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With: Natasha Gregson Wagner, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert John Burke, Jeanetta Arnette, Donal Logue, Eli Marienthal, Hugh Joseph Babin, Earl S. Binnings
Written by: David Ryan, Jesse Peretz, based on a short story by Ian McEwan
Directed by: Jesse Peretz
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, and for language
Running Time: 94
Date: 09/10/1997

First Love, Last Rites (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Swamp Rats

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The amazing thing about Jesse Peretz's feature film directorial debut, First Love, Last Rites, is its restraint. Peretz began as the bass player for the band the Lemonheads, and went on from there to direct music videos, such as the Foo Fighters' "Big Me." Normally, music video directors hit the big screen with a lot of gloss, flash, fast cuts, and leave out the soul, poetry, and depth. (The most recent example I can think of is Antoine Fuqua's The Replacement Killers.) But First Love, Last Rites has the masterly control and delicate pacing of an Ingmar Bergman film.

First Love, Last Rites was adapted from a 1975 Ian McEwan short story by David Ryan, a first time screenwriter, and the former drummer for the Lemonheads. (On paper, this thing sounds like a disaster, which makes its success doubly sweet.) The story centers around a young couple, Joey (Giovanni Ribisi) and Sissel (Natasha Gregson Wagner), living together in a one-room house in the Louisiana Bayou. We know that Joey is from Brooklyn, but the movie (and presumably the story) doesn't explain how he got to Louisiana, or how the couple met. As the movie opens, the pair haven't left their love-nest for some time, and continuously make love together. Soon, however, they get bored. This is possibly due to the oppressive heat, feelings that neither of them know how to explain, and an invasive rat who scratches at the walls during the night.

Joey passes the time by going into business with Sissel's loser father, who (presumably) is legally restrained from seeing Sissel's mother (he goes to her house, and maneuvers his car up and down the driveway, so as not to break any rules). Sissel's father convinces Joey that there's good money to be made in catching eels, which are everywhere along the Bayou. As Joey gets more and more involved in this venture, Sissel gets further and further away emotionally. Her dialogue becomes more elliptical and elusive. You can feel her unrest, but she doesn't have the words to explain it, and Joey doesn't know how to ask her about it.

I've never read the short story, but, surprisingly, the movie, at 93 minutes, feels like a short story. It never explains mundane details to us, and instead uses its time to give the characters full life. The result is as if we're eavesdropping on a situation, rather than someone carefully laying out everything for us. As Joey, Ribisi (Lost Highway, Saving Private Ryan) is a wonderful young actor, who seems to use instinct rather than training. Wagner (Lost Highway, Two Girls and a Guy) is also very talented, and so at ease on screen that a natural sexiness comes out. When she puts up her shield in the second half of the film, it also feels natural. The movie also gives us occasional swamp-heat dream sequences of rats, eels, water, and other images that serve to keep us in a misty state, rather than a literal one.

I should also mention the interesting soundtrack. There is no score, but Joey and Sissel listen to old 45 records while in their house. These records were recorded by the band Shudder to Think, and each one features guest vocals by artists such as Billy Corgan (The Smashing Pumpkins), Liz Phair, John Doe (X), and Jeff Buckley. These also give a dreamy, out-of-time feel to the movie. It should make an interesting CD soundtrack, rather than the usual cobbled-together collection of discarded B-sides.

First Love, Last Rites is not a lively movie, and it doesn't seem destined for box office success, but it's an impressive first film, and one I found myself thinking about for days afterward.

(This review was originally written for SF MODA magazine but was not published.)

DVD Details: As of 2007, this movie still has not had a DVD release.

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