Churl Power

For better or for worse, Lost and Delirious lives up to its name.

Lost and Delirious
Pauline settles for swordplay.
Pauline settles for swordplay.
Festering somewhere between an after-school special and kiddie porn lies this frank but heinously melodramatic open wound from veteran Canadian director Léa Pool (Emporte-moi). Adapted by screenwriter Judith Thompson from the novel The Wives of Bath by Susan Swan, Lost and Delirious is about girl joy and girl sorrow, girl solidarity and girl insatiability. In short, let's just say that it offers all the emotional breadth of the Lilith Fair (a statement we'll leave conveniently unqualified).

Actually, remember that time a few years ago, before maverick folk-punker Ani DiFranco went straight and got herself a boyfriend? Surely you must recall all that Look at me, I'm bald and tattooed and I like girls! shtick she employed to promote her otherwise awesome playing. Well, cosmetic issues aside, that's exactly the spirit that informs this project. Like DiFranco's best work, it's an onslaught of overwhelming passions unhindered by reason, and you know throughout that the characters will grow out of it all eventually.

There's a temptation to call Lost and Delirious "the female Stand by Me," concerned as it is with the agony and ecstasy of adolescent relationships amid the first dawning awareness of mortality (except we never saw River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton doing it). For this film's first half-hour, however, a more fitting definition might be "The Chocolate War with plaid skirts cleverly substituted for plot." It's about the trials and tribulations of boarding school, replete with bombastic verse, a charismatic professor, scalding inner torment, and wrenching martyrdom; we could also draw an eensy little line over to that Peter Weir film about seizing the day. But let's try to view this story of alienation, suffering, and release as some sort of original venture.

Perkins Girls' College is the sort of establishment you'll find only in a mystical Canada, rich with red-brick tradition yet surrounded by lush, verdant forests. The story begins with shy, self-effacing Mary "Mouse" Bradford (Mischa Barton of the lovely Lawn Dogs) being thrust rather rudely into campus life. Her mother died fairly recently, and her father has taken up with a new woman who'd prefer not to have a Mouse in the house. Naturally, this provides Mary with a perfect opportunity to dredge up her repressed resentment, to leap around to bad covers of Violent Femmes classics, to discover new, exciting feelings.

On hand to assist Mary in her coming-of-age are her senior roommates, brash Pauline (Piper Perabo of Coyote Ugly) and dizzy, sensuous Victoria (Jessica Paré of Denys Arcand's Stardom). Rather swiftly, however, Mouse starts noticing little telltale signs about her friends' alternative vibe -- i.e., they sleep together noisily and nude, and just can't seem to keep their hands and mouths off each other. "I know this sounds, like, naive," Mouse confides to us via narration, "but, I mean, I thought they were, like, practicing for boys."

In fact, the crux of the movie hinges on the transition of one of the two young lovers when she discovers her partner may indeed have been "practicing" with her all along. What could have been a happy-ever-after teenage lesbian film called When Tory Met Paulie suddenly runs off its tracks. Victoria -- who has a hypersensitive little sister attending Perkins -- comes from stiflingly conservative stock. Pauline, on the other hand, makes offhand cracks about her prostitute mother giving her up for adoption. Although the girls are intensely involved, one of them wants balance, while the other starves for supernatural swoons of love. Something's gotta give.

What's interesting about Lost and Delirious is that it plays out more like an advice column than a dramatic narrative, with all relevant psychological elements on display, as in some case study. Sure, Pauline is as prone to spurting lines from Macbeth at inopportune moments as Victoria is likely to wander off weeping in slow motion, but the obviousness of the proceedings prompts chuckles at moments that should be heartrending. The movie is beautiful to look at (lensed by Pierre Gill), as are the girls, but it takes its clunky message so seriously that it often verges on silliness.

It's pretty much a given that abuse and neglect lead to insolent and self-destructive behavior, so it comes as no surprise when the movie shifts its focus to Pauline's overt sexuality and strident machismo. (Not to mention her tantrums; it's actually shocking when she tells her professor, Miss Vaughn, played by Jackie Burroughs, exactly how to copulate with herself.) But the bigger twist comes when Mary casually defines her roommate as a lesbian, and Pauline recoils in denial. As she announces that she's not, that she's simply in love with the ultrafeminine, voluptuous Victoria, one starts to wonder how far the hunger for a nurturing mother can transport a soul.

Although there's loads of wonderful acting from all three leads, Pool's a little heavy-handed in her delivery, which detracts from the performances. We slip between bathos and fury and voyeurism (with Victoria's handy boyfriend, played by newcomer Luke Kirby) so often that much of it starts to feel stilted. Thank goodness Graham Greene steps in as a friendly greenskeeper with a fumbling wit; when asked by Mary how much it matters what other people think, he quips, "I suppose that depends on how much they're payin' ya." On that note, let's hope we can keep paying Pool to inspire and confound us, but let's also hope she grants us access beyond the obvious.

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