Dennis Cooper’s quasi-experimental novel Frisk is now considered a classic examination of sado-masochistic fantasy. Todd Verow’s film of the book, though intelligent and daring in its own right, does little to disprove the old adage that great novels rarely make great films. The comparison is generally invidious and is only worth making here because Frisk raises interesting questions about the limits of what is represen table even in independent cinema.
The film, like the novel, courageously tries to represent a murderous sexuality, one that verges on sensual cannibalism. The loved one is reduced to a thing that seen, felt, smelled, licked, sucked and tasted. The violent transformation of humans into corpses is depicted as a compulsive romantic gesture. The power over another’s life (in all the pleasure of its horrors and the horror of its pleasures) is shown with a detachment that precludes guilt or remorse. That the film attempts to wrestle morally with these taboos is to its credit.
Challenging and imaginative in its complexity, Frisk’s narrative structure is still lucid. The story is framed by Julian and Kevin reading Dennis’ letters as they journey to meet him. However, Dennis also describes writing to Uhrs the porn star and his memories of Henry, so the impression is made of the film’s narration passing on to other characters who take over particular scenes, enabling the audience to see both their views of Dennis’ desires and their own. This complex narration mobilises different audio-visual media (Super-8 film, video) and a wide array of filmic devices (jarring montages, elliptical editing, episodic fades to black) to suggest, texture and delimit memory. Frisk is also fascinating in its manipulation of time. For example, in the scene where Dennis has rough sex with Henry, we first see Henry opening the door for Dennis. After a close-up of Dennis’ face, a flash-forward shows a close-up of Henry’s arse being punched. The next shot returns to the ‘present’ as Dennis and Henry move into the room before the same close-up of Henry’s arse being punched is repeated, now in the present. The whole sequence illustrates how, in consciousness, the present, future and past all coexist, and how fantasy and truth blur.
That Frisk doesn’t quite succeed is not entirely the film-makers’ fault. To work, it would have had to create sublime imagery that could simultaneously make viewers understand such murderous sexuality, but also evoke dread and disgust at the notion that their own desires might be complicit with the protagonist’s. Frisk cannot do this: under the present system of censorship much of what is most disturbing in the book (the sexual murder of a young Dutch boy, for example) is unfilmable. The film tries to get around this problem by a voiceover narration that tells us what can’t be shown (“I made a long, straight, slit from his throat to his stomach and licked all the inside”).
Words are a weak substitute for images in the cinema, yet this strategy is typical of a film which aims to represent the unrepresentable by not showing it. And the film makers have put a great deal of imagination into the effort. For example, in the scene where Dennis tortures the addict played by Alexis Arquette, he moves a knife to kill the addict but the next shot shows the knife cutting the rope from which the addict is hanging. The transformation of a person into a corpse is made in a cut, bypassing the murder itself.
This is clever, but not powerful. In spite of its qualities, Frisk doesn’t live up to its own ambitions. The low budget shows in the long takes and the poor quality of the cinematography. A kinder person would say the acting is Brechtian, but with the notable exception of Alexis Arquette, it is merely amateurish. The heterosexuals, women and black people here are tokens, queer cinema reincarnations of the spectres of “positive images” that have traditionally haunted lesbian and gay cinema. More damagingly, the film fails to evoke the necessary combination of dread and desire. Nonetheless, it is this failure in the light of its ambitions that makes Frisk so interesting to watch.
Originally published in Sight and Sound:
Arroyo, José.Sight and Sound; London Vol. 8, Iss. 1, (Jan 1998): 40-41,3