Laurel Canyon is essentially
a character study of the effects of putting two control freaks in an
environment that is out of their control, and watching them squirm. It also
happens to include one of the more interesting and provocative sexual relationships
between women we’ve seen in a mainstream movie recently.
Written and directed by out lesbian Lisa Cholodenko (who also
did the lesbian-themed film High Art),
Laurel Canyon premiered in theaters in March 2003 and tells the story
of Sam (Christian Bale) and Alex (Kate Beckinsale),
an upwardly-mobile couple from wealthy backgrounds who have both just graduated
from Harvard Medical School. They have their lives planned out out as thoroughly
as possible, and these plans do not include spending time with Sam’s mom,
Jane (Frances McDormand), a free-spirited bisexual record producer
whom Sam has spent his adult life trying to avoid.
So Sam is dismayed to find Jane and Ian (Alessandro Nivola),
her much younger lover and leader of the british band Jane is working with,
still occupying the home that Jane had lent Sam and Alex for the summer to live
in while Sam completes a psychiatric internship in Los Angeles.
Sam is even more dismayed, however, to discover that Alex not
only doesn’t seem to mind spending time with his mother, she even seems
to enjoy it, and begins to ignore her dissertation work in favor of hanging
out with Jane and the band as they complete their record in the studio attached
to the house.
As the days wear on and Sam spends more and more time at work,
Alex finds Jane and Ian’s freedom from convention intoxicating — so
intoxicating that she finds herself doing things she has never done before,
including a sexual interlude in the pool with both Ian and Jane, and later,
an almost-threesome with them in a hotel.
Meanwhile, Sam finds himself increasingly drawn to Sara (Natascha McElhone), an Israeli doctor in the psychiatric unit. He tries to resist his growing attraction to Sara while also struggling with his increasing uneasiness with Alex’s apparent fondness for his mother and her boyfriend.
Inevitably, as in most dysfunctional-family dramas, secrets are revealed, long-overdue confrontations are had, and lives are altered in Laurel Canyon as Sam and Alex try to keep their relationship together despite the mounting deception and betrayal.
This is not a story about the impact of major
events, but of small, seemingly innocuous ones: a phone call, a long look, a
playful splash of water in the pool. This is where Cholodenko really succeeds
— at demonstrating how small, ambiguous decisions can lead to create clear,
life-altering consequences, and at how several little lies can be just as devastating
to a relationship as a few big ones.
The film stumbles in places by unnecessarily hitting the audience
over the head with the director’s message, such as when Alex tells Ian “You’ve
helped me…You’ve helped open me up,” and Sara tells Sam “I can’t
control my heart….I wouldn’t want to, even if I could.”
It’s aggravating and disruptive to have this stated so explicitly,
as if the audience couldn’t be trusted to figure it out without cliff notes.
The steady, measured pace of the film matches the slow unraveling of Alex and Sam’s relationship, however, and the music goes so well with the story that it’s almost like another character in the film.