Canada’s erotic 80s: The Surrogate

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“The Surrogate …is a reminder that the bad, old, tax-shelter days of Canadian movie-making may not be over just yet.” [i]

“The Surrogate is a porsche with no engine – a slick, empty chassis of a movie.”[ii]

Don Carmody had established his reputation in the Quebec film industry as a producer, a role he would continue to concentrate upon after his single experiment with directing. The film in question, The Surrogate (1984), was made for Cinépix and resulted in Carmody nearly having a nervous breakdown, at least according to the film’s producer, John Dunning.

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The Surrogate’s protagonists are a husband and wife, Frank (Art Hindle) and Lee (Shannon Tweed) Waite. She’s independently wealthy, and an ‘ice queen’ who loathes being touched but is desired by all the men she meets. He’s a hot-headed mechanic/salesman whose stress has driven him to impotence. Following the advice of his shrink (Marilyn Lightsone), they recruit an ‘experimental’ sex surrogate named Anouk Van Derlin (Carole Laure) who is supposed to reignite their passion. This occurs through her homoerotic caressing of his wife, her inciting him to rape, and in threatening their lives. All of this seems to work, at least well enough for them to take a naked break at a chalet. But the friction continues. He’s persistently annoyed by her friendship with an antique dealing female impersonator, Eric (Jim Bailey). She’s put off by his crass performatively macho friends. The surrogate seems to be stalking them and there is a serial killer on the loose with an unclear gender identity who cuts out the eyes of their victims in an overtly Oedipal gesture.

My beautiful picture

The Surrogate quite overtly borrows numerous elements of Hitchcock’s Psycho and is filled with allusions to classic Hollywood films, most overtly filtered through the referencing of its cross-dressing character. Appearing closely after the furor over tax shelter films that were widely accused of ‘masquerading’ as American films due to their reliance on imported genres, this gesture itself seems important, since the small-scale (relatively, it was budgeted around 1 million) Canadian appropriation of Hollywood genre motifs is itself a kind of drag. The sexual politics of this gesture are also complicated by the fact that the film is to a significant degree about how a lack of effective fantasy is a form of impotence. Its inability to “rise to the challenge” of even low-grade Hollywood entertainment seems to testify to this.

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The husband’s virility is constantly degraded; he’s a late, yuppie variation on the emasculated loser famously common to Canadian cinema since the 70s. Hindle’s character is a machine with a few speeds and gears. When harmonious, he is a mechanic, working peacefully at one with engines. When hostile and tightly wound, he is a manic yet smarmy salesman called in to make deals run smoothly. Beyond these speeds, he breaks down and blacks out or runs into overdrive and suffers a ‘rage attack’. These affective mechanisms are given some form in the film’s structure. Shot mostly on Nun’s Island, the only film outing for Carmody manages to have a distinct look. He periodically fades to black, usually at odd moments. The cutting is also abrasive at times, almost as though it is momentarily cut in from a different film genre. This is particularly evident when Hindle chases down Tweed in his car after she storms off from dinner at a chichi restaurant. So, the film structurally forces an identification with his character, the only character other than the detective who really has no clue what’s happening. A negative review accidentally stumbles on the harmony of theme and structure when it claims that it is an exploitation movie that can’t bring itself to exploit, thus failing even as ‘crap’ with “no sense of its own grubbiness.”[iii]

The film seems to be interested in things other than suspense or grubbiness. It is also more carefully coloured than most of the films to come out of Cinépix. There is a clear set of style choices on display and they’re often marked to the point of distraction. The interior designs also frequently feature fractured triangles (like the plot itself), a common use of reflective surfaces. In spite of this, the film’s generally unfavourable reviews tended to suggest it was visually crapulent: “Perhaps to complement the basic ugliness of the storyline, the film-makers provide an ugly picture, with murky sound and unflattering lighting.”[iv] Perhaps the critic was attempting to outdo the Toronto Star which accused the film’s bedroom décor of being inspired by the “taste of Joan Collins.”[v]

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Tweed’s blue bedroom is doubled by the female impersonator’s. In one sequence, Eric removes his Betty Davis drag while Tweed changes into more seductive clothes. Besides all that, Tweed also seems to have been made up to channel dead Playmate Dorothy Stratten in Galaxina. As Fraser complains, “we are meant to learn less about her character than her physical topography. She is much more effective on the glossy, motionless page of a magazine.”

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Tweed was Playmate of the Year 1982 and would go on to a long career in erotic-thrillers. As would become the hallmark of those films, she has a bathing scene in addition to a sauna sequence and a changing one. If you were a Jungian, and really enthusiastic about it, you could say she was less an actress than a functional archetype, consistently running through Narcissus/Hermaphroditus in a stalled or frozen process of metamorphoses. Unlike most of the other films of hers in which such sequences occur, they actually have some symbolic significance here. The bath scene identifies her with water (ice queen + fluid personification) and the revving of the tub’s jets mock the mechanical failures of her husband. The sauna extends the wateriness, encapsulating both her and Hindle, who also appears nude (neither are full-frontal) and whose glistening body is exploited to almost the same degree as Tweed’s. Laure’s, surprisingly given her iconographic status as a former Miss Canada and star of the films of Gilles Carle and Sweet Movie, isn’t exploited at all. Instead, she is almost head to foot decked in black, a long line with a face capped by dark hair. Laure’s character is literally depicted as an inverted exclamation point. What’s the point of this? Is it to point out that the surrogate’s role is to make explicit her own role as structuring sex? Laure doesn’t have to take her clothes off because she is laying the organization of the film bare. The plot is obvious because it works like it was made by an engineer rather than a dramatist.

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In the most generous review the film received on release, Cinema Canada suggested something along these lines. Though Andrew Dowler points to the film’s ‘terminally rotten script’ he also praised it for its ‘dramatically functional sex’. The latter quality is something he also detects in Croneberg’s early films. Here, sex is not relegated to its usual ‘realist’ function as an expression of the desires of characters but with little plot function. Instead, sex is integral to the movement of plot, sometimes treating character as a function in its movement. This sort of structural inversion is rare in (non-porn) features since “sex requires consent and co-operation, but drama requires conflict.”[vi] So, if there is going to be psychic content, it has to function in a different way than in traditional narrative and the form sex takes will often reflect this, which is why the film has BDSM overtones. This is where Dowler thinks Carmody falters since he can’t live up to the kinkiness in the plot. Dowler thinks this is because of a lack of sympathy to ‘non-conforming sex’. So, instead, there is a “rigid adherence to genre cliché” that destroys any kind of tension and leaves the end obvious from early on. The camerawork is often dramatically dysfunctional, trivial and irrelevant scenes are completely played out while important ones are just flashes, rendering the film completely flat and incoherent. The clearest expression of this is with Eric’s sexual interest in women, which is totally unbelievable because he is presented as a gay stereotype. Leaving aside the prevalence of heterosexual transvestites in the world, it is that the film simultaneous reduces everything to stereotype and then makes it dysfunctional that’s important. This dysfunction is on the level of audience investment. The film’s eroticism is its cool apathy or antipathy. While it structurally embodies the husband, it stylistically embodies the wife.

If this were an Atom Egoyan film, no doubt someone would point to all of this as a deconstruction and subversion of genre, something that Carmody (apparently unintentionally) does substantially better than his more respected peer. It is certainly a film that is, as the reviews suggested, almost entirely about surface and structure.[vii] Though the film clearly exploits to decorative effect the clichés of psychoanalysis, it simultaneously mocks them. Perhaps the clearest indication of the mockery of pat psychology comes from Michael Ironside’s dramatically bored performance as the hapless detective investigating the murders. Aside from virtually sighing through the film, he also suffers from what appears to be chronic indigestion due to the diet of psychobabble he is forced to swallow. The film also provides a pat explanation for Tweed’s schizoid behaviour (she was sexually abused by her father) but this isn’t terribly reliable given the extent to which such claims are mocked by the work. It’s genre as drag.

 

[i] Ron Base, “Surrogate a weak excuse for movie sex,” Toronto Star, November 4, 1984.

[ii]  Matthew Fraser, “Glossy Surrogate comes up empty,” The Globe & Mail, November 5, 1984.

[iii] Ron Base, “Surrogate a weak excuse for movie sex,” Toronto Star, November 4, 1984.

[iv] Leonard Klady, “Shallow thriller lacks mystery,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 28, 1984

[v] Apparently, he’d been reading Cosmo

[vi] (Andrew Dowler, “Don Carmody’s The Surrogate,” Cinema Canada

[vii] The film’s soundtrack (Transformation by Nora Hendrix, Hunters of the Night by Mr. Mister, Danseparc (Every Day It’s Tomorrow) by Martha and the Muffins etc.) is also set up as a series of meta comments/jokes on the action taking place.

Images from here.

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