Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Neglected Gem #94: Bobby Roth's Heartbreakers (1984)

Nick Mancuso and Peter Coyote in Heartbreakers

Many claim the subject of male bonding, and the way women become the battlefield where men act out (and often avoid) their competitiveness with each other, to be the domain of John Cassavetes (Faces, Husbands). But I often found the verbal punch-ups between macho guys in his pictures to be ultimately quite wearying. In Bobby Roth's seldom-seen Heartbreakers, the guys aren't frustrated blowhards and the women they're drawn to aren't mere victims of their bluster. Roth sets up his drama, which is set in Los Angeles, in terms of the dynamics that both trap and propel his characters into the relationships they choose, away from the ones they choose to avoid, and into the damage they're not conscious of causing each other. Heartbreakers is less about finding fault in the battle of the genders and more about indulging a curiosity about that battle and what it reveals of the warriors who engage in it. 

Peter Coyote plays Blue, an artist who is drawn to fetishism in his paintings of women. Blue is always at the mercy of his obsessions; his current model, Candy (Carol Wayne), a voluptuous subject dressed up in S&M garb, is being painted in a style suggestive of the work of Alberto Vargas, whose pin-ups usually combined both water colour and airbrush. As much as Blue lives in the moment of his appetites, he also flaunts his bohemian independence, much to the frustration of his partner, Syd (Kathryn Harrold), who is growing tired of his emotional distance and is beginning to crave the security of a more committed relationship. What Roth enables us to see  and what the characters themselves don't  is that Blue's self-reliance is also his defense against an emotional dependence on Syd. Meanwhile, she is quickly coming to the realization that her needs are always at the mercy of Blue's whims. Eli (Nick Mancuso), Blue's best friend, is his opposite number. Having inherited his father's garment business, which he hates, he has financial security at his fingertips. Yet he spends his evenings seeking a series of casual affairs with women that allow him to avoid feeling emotionally involved (even though he says he desires to be). When Syd leaves Blue for a rival popular artist, King (Max Gail, of Barney Miller), who has no problem making compromises in order to be successful, Blue becomes unmoored by the breakup. He turns to his buddy Eli, who has just become smitten with Liliane (Carole Laure), a dark, slinking beauty who works for the art gallery about to launch Blue's new show. She becomes the battleground where Blue and Eli are forced to confront their true feelings for each other.

Kathryn Harrold and Peter Coyote

If at times the writing gets a little too explicit in stating its themes, Heartbreakers creates a sonorous mood where the film achieves a certain poignancy through its aching melancholy. With the electronic sounds of Tangerine Dream percolating on the soundtrack, Heartbreakers gets carried along by the moods set by the characters in their hunt for pleasure and satisfaction. (These shifting moods are aided by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, whose neon vibrancy in the night scenes is contrasted by the smudged pastel colours in the morning scenes.) While it's clear that Syd still loves Blue for his passion, King offers her the security that Blue can't. (Max Gail's King has more depths of passion in his personal life than he does in his paintings.) Liliane is sexually bold, but emotionally remote and mysterious, which creates endless frustration for Eli, who feels he's met his twin  except she accepts her own detachment in way that he can't accept his own. That quality makes her more a perfect catch for Blue. What motivates both Blue and Eli to compete over the women they've chosen is their inability to face the issues in their own friendship. What Heartbreakers does most successfully is get at the ugly competitiveness that lurks beneath the strong ties between males. 

Perhaps the best scene illustrating that male rivalry takes place in a dance club where Eli and Blue go with Liliane. While Liliane wishes to dance with Eli, he decides to force Blue to dance with her instead so he can watch, while seething masochistically from the sidelines, as his best friend bonds with the girlfriend he can't connect with emotionally. (Despite the obviousness of using Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" as the accompanying song, the driving force of the tune and Benatar's grieving vocal beautifully underscore Eli's torment.) Eli envies what he perceives as Blue's freedom, his being his own man, where Eli sees himself at the mercy of his father whose world he's inherited and feels trapped in. That envy also fuels his unacknowledged hatred of his friend for having what he can't claim for himself: someone who once loved him like Syd. But what Eli doesn't see is Blue's own jealousy of Eli's security. "Everything is so fucking easy for you," he tells Eli late in the picture. But things aren't so easy for Eli because he covets the intimacy that Blue and Syd shared, which he couldn't abide. "I only wanted her after you were with her," he tells Blue about his own secret desire for Syd. But the emotional crosscurrents between Eli and Blue about women also speak to what they can't express to each other about their own friendship. "We're not kids," Blue realizes by the end, acknowledging tensions both men have chosen to ignore for years.     

Peter Coyote, Nick Mancuso and Carole Laure

Peter Coyote's long and limber body adds perfect character lines for a painter whose autonomy is both his shield and his badge of integrity. He can be as flexible as he needs to be while still appealing to those women who mistakenly see him as emotionally available. (Carol Wayne reveals a sweet vulnerability as Candy, who first appears formidable in her leather garb, but later uncovers a delicacy when, hurt, she recognizes that Blue's alleged affection for her is really the selfish sentiments of a man only concerned with the spark he needs to paint his subjects.) Nick Mancuso brings the brooding and mysterious shadings of an urban Heathcliff whose handsomeness masks loneliness and isolation. But if Roth gets a pretty good fix on the men, he doesn't provide enough material for Carole Laure to help us understand her motivation in this triangle. Although her detachment in relationships suits the story, we never see what her detachment hides. (She had more layers when she played a similar character in Bertrand Blier's Get Out Your Handkerchiefs.) 

Curiously, Heartbreakers hadn't opened commercially when I first saw it on pay television in 1984, but in the next few weeks good reviews by critic John Harkness in Toronto's NOW magazine and Pauline Kael in The New Yorker seemed to prompt Orion Pictures to give the film a brief commercial run. While it came out eventually on videotape, it has yet to see the light of day on DVD, or to be available for streaming anywhere. So someone has uploaded a video copy onto YouTube; I offer the link below for your viewing pleasure.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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