Hip to the nth degree and so self-conscious it verges on the suffocating, SWOON takes its inspiration in equal parts from 1924's sensational Leopold and Loeb case and Harlem drag balls by way of Madonna.
Wealthy Chicago teenagers Nathan Leopold, Jr. (Craig Chester) and Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) are smart, spoiled and bored. They're embroiled in an intense, secret affair, whose fervor places them on a collision course with the straightlaced mores of middle America. They're outsiders on every
level: homosexual in a family dominated culture, Jews in the Protestant midwest and sensualists in a bourgeois America that values puritan conformity above all else.
These two precocious teens intellectualize their outlaw sexuality into philosophical alienation, and begin to commit petty criminal acts--arson, vandalism--of escalating seriousness; eventually they kill fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks. Though they've planned a "perfect murder," the badly concealed
body is quickly found and Loeb's glasses, uncovered nearby, lead the police to them. The two are arrested; under questioning, Loeb confesses and they're tried amidst vicious public opprobrium. State's Attorney Crowe (Ron Vawter) helps turn the trial into a prurient spectacle, hinting darkly about
sexual sadism; Leopold and Loeb's smirking, superior attitudes both titillate and outrage the public and the media. Though they escape the death penalty, both go to prison, where Loeb is murdered. As a middle-aged man, Leopold is eventually released, marries and dies in obscurity.
The Leopold and Loeb case contained all the elements necessary to shock America in the 20s, the same elements that would make it into a true-crime bestseller today. The victim was an innocent child, the suspects educated and not connected to the criminal element. But more importantly, Leopold and
Loeb lent (and lend) themselves to treatment as outsiders: wealthy Jewish homosexuals who may look like us, but are somehow safely, irrevocably different. That difference is at the heart of SWOON.
The case has inspired two movies before SWOON: Alfred Hitchcock's ROPE and Richard Fleischer's COMPULSION. As examinations of the case both were hampered by an inability to speak frankly about the conceptions of homosexuality that informed both the behavior of the two young men and the public
reaction to their crime. But SWOON's writer and director, Tom Kalin, intends far more than a more factually correct recreation of a sordid murder case; though treated at the time as the crime of the century, by contemporary standards it's all (sadly) tame stuff and hardly merits another once over
from the atrocity standpoint. Kalin instead weaves a dense and often beautiful net of allusions to ideas about homosexuality--social, scientific, philosophical and aesthetic--and traps Leopold and Loeb (or Babe and Dickie, as they call one another) within its meshes. Informed by radical queer
politics and suffused with a strangled romanticism, SWOON is simultaneously provocative and infuriating, too intelligent to dismiss, but too enthralled by its own cleverness to escape being precious.
Shot in crisp, sparkling b&w, SWOON has the look of a too-cool-for-its-own-good jeans commercial, all avant-garde angles and compositional devices at the service of venal commerce. Kalin's sparse evocation of Chicago 70 years ago is a triumph of invention over budget. With little more than a
period car and some strangely timeless clothing (the cloche hats reflect the appropriate period, but the suits wouldn't look out of place on today's streets), he suggests a stiffer, more proper America, one in which the words "sexual" and "politics" could never have been used in the same sentence
and social rebellion had yet to acquire a marketable cachet. SWOON argues that with no models for living their lives as gay men, Leopold and Loeb were doomed; their sexual orientation isolated them from society, while their coddled upbringings prevented them from forging independent identities
outside the mainstream. Craig Chester and Daniel Schlachet's performances as Leopold and Loeb are a particular asset, suggesting the mutable form of desire, and the power it wields in all its manifestations.
Kalin's use of anachronism (a touch-tone phone, a walkman, a newspaper with no date), which recalls the work of Derek Jarman (CARAVAGGIO, EDWARD II), seems designed to suggest the continuing relevance of SWOON's preoccupations--the ways in which sexuality determines social integration, the
conflict between the public and the private self, the transformation of thwarted lust into anti-social behavior--but isn't used consistently enough. Its isolated manifestations just look wrong, and break the movie's often hypnotic spell. The same is true of the appearances by the "Venus in Furs
Divas," an assortment of campily outfitted men in drag and women who look like men in drag reciting sado-masochistic verse. The device screams "formalism," but to what end?
SWOON is an intelligent, thoughtful piece of filmmaking, and its flaws do not diminish its achievement. The Leopold and Loeb case has been popularly thought of as an example of what can happen when bright but morally underdeveloped young men fall under the sway of Nietzchean philosophy, and SWOON
returns philosophy to the bedroom, arguing persuasively that sexuality--in its social implications, as well as its private manifestations--is at the root of all behavior. (Sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: Hip to the nth degree and so self-conscious it verges on the suffocating, SWOON takes its inspiration in equal parts from 1924's sensational Leopold and Loeb case and Harlem drag balls by way of Madonna. Wealthy Chicago teenagers Nathan Leopold, Jr. (Crai… (more)