What should have been a simple cash-for-sex arrangement sends a young computer genius and a beautiful stripper on an emotionally shattering journey into their deepest erotic fantasies. Captured with the raw, voyeuristic intimacy, it’s a provocative, sensual tour de force from acclaimed independent filmmaker Wayne Wang.
eyelights: Peter Sarsgaard. Molly Parker. the plot. the dynamics.
eyesores: the video quality.
‘The Center of the World’ is a film by Wayne Wang, of ‘The Joy Luck Club’ fame. It centers on the Vegas trip of a Dot-com millionaire and a stripper. Most of the film takes place in their adjoining hotel rooms, with some flashbacks establishing their respective backgrounds and a couple of brief excursions to see the sights and to visit a friend.
The key attractions of the film are the incredible performances by our two leads and the intriguing character dynamics, which shift over the course of their few days together.
Our introduction to the pair is when they arrive at their hotel. The silence and the looks on their faces betray the emotional chasm between them. One can’t help but wonder why they might be there and what will unfold. Given the lack of passion between them, romantic or even artificial, it is unclear what purpose they may have in this hotel room.
The relationship began when they met at the local laundromat. Fascinated with her, after a few encounters Richard decides to ask Florence to join him for a trip to Vegas, for a much needed vacation. He offers to pay all the expenses and even to compensate her for her time. In doing so, however, he ends up spoiling what could have been a pleasant sortie.
Although he is well-meaning, his intentions being only to help her make up for the financial impact of not working for a few days, Richard doesn’t realize what this proposal may mean to her: in his naiveté, he has essentially transformed the offer of time away into a transaction. All he wanted to do was to get to know her better, to get closer to her.
Florence takes it to mean that he is offering to pay her for sex. In making that assumption, she immediately became business-like and began to cautiously discuss the terms of this arrangement. In so doing she ensured that the trip would become exactly what she’d feared – as opposed to a few fun days without any strings attached.
The problem is that even as she enjoys his company, she is compromised by a need to remain in control, to keep her head straight and play by the rules that they have set. This becomes problematic because her emotions are making it difficult for her to fulfill her end of the bargain, which, finally, included a few hours of sex play. She is conflicted.
Thus it is that their time together begins. And it will get more complicated as the days go by.
Molly Parker is excellent as Florence. She appropriately plays Florence icy cold, transactional, but also shows us some of her truest emotions when the two befriend each other. I can’t say that she is exactly what I have in mind when I think of a stripper (she’s far too natural-looking, I’d say), but she plays the part and its nuances quite perfectly.
Sarsgaard is the one to watch here. In his first starring role, he manages to make Richard at once vulnerable and innocent but also intelligent and confident. He may be social inept, but he is extremely successful professionally and this informs his casual way with money and with people. Sarsgaard’s Richard is awkward but endearing, despite his failings.
But what is the center of the world exactly?
The picture establishes two different definitions: 1) Richard’s set-up at home, which is the hub of all his activities, and 2) a woman’s vagina.
1) Richard has multiple computers and screens all conveniently located in one area to work, play and communicate in. He spends most of his time there believing the illusion that he has everything he needs at this workstation – that he’s at the center of the world. The sad reality is that he’s alone and isolated, disconnected from people; he has no meaningful connections with anyone.
2) Given that we are born of a woman, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that her sex is the center of the world; conception and birth depend on it, and thus so does humanity, so does the world. By extension one could say the same about sex, that it is the center many people’s realities, that partaking, sharing and exchange of sex is central to human interaction. Except that it isn’t the same as connection, even if it sometimes serves as a substitute.
What the film’s true intention is, I couldn’t say for sure. But it does raise the question of what human connection can be and what it means, especially in a society that is further connected, yet less interconnected on a personal level. The characters of Richard and Florence are both prime examples in each their own way – they are people who feel the need to connect, but find themselves unable to.
‘The Center of the World’ is a uniquely fascinating motion picture. For all the eye candy, for all its delicious eroticism (don’t blink or you’ll miss the lollipop!), it also delivers a lot of brain candy, much to consider and ponder. It raises questions and suggests a few things, which makes it the perfect type of film for shared dialogue. Which, in the end, is what it’s all about isn’t it?
Nota bene: Wayne Wang decided to experiment with then-nascent video filmmaking technology. While making the whole picture on this camera was a bold move, it also shows its limitations – it doesn’t look nearly as good as 70mm film would. Then again, this is not ‘Baraka‘, so this concern shouldn’t be of great import to must viewers.
Date of viewing: August 5, 2013