic circumstances. Her determined partners then pay for the exertion with their lives, because the vigilant alien can't resist a yummy, opiate-like chemical substance apparently secreted by the brain during orgasm.
Impervious as she is to most sensation, Margaret begins to worry a little about the undeniable weirdness of finding her hapless lovers post-coitally dead, with crystal slivers lodged in the backs of their heads. The clutter of corpses also causes her to fret, prompting the alien to tidy things up by instantaneously removing the bodies.
Margaret senses that she's got an invisible protector somewhere, perhaps a mentor who won't fail or disillusion her like all the others, including two of the victims. She identifies this mysterious higher power with the Empire State Building, which looms above her terrace. Ultimately, "Liquid Sky" is contrived to give a hilarious new meaning to the term "alienation" by arranging for Margaret to find fulfillment beyond anything our poor planet and civilization can offer. She embraces a transcendent identity as a chemically reconstituted Bride of the Alien.
"Liquid Sky" mischievously reverses the perspective that rationalized both versions of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Far from reacting with alarm to the prospect of fellow humans being snuffed by ravenous aliens, one views the omnivorous junkie eye of "Liquid Sky" as a kindly benefactor or sanitary engineer. There's no sense in wasting the slightest sympathy on the victims, since most of them are intent on dehumanizing themselves in a reckless, fundamentally antisocial pursuit of sexual or narcotic oblivion as part of the new wave/punk subculture that Margaret temporarily adorns.
It's not as if the alien is snatching souls as well as bodies. If anything, it merely hastens and completes a voluntary process of fashion-conscious zombification. Margaret, the prize catch, is positively dying to go, so who can dread it when her extraterrestrial consort gives her a spectacular way to go? The two exceptions to this satiric rule are expendable romantic dupes when all is said and done, although the most prominent, Otto von Wernherr as the dogged Johann, a German astrophysicist who's trying to observe the saucer as it hangs out near Margaret, proves an indispensable source of both deadpan comic relief and informative exposition.
A triumph of low-budget resourcefulness and originality, "Liquid Sky" was shot in New York on a budget of $400,000 by a group of Russian e'migre' filmmakers. Most, like director Slava Tsukerman, who wrote it with his wife, Nina Kerova, came to this country by way of Jerusalem after leaving the Soviet Union in the mid-'70s.
The segment of the art-film public that prides itself on recognizing exceptional talent will discover a sensibility every bit as idiosyncratic and astonishing as Bertrand Blier's in Slava Tsukerman, and even spectators who regard themselves as unshockable may experience a salutary shake-up. Unlike most movies with cult sensation written all over them, "Liquid Sky" does not lend itself easily to condescending approval. It isn't conceptually or cinematically crude, like an early John Waters film, or stuffed with elements that can be exploited for unintentional, smugly campy ridicule, like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Tsukerman has seized upon the satirical and allegorical possibilities in an unsavory contemporary milieu, but his comic vision doesn't seem shallow or dilettantish. Like Blier and the late Luis Bunuel, he appears to be a gravely serious kind of obscene humorist and stylistic innovator--in touch with the deepest, dirtiest, craziest recesses of impulsive feeling.
Tsukerman was evidently considered a prodigy of the short film during his formative years in Moscow but ran into frequent censorship problems and never managed to get a feature project approved.
This picture is apt to raise censorious hackles on any strait-laced Americans if they are rash enough to sample it. Authentically, harshly foul-mouthed and sometimes so candid about sexual encounters that the depiction hovers on the outskirts of the pornographic, "Liquid Sky" should be considered ferociously offbounds for the young, innocent, wholesome or devout.
For the fortunate degenerates who remain to appreciate it, "Liquid Sky" may offer an unforgettably heady comic exhilaration. In part, the kick derives from the sheer wacky effrontery of the erotic fable being told, but it's also a matter of perception and expressive novelty.
"Liquid Sky" looks and sounds different, enlivened by surreally bright color schemes and baroque pictorial schemes and distinguished by a humorous tone that often trips you up, because the timing is offbeat and somewhat querulous, set to a European rather than American metronome of delayed-action impact.
I've heard that Tsukerman was alarmed during some preliminary screenings in which the audience took everything in deadly earnest and Failed To Be Amused. There's no denying that "Liquid Sky" takes some getting used to, especially during the first 10 or 15 minutes, when the bizarrely stylized score seems to be coming out of a hurdy-gurdy from outer space.
If "Liquid Sky" catches on, it will be the first cult hit in recent memory to transcend the stigma of cultishness. And if the Soviet movie industry is still harboring malcontents as gifted as Tsukerman and his colleagues, let's eagerly make room for the lot of them.