Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Script Review: Loft (2008) part 1

Loft is the most succesful film in Flemish history. Director Eric Van Looy and writer Bart De Pauw succeeded in creating an enormous hype about the project long before filming began, with results which probably exceeded even their wildest expectations.

This runaway success is not that easy to explain, though. Loft is a whodunit thriller with a clear concept: A girl is murdered in the bachelor pad belonging to five friends. Which one of the five is the killer? A clear concept, but hardly a storyline for the ages. So can we determine what makes Loft so popular by analyzing the script? Let's find out.

WARNING: SPOILERS WILL OF NECESSITY ABOUND!!!

What is immediately obvious when reading the script is that the hand of the director is immediately obvious. There are an enormous amount of camera directions in the action description. This script was already visualized in great detail during the writing process. As such, stylistically it isn't the best example for other screenwriters to emulate.

Another thing which becomes obvious very quickly is that there is a very extensive use of flashbacks (and, it will become clear later on, some flashforwards too). This means the narrative isn't linear, and that the audience is made to work during the opening sequence of the film. They get a lot of details thrown at them, but the necessary knowledge to make sense of it all is kept till much later in the script. A linear approach to the opening scene would have worked too (the discovery of the body by one of the five and the arrival of his friends, and their reactions to the crisis they suddenly find themselves in), and might have given the beginning more dramatic immediacy. However, the use of the flashbacks makes the opening of the narrative suitably mysterious, and, as we shall discover, it's an absolutely essential part of the story. Using a linear narrative would have completely negated many of the twists and turns which show up later in the plot.

We have five main characters: Vincent, an architect, charming, manipulative and the owner of the loft who gets all his friends to go along with his plan (sharing the loft to cheat on their wives); Chris, a psychiatrist and the apparent moral centre of the film (more on this later); Filip, Chris' younger half-brother, a very aggressive, drug-using young man who marries the daughter of a wealthy developer; Luc, the most timid of the five, whose wife suffers from diabetes, and who may be secretly gay - we are led to believe; and Marnix, a chubby, sex-obsessed guy who is obviously the least intelligent of the bunch, and the weak link in protecting their secret agreement.

What is bizarre about these characters is that there isn't a single really likeable one among them. Not only do they all cheat on their wives, but their friendship is pretty strange too as the only thing which they have in common is their secret hideaway, but they have been friends long before this. On the page, none of the five really seems to like any of the others - and as we shall discover, this impression is borne out by their subsequent behaviour to one another. Loft isn't just a film about lies within marriage, but lies within friendship as well.

Obviously Chris is intended to be the most likeable among the lot, but even he comes across as selfish, cold and deceitful. Sure, he resists temptation for a little while, and he only has an affair with a woman he falls in love with, but the fact remains that he isn't much different from his companions in crime. Moreover, he defends his violent, possibly psychopathic younger brother, and has helped to cover up his serious misdeeds in the past. He is possibly the biggest hypocrite of the lot.

Be that as it may, Chris is the protagonist, as he is involved in finally digging out the real truth, and he confronts the real murderer in the climax. For much of the film, though, there is no real protagonist, but rather the group of the five men functions largely as a 'protagonistic entity' (man, I love using complex neologisms).

If you have cheaters, you have to have cheatees as well. And De Pauw and Van Looy make sure each of the partners of the men gets some face time too, so we get an idea of who they are.

Vincent is married to Barbara, probably the least well-defined of the female characters. She's pretty, dynamic, and that's it.

Chris is married to Ellen, an attractive but cool woman who appears to be no longer in love with her husband.

Marnix is married to Miriam, a feisty redhead who continually humiliates him and calls him 'Fatty'. Even though this is probably intended as humorous, it is in fact a very toxic relationship and, paradoxically, this makes Marnix the character one feels most sorry for - even though his continual randiness and stupidity make him an irritating character at times.

Luc is married to diabetic Elsie, a frail woman who needs constant care. She's also not developed very well, but fits the 'suffering martyr' archetype to a T.

Finally, during the story Filip marries Vicky, a young, vivacious, rich girl with absolutely no taste. It's clear Filip has only married her for the money, and really despises her and his in-laws. She's mainly a comic relief character but this makes her later descent into grief all the stronger.

And then there are the mistresses. Most important among them is Ann Marai, a call-girl Chris falls in love with (though before he knows what she does for a living). Sharon, Filip's 18-year old half-sister, a beautiful but naïve young girl who cannot resist Vincent's charm. And Sarah, a twenty-something the guys meet in Düsseldorf, who also starts an affair with Vincent - and who turns out to be the dead girl in the loft. Her introduction in the script is on page 66 (out of 145), near the mid-point of the film.

And here we get the first major narrative cheat of the script. When the men find the dead Sarah at the beginning of the film, none of them claim to recognize her. However - Vincent, Luc and Marnix meet Sarah together in Düsseldorf, and she hardly passes by unnoticed - going for a nude swim and attending sex frolic in the swimming pool with Vincent while Luc watches the proceedings. And as the first two men we see near the corpse are Luc and Vincent, it makes absolutely no sense for them to pretend not knowing who she is. And when her identity is revealed to all the men much later in the script (page 76), Marnix claims not to know her because he was too drunk when they met to remember her.

Finally, we get mayor Van Esbroek and property developer Tyberghien, Filip's father-in-law. Their presence in the script is needed for the subplot (which is really very minor) of Vincent's business dealings; and two cops, one male, one female, who interrogate the five friends (the interrogations are a partial framing device, though not used as elegantly as the interrogation in The Usual Suspects). These two don't even get names, and they are extremely interchangeable, being both refined good cop and vulgar bad cop at different times during the script.

With so many important characters, it's no surprise that all of them are sketched with one primary characteristic so they all stand out immediately (except for Barbara). There is a certain lack of depth to the characters, though, mostly because of the whodunit genre which makes it essential that there are many reveals throughout the story which shock and surprise the audience. These include hidden aspects of the characters (such as Luc's voyeuristic tendencies, Marnix' sincere love for his wife despite his womanizing obsession, and Vincent's perfidy and utter lack of scruples towards his friends).

Because these aspects need to be hidden for a certain length of time in the narrative, they cannot be used to flesh out the characters more during the earlier scenes. What the story gains in twists and turns, it loses in psychological depth. But then, this is a very common occurrence in the whodunit genre, which is primarily an intellectual exercise rather than a psychological approach to crime.

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