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‘Poison’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 19, 1991

Todd Haynes's "Poison" is a vision of unrelenting, febrile darkness. It presents three disparate stories in three greatly varied styles, all inspired by the work of Jean Genet, and its effect, as a whole, is like that of an especially vile infection; it moves diabolically through your system, spreading fever and nausea as it goes.

This malignancy isn't, of itself, the movie's undoing. For Genet, dreaming was done in darkness, and his passionate entry into the gutter realms was an attempt to achieve redemption by confronting the toxic essence of man -- by purging himself of all illusions of innocence and embracing the bestial, power-obsessed side of our personalities. The universe he created was lurid, sadistic and unabashedly homoerotic, but there was always a promise of transcendence in his descents. In "Poison," which was partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and was the object of recent controversy, Haynes captures the cruel, unflinching spirit of Genet without fully realizing the writer's objectives. He gets it about half right, and half right, in this case, is all wrong.

The problem with "Poison" is not one of intention but one of actualization; its failures are purely those of talent. Haynes can take us down into the spider-webbed caves of depravity, even where that depravity mutates into comedy, but he cannot do what a real artist must in order to justify the trip; he cannot tell us why it is necessary. He may, in fact, not know why. The picture has an oddly distanced tone, as if Haynes were working more fully out of Genet than out of himself; it's someone else's demons he's wrestling with, not his own.

The stories have been rendered in an American idiom in which Haynes attempts to replicate Genet's extravagant theatricality with a homespun artifice all his own. Each segment speaks with a different voice: One is a mock documentary about a 7-year-old boy who shoots his father, then ascends into the clouds; the second is a kind of B-movie variation on the mad-scientist genre about a researcher (Larry Maxwell) who isolates the essence of the human sex drive, then accidentally drinks it; the third tells the story of one prison inmate's perverse fascination with a fellow prisoner. To pile artifice on artifice, Haynes has fractured the film's narrative structure, intercutting the three story lines so that they alternate, inching forward, scene by scene.

While this storytelling strategy might have worked well for D.W. Griffith in "Intolerance," it's disastrous for Haynes. Set up this way, none of the tales is allowed to gather momentum and take hold of you. Just as we're getting into an elementary school nurse's account of how the child (Chris Singh) seemed to thrive on abuse -- or the tortured confession of a fellow classmate who recalls how the demonic youngster used to taunt him into giving him a spanking -- another story line intrudes. Haynes may have had ulterior motives in taking this approach; the separate narratives are not substantial enough to stand on their own, and the director may have hoped that his fragmented style would work to disguise this fact. Its effect, unfortunately, is the opposite. This way we get to watch each episode flounder, scene by scene.

The unifying thread here is sex; that's the poison to which the title refers. In each of the three sections, sex is virtually synonymous with perversion, abuse, domination, slimy fluids and disease. It's hard to imagine a more vivid, skin-crawly depiction of sexual loathing. Without being overtly pornographic, "Poison" is anti-sexual in the way that pornography can often be; it's sex stripped of all romance or emotion. In the mad-scientist episode, swallowing the sex elixir turns the doctor into a virulently contagious sexual leper, with runny, festering sores, who creates a city-wide epidemic. In the prison section, a group of inmates torments one of their weaker brothers by repeatedly spitting into his open mouth.

Our initial response to this is pretty much involuntary; it's like a gag reflex. A deeper wave of revulsion sweeps over us, though, when we force ourselves to deal more consciously with Haynes's ideas. In the leper section, for example, he gives us an AIDS allegory that essentially says the disease is a fitting punishment for our animal lasciviousness; that at bottom this is what we are and that, basically, we get what we deserve. A bit of relish is mixed in with the black comedy here; it comes out in the exaggerated camera moves and the film noir effects. This is the way the world is, he seems to be saying; this is way God made it -- wake up and smell the latrine.

For Genet, this realization was liberating; it came with an endowment of forgiveness. But though Haynes struggles to achieve this dimension, his work remains submerged in the muck -- for all its ambition, it's more of a dirty wallow. In the end we feel spat on.

"Poison" is unrated but contains graphic sexuality and adult themes.

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