Bright Lights Film Journal

Babies Bubbling Up: David O Russell’s Fertile Perversity Filigrees Flirting with Disaster

“There’s always been an acute mystery attached to the body . . .”

Since Flirting with Disaster starts with Patricia Arquette lying in bed for two minutes, we think we know where this film is going. There it is — this flushed, pale pink body, adjusting itself absent-mindedly, licking a spoon out of a plastic tub, falling in and out of sleep while reading and eating. Occasionally it gives itself a sniff, and at one point it puts a flower petal between its legs and grins with happiness. Everything is in this bed, it seems: it’s one of those Bonnard beds, a bluish sac of warmth, with Arquette tossing and clambering around, a mess of food and roses around her.

It makes sense that Flirting with Disaster (1996) would feature the “woman in bed”: so many mysteries about identity do, from Murnau’s Journey into Night (1921) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and Russell’s own Spanking the Monkey (1994). It’s the idea of a woman lying in a warm, spacey sac, navigating her way through the night, while the man takes an outward, parallel, and in some ways less real journey. So the classical structure is in place: we know to watch out for the themes of night and day, work and rest, the body and its imagination. What we don’t expect — or may not think is possible — is that the film will proceed to ignore, pass over, or rip apart those distinctions: cut them up and transform them into a new kind of wayward, ongoing movie. Arquette’s milky body — loosely bound and spilling all over the place — is only a sign of the chaos to come.

The film’s very first shot — before the bed — is of a woman with loose, silvery-gray hair; she walks with a lilt, almost waving towards us, and has a dreamily held look, yet her eyes and the directness with which she approaches the camera are forthright. She is a weird woman, by cinema standards, because she is attractive in a way we can’t read: even on several viewings, her eyes and her expression seem to be saying two different things. Because we’re not used to contradiction (only duplicity) when looking at women on film, we don’t know why this should be sexy. Why would delicacy and knowingness and stridency be put together, and when it is done, why would that be appealing? There’s also the age factor. As a 20-something, I have to say: if we thought that mature beauty was all in the eye of the auteur, then once again, we thought wrong. It’s one thing for an older actress to glow under the appreciation of, say, Tarantino or Renoir; it’s another when the woman appears alluring “in herself,” and the camera doesn’t seem generous or “forgiving” towards her. This long-stemmed, mysteriously potent 60-year-old has the force of an unknown archetype: although we can’t fit her in anywhere, she seems completely familiar — like an image we only know through books, or a stereotype that doesn’t appear on TV.

While I’ve been charmed, over the course of several films, by Russell’s lewd attention to proper women (the cut-out hole in Lily Tomlin’s otherwise severe dress in I Heart Huckabees, 2004), it’s important to note that he doesn’t do this to be kind. The silver-haired woman is being presented to us as a potential mother of the main character (Ben Stiller), and the uniqueness of David O Russell is that this is inseparable from the question of whether she is attractive. This director’s subject is the surrealism of the everyday, the omnipresent — in other words, the icon we didn’t know was there. In this sense, what could be more surreal than the figures of our parents — those ubiquitous models of values, who appear to have influenced us, infiltrated us all along? What are our parents — how did they live, back in the day, and how did they think to structure our lives? What sort of house did they make — and what did we make of it? To take the subject further, how attractive are our parents: what does sex mean to them, and how do they find it? The film takes a curious, investigative approach to the ideas of parenting, sexuality, and adulthood.

Russell tends to view each set of parents as a permutation: a working out of emotional possibilities. As in I Heart Huckabees, Russell sees parents (or guardian figures) as developers of odd systems — pioneers of philosophical approaches, which can sometimes be utopian and potentially freeing, but at other times resemble a criss-crossing series of networks. The father in Spanking the Monkey (Benjamin Hendrickson) confronts his son with an array of tables, sequences and routines, and expects him to be the point at which they all intersect. In Flirting with Disaster, parents (especially Stiller’s) view themselves as inheritors: as the sole instructors of operations everyone needs to survive. The film looks at all the systems constructed by parents: their household economies, their ideas of well-being and safety (adults’ perceptions of boundaries being essential to what we are), and the crucial question of how parents get their information. How reliable were their sources — and could they harm us? The film’s running joke is that Mel (Stiller) cannot name his son until he tracks down his biological parents, and compares them to his adoptive ones; for him, until we make sense of what we were given — what this is — we can’t begin to live.

The trap most children fall into is that they try to logically solve the complications of their families. As Mel finds out, with his succession of mothers, the cruel truth may be that parents do it better — that they are sexier and more effective people, more humorous and graceful (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda, right), and at the same time more deserving of our understanding. Russell likes to show children sensually comforting parents — whether it’s Mel consoling his mother about her promiscuity in the ‘60s, or the protagonist actually sleeping with his in Spanking the Monkey. In Flirting with Disaster, each time a new parent is discovered, he or she is an almost mystical figure, inspiring a purity of emotion that can’t be matched. However, while selflessness exists, its conditions are very strict: maternal love leads to a beautiful and very touching moment where Valerie (Celia Weston) refuses to let Mel replace her glass because “all children break things,” but that sentiment is instantly retracted when he turns out not to be her son. “Unconditional” sympathy (like the blanket warmth offered by Dustin Hoffman in Huckabees) has to be tested, to see how it easily it turns off: how does it feel when forgiveness is withdrawn, or more importantly, curiosity — when a religion no longer matters because it’s not connected to you? What if, as in Mel’s case, blood is the only thing that stops someone from beating you to death?

Russell looks at what makes people draw others in and out of their worlds — what cuts them off, but also what awakens their concern for us, as in the case of Pearl (Mary Tyler Moore), the adoptive mother who suddenly rises to her duties. Moore’s performance is a total redemption of her role in Ordinary People (1980): the neurotic woman here isn’t required to shut off her wit. The part is a showcase for her unstoppable physical humor: whether wielding a cut wheel of cheese like a giant Pac-Man, or preaching the beauty myth to a new, placid generation of women. The thrust of her breasts is impressive — and even in the tooth-flossing scene at the end, her thread is angled foxily at the camera. This is yet another of Russell’s sexual motifs: beautiful high-maintenance mothers, and the wan young women who attempt to succeed them. Compared to the rather lank Naomi Watts in I Heart Huckabees, Isabelle Huppert is a sphinx, whose gaze feels like a draught of cool air directed at us. The mother in Spanking the Monkey (Alberta Watson) is a prone, sometimes listless figure, but the size and fullness of her features means she always looks luxuriant. With her, inertia is perversely but unquestionably sexy, so that the house (and the whole film) becomes a murky, brooding, sensual space. Watson is a difficult performer to read: her wide eyes can signal reproach or desire, without an obvious shift. While she’s a sexually imperious woman who gives orders off-camera, she’s no Mrs Robinson: her gradations of mood are too fine to be a caricature.

In any case, a Russell film wouldn’t allow that: a stereotype would never have time to gel, without being disrupted by movement or cross-talk. That’s especially the case with Flirting with Disaster: this film is in such a rush that it surpasses most norms of behavior or identity, as least as we know them through movies. The camera believes in the attraction of unstable people — it thrives on nervous tension, hopping from threesome to threesome, and never stops to consider what order might look like. We take it for granted that the clucky, bisexual male (Josh Brolin) is a sexy threat to the main relationship. And even though Ben Stiller plays the lead, he manages to keep his usual persona — the ticked-off everyman — suppressed; he’s not too “identifiable,” doesn’t normalize the humor, and as much as his character tries, can’t put the brakes on the film’s speed. The fact is, while Mel may be the focus of events, by and large, it’s women who flirt with disaster — they court it languorously, invite it in the form of babies, curiosity, new additions to their bodies. Mel’s wife Nancy (Arquette) looks at everything with teasing, shameless eyes, whether it’s food, or the interesting advances of a new suitor. The women don’t seem to be afraid of chaos, and neither is this film: whenever it sees a potential parent, it throws itself right into the chase.

When I first started connecting the people in the film, I thought to myself (somewhat prudishly), “Oh, so he’s taken . . . no, wait, he’s taken as well.” This lasted about ten minutes, because it soon became apparent that all the characters were bursting out of their units — everyone is on the run in this film, with new relationships being hatched and families set up on the lam. Even the relaxed, ideal father (Alan Alda) can’t resist showing his pride that his family was founded on adultery — since Mary (Tomlin) left her husband for him, this nurturing, creative partnership is based on winning romantically. Yet we don’t agree with Tina (Téa Leoni) when she says that infidelity is “vitality” — partly because she’s an obsessively streamlined woman who thinks constantly about impregnation, but also because it’s too pat an explanation. In this movie, the man who tries to separate sex and babies is doomed — Mel is dopily unconscious of his child throughout the film — and has to learn to re-absorb both, if he wants to stick around. Likewise, the women who try to contain flirtation, and limit their sexuality to posing (Pearl and Tina), find their bodies bumped up and jostled in ways they hadn’t predicted.

Yet while Russell explores the perversity of fertility, he doesn’t view biology as a harsh or unforgiving realm. When Mel becomes attracted to the “long-waisted” Tina, while ignoring his recently pregnant wife, it doesn’t feel like a cruel reality hitting home — as it might in, say, Bob Rafelson (who loves that kind of meanness.) Instead, the focus stays on Arquette, and that raw, unworked, but luminous body. Nancy may not care about aging or appearance, but she fanatically moisturizes her skin — she’s that kind of sensualist. Russell loves skin and bodies (Huppert and Watson have also been seen applying lotion to their legs), and he especially likes a form which is soft, languid, even “painterly” — but certainly not marketable. When Tony (Brolin) expresses an interest in getting to know Nancy’s armpit, it isn’t seen as perverse, the way such niches often are; his awareness of definition, the way he uses to hand to cut across the contours, reflects an understanding we can’t dismiss. The exploration of skin is again a visual arts signifier — not only Bonnard but Matisse is recalled in Spanking the Monkey, especially during the clips of the father’s trips. The anonymous women who appear to the side of the screen are like ready-made nudes, whose angles cut into and out of the frame. The first one — a small short-haired round woman, tending to herself in the mirror — would probably be used as a visual gag by other directors, but here it is a form that edges mysteriously into the picture, inspiring instant, potentially erotic, curiosity. It looks to be a series of curves moving in front of us, then a pair of indolent legs, slowly and uncritically observed. In fact, in Russell, a body never appears onscreen without our being interested in it — and this is what makes relationships difficult, since people are always chasing new connections and making last-minute changes to the family picture.

Flirting with Disaster is about these vulnerable, teetering relationships, constantly being rocked around, so that the conditions of kindness are exposed. Even the home of Alda and Tomlin, so expansive and accepting, is only a temporary unit, waiting to pick up and leave if the police should arrive, and uneasy about the “question” of the abandoned Mel. This couple, who extend parental warmth to everyone (“Nothing is inappropriate in this house”) have an uptight son who feels excluded by tolerance — stifled by creativity, and ostracized by Spanish-speaking children. This is an extreme case of the child restricted by oddity, crammed by too much freedom (the subject of I Heart Huckabees). Yet all of the families in this film are just as much of an experiment as the hippie parents. When it comes to working out borders, or deciding whether one person is responsible for another’s mood, Pearl and Ed (George Segal) are masters of dissection. And Russell is just as interested in the interim families struck up along the way; traits and even physical qualities are instantly grafted onto people, as soon as they are assumed to be related. When Mel’s would-be father (David Patrick Kelly) comments on his “Jewish” appearance, Mel explains that he may have inherited Jewishness from his adoptive parents, so “that’s what you’re picking up on.” This short film whirls by so quickly that there’s no time for a double-take: it moves on, before any protests can be made. When Mel is told he may be Finnish and Scottish (it turns out to be untrue), the thought of being something as remote and conceptual as “Finnish” is thrilling to him: he wants to know “what that means.” Finding your roots can be about shopping as well as spiritual longing: the excitement of obtaining a new imaginative train for one’s identity, a set of images to live by — for instance, what’s “Finland,” beyond an icy blue and white? So the constant grabbing of ideas plays into the plot: the Sturges-like comedy of multiplying sets of parents, driving across the country, colliding in identical cars.

With all its cuts, overlapping talk, and acid-based freak-outs, Flirting with Disaster may look like a wacky comedy, but its pace isn’t merely a screwball buzz. In Russell, conversations tend to be conducted over other people — over one’s husband, around and on top of babies, whispered through corridors, behind other heads. There’s a constant reproduction and proliferation: of words, children, parents, movements, behaviors. Being related to Valerie involves taking in the toothy twins from a third marriage, and a deviant uncle who’s into frottage; it also means embracing two new ethnicities, which are subsequently dropped but never completely erased. These reproductive possibilities draw in more and more of the world: pulling in new groups, genetic features, nationalities, as they come. Throughout the journey, family arcs keep getting cut open and sewn into new units: switches occur between cars, houses, cities, rooms, so that connections between groups can be made. And then, just as it’s starting to fall apart, it’s all caught on camera: after a few lens adjustments, the shutter clicks, and a great, big, unwieldy family is snapped on film, before there’s time to complain.

That leaves only the end credits. These aren’t the usual “what happened next that was hilarious” clips — nor are they out-takes. Instead, the end features five different kinds of nuzzling, from snuggles to tense foreplay, yet of all things, the focus is on: babies. Despite the steamy mood, babies are all around: squirming across the sheets, toppling in and out of bed, repositioned during sex, sewn into hot sequined dresses. It’s a flexible use of these growing, learning beings, left to handle the fallout of their parents’ “vitality.” What do the infants make of all these curves, pressing in on them? Do they find it unsettling? But if the film’s notes on behavior have been too fast for us to handle, there’s always been an acute mystery attached to the body, especially ones that have given birth: every time Arquette lies down, the film seems to change its sense of depth and time, leaving her body to develop its own sense of chaos. So that even though the final shot shows Mel settling into his wife’s peachy warmth, we feel that, rather than being domesticated, he’s actually taken the more dangerous option. By all means, follow fertility, follow the body, but just wait until you see where it leads.