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netribution > features > reviews > The Center of the World

by Jonathan Key | October 5th, 2001

The Center of the World

Directed by Wayne Wang
Edited by Lee Percy
Screenplay by "Ellen Benjamin Wong" (Wayne Wang, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt)
Starring Molly Parker, Peter Sarsgaard
Momentum Pictures

Certificate 18
Running Time - 86 minutes
Release date - 21 September 2001

Wayne Wang's slyly intelligent new film offers two contradictory meanings of its title. One is that the centre of the world is the self, the ego that cares only about its own gratification.

Introverted dotcom millionaire Richard (Peter Sasgaard) fails to chat up a stripper he meets in a café, so decides to buy her for a weekend in Las Vegas, the city of pure self-gratification. She reluctantly accepts, for a price of $10,000 and a set of rules that includes no kissing and no penetration.

The other definition is given by the stripper, Florence (Molly Parker), during the weekend. She declares the centre of the world to be the female genitals, the goal obsessively pursued by Richard throughout the holiday. Wang's claustrophobic movie rarely leaves the hotel room as it wraps itself around these twin poles of meaning.

If, so far, this sounds like Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, with its famous mix of sex, angst and controversy, then you're not too far off the mark. The Center of the World is also utterly concerned with sex and desire, has aspirations to profundity, and has even been released in the US without a certificate, albeit for one quite dispensable shot. But where Bertolucci was verbose and self-consciously artistic, Wang is naturalistic, working with glances and flinches. His two leads, particularly Parker, are up to the challenge, delivering performances that survive the film's occasionally clumsy dialogue.

The story (co-written by the author Paul Auster) only slowly reveals that its deeper concern is with questions of reality. The unreal city of Las Vegas is the perfect backdrop to this tale of play-acting and self-delusion. Neither Richard nor Florence can really determine the status of their developing relationship. Is it real, or just part of the contract? The film is at its strongest when exposing their mutual misunderstanding of each other's sexuality.

The filming - all done on digital video - continues the questioning of reality and appearance. By using different makes of digital camera, Wang and his photographer Mauro Fiore have created a number of different visual textures and colour densities. These help to destabilise any sense of final reality in the movie, even if the continually changing style can seem random.

Inevitably, though, The Center of the World will attract most attention because of its unflinching depiction of sex. In truth, it is less graphic than harsh, sparing no feelings in its dissection of the sexual encounter. The film's pessimistic conclusion seems to have something to say about our society's treatment of sex as a product but, as with so much in this terse story, any central meaning is hidden in a world of ambiguous action.

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