Jan 22, 2021

Luminous Motion (Bette Gordon, 1998)

"Sometimes it's very hard to tell the difference between your conception of the world and the world's conception of you."

Surrounded by an aura of dreamy otherworldliness or rather, magnetic mysteriousness, Deborah Kara Unger portrays Margaret - a free-spirited hustler of a mom to a ten-year-old boy, Phillip (Eric Lloyd), whose cuteness is matched by his brainpower and interest for natural science, particularly chemistry, and exceeded by burgeoning psychopathy. Together, this 'chemotropic' duo travels across the States, swindling their way to make ends meet, until a small accident settles them in the modest home of a kind carpenter and hardware store owner nicknamed Pedro (Terry Kinney). A possibility of idyllic life is undermined by Philip's ever-growing Oedipal complex and the appearance of his father who may or may not be a figment of the kid's imagination...

Narrated from an unreliable perspective of a morally disoriented child (I know my memory's hopelessly flawed and entangled with my imagination, he says at the beginning), Luminous Motion initially appears like a happy-go-lucky road-movie about a couple of sympathetic crooks, only to take a dark turn into a weirdly comical and increasingly surreal psychological drama. Part off-kilter coming-of-age / becoming-of-offender story, and part wickedly poetic exploration of dysfunctional mother-son dynamics, the film sees Bette Gordon's directorial rapier pointed against the patriarchal oppression, with her central female character gradually sliding down the slope of despair. Applying archetypes to three men closest to Margaret - a wayward offspring, stable boyfriend and ex-husband - she keeps subverting their reality until the viewer loses track of when and where the twisted fairy tale comes into play, and what actually happened.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter that we're left bewildered by Gordon's mind-games, because she pulls us into a singular cinematic universe in which a highly atmospheric, predominantly trip-hoppy score composed by Lesley Barber finds a flawless counterpart in captivating imagery of saturated colors often popping out of the screen (many kudos to cinematographer Teodoro Maniaci, as well as to Lisa Albin and Paul Avery for slick production design and art direction, respectively). On top of that, the mesmerizing, hyper-stylized aesthetics go hand in hand with Phillip's distorted and to a certain extent, damaged picture of his childhood, making heavy themes easier to process, yet strangely poignant and illuminating.

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