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'Speaking Parts' (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 03, 1990

Atom Egoyan, a Canadian postmodernist preoccupied with video technology, alienation and, of course, himself, mulls over these matters in his starkly narcissistic "Speaking Parts." While comparisons with Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" are inescapable, Egoyan's chill and haunted essay is only a distant relation.

Soderbergh's alienated egotists romp and sweat through a video-aided narrative, but Egoyan's troubled souls walk like wraiths through a wasteland echoing with the prophecies of George Orwell and Marshall McLuhan. Like his earlier "Family Viewing," this intricately wired pastiche of realities and instant playbacks is a couch potato's nightmare, a work of the newly graduated Pepsi generation.

A contemporary of Soderbergh, the 29-year-old filmmaker naturally thinks the world is a more fearful place with the omnipresence of cameras, tapes and tubes. TV's "Wonder Years" warms up audiences with home movies, AT&T urges us to reach out and touch someone, but Egoyan can't seem to find anybody home. He's like a native who fears the camera, once aimed, will steal his spirit.

The protagonists of "Speaking Parts" don't say anything until about eight minutes into the film, a slow, non-narrative scrawl through the lives of three people at a hotel, modern and depersonalized and photographed in dream time. Another eight minutes then pass before the characters, all angular, androgynous, curly-haired brunets, sort themselves out. The prettiest of the trio is a film extra and aspiring actor, Lance (Michael McManus), who makes beds and guests as part of the hotel's housekeeping crew.

When Clara, (Gabrielle Rose), a troubled screenwriter, checks into the hotel, Lance wangles an audition for a part in her upcoming movie about a brother who donates a lung to his dying sister. The two establish a relationship, which is consummated when they masturbate together via videophone. "Sex, lies and videotape," viewers will recall, also dealt with the voyeurism and the onanistic dangers of the electronic media.

While Lance and Clara are moaning and gasping and listening to his audition tape all at once, Lisa (Arsinee Khanjian), a handsome chambermaid, is folding peach sheets and towels in the sinister, institutional gray bowels of the hotel. Obsessively in love with the enigmatic Lance, she spends her free time renting and watching his films. "He's just an extra," objects the video store clerk, striking up an acquaintance with the scary girl. "He doesn't have any lines." "There's nothing special about words," she says.

Egoyan, who wrote and directed the film, certainly would agree, for he tells the story in menacingly attractive images, full of icy blues and drained purples. He uses the devil's own technology to sound the alarm, which is a bit like complaining about the smell of the pigsty while savoring the bacon. By setting the picture five years in the future, Egoyan makes use of the videophone and video-mausoleums (the Japanese already have them, he says). This means that loved ones need never die but live on in their tombscreens as pixel zombies.

"Speaking Parts" is a low-budget project but more polished than Egoyan's previous work. And though it offers much to contemplate, it is awfully stuck on itself. What little it has to say is not only pretentious but garbled, as when Lisa interviews a bride for a videotape. "Love is about someone else feeling you. Do you feel him feeling you the way you feel yourself?" It sounds like Ferlinghetti on an Apple computer.

Egoyan, who has been compared to Canada's David Cronenberg, also sees the world as a horror movie, monstrous with insensitive guys, like talk show hosts and big commercial movie producers (yes, that tired old whine) who corrupt the genius of the artist. In this instance, the studio "ruins" Clara's story by insisting that the brother donate his lung to a brother instead of a sister. Well now, that does throw a wrench into the rudder.

Egoyan, an interesting talent, could learn a lot from Soderbergh's spicier, warmer "sex, lies, and videotape," an honest, robust, rounded film by a director who looked inside himself and found a story to tell. "Speaking Parts" seems dishonest and posturing, more like intellectual masturbation. Oh well, that's why they call it projection.

"Speaking Parts" is not rated but is somewhat graphic.

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