“Everyone has secrets, especially when it comes to sex.”
As visually extravagant as anything the genre has to offer, Michael Ninn’s Latex is a fetishistic vision of a dystopian future, an Orwellian world of repression and show-trials. According to Adult Video News, it’s also the third best adult film ever made, though I think that’s a serious over-estimate.
Jon Dough plays Malcolm Stevens, a schizophrenic (?) who claims the ability to see the sexual fantasies of anyone he touches. The doctors assessing his condition, who include veteran stars Veronica Hart and Kelly Nicholls, are understandably sceptical, although one of their number, Dr Mangrove (Tiffany Million), is convinced in spectacular fashion when Stevens grabs her by the arm.
The overwhelming majority of Latex’s two-hour running time is comprised of extended fantasy sequences featuring Stevens, his mute accomplice Kato (the entire piece is loaded with references to popular culture) and those who cross his path. However, this isn’t as straightforward as it might seem, as Stevens himself, unable to act in his own fantasies, must assume the appearance of others or remain encased in Latex. Indeed, nothing here is quite as it seems. Questions are raised over the authenticity of Stevens’ ability from the very outset and we’re later informed that his memories are composed of fragments from old TV shows. With the distinction between fantasy and reality so tenuous, question marks must also be raised as to how literal his incarceration and subsequent trial are.
Undeniably a landmark feature, a defining piece of fin de siecle erotica, Latex met with enormous acclaim upon its release but falls some way short of being the masterpiece many have claimed. A lavish sci-fi epic boasting elaborate visual effects, copious fetish-wear and an all-star cast sounds great, but the whole remains considerably less than the sum of its parts.
The principal problem from which Latex suffers is, predictably, structural. Antonio Pasolini, who had previously penned hits for the Dark Bros. and would subsequently become a director of note himself, has produced a dark, distinctly post modern screenplay but it’s realisation isn’t as successful as it should be. As ever, the balance between expository and explicit material is delicate one, and the two exist in less than perfect harmony here. The lengthy carnal set-pieces certainly stem naturally from the narrative – indeed, the climactic scenes are crucial to its resolution – but still cause all momentum to be lost. Ninn himself is on record as preferring the cable versions of his films due to the shortening of the sex scenes and attendant increase in momentum, and Latex could be cited as supporting evidence. The situation is not helped by the first two scenes, fantasies featuring Kato (perhaps more accurately, Sunset Thomas) and Stevens respectively, occurring before the narrative has even really begun. Of course there are many that would find such a criticism preposterous, but the structural imbalance certainly doesn’t help the nuanced source material.
Ninn’s aesthetic is also something of a mixed blessing. The special effects do look quite dated now – most of the backgrounds are computer generated – but that’s often the fate of technologically adventurous projects. However, the conscious use of slow motion photography and multi-layered imagery will alienate as many as it impresses. I don’t personally have a problem with such devices but have always found Ninn’s work rather antiseptic. The hyperactive, rhythmic editing is also an acquired taste, and the rapid inter-cutting of glossy imagery and engorged body-parts can look a little odd. There’s no denying that Ninn’s style has been influential but I’d suggest it’s better suited to the vignette format favoured by Andrew Blake (to whom he clearly owes a significant debt) and Joone than to narrative features.
I don’t mean to be over critical because Latex is an important film and not without its merits. Jon Dough is perfectly cast as the messianic Stevens, a seemingly honourable man cursed with an intolerable burden. Tiffany Million, as intense as ever, and Jenna Fine also give noteworthy performances, the latter introducing some humanity into proceedings as Stevens tormented partner, Gwen. The rest of the cast generally serve their purpose as exquisitely wrapped eye-candy, although Juli Ashton looks curiously unappealing during her fantasy sequence.
Compared to its contempories Latex is a very ambitious feature and, although it won’t be to everyone’s taste, it’s impossible to deny the craft behind its aesthetic. The narrative operates on a number of different levels, which is not to say it actually works that well, but it is quite intriguing. The Stevens character appears as victim, visionary and predator at various points and the Kato character is equally elusive. Stevens himself speaks of her as “a guardian angel” although she is likely nothing more than a projection of the active self he is unable to be. Of course, there’s a danger of reading too much into the narrative ambiguities, of projecting meaning that simply isn’t there. Nonetheless, the final scenes – of Stevens being forced to watch as Gwen is publicly ravished, magically freed from his shackles and literally drenching Kato with semen – are probably best understood symbolically. Which leads us to the crux of a dilemma: Latex is actually more interesting to discuss than it is to watch.