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[whitespace] 'The Center of the World'
Viva Las Vegas: Peter Sarsgaard takes Molly Parker on a 'paid' vacation in 'The Center of the World.'

Erotic Stalemate

Dotcommer and lap dancer escape to Vegas in 'The Center of the World'

By Richard von Busack

THE FRENCH FILM Children of Paradise has a scene in which a woman tells her patron, who wants love as well as companionship, "You've got to leave something for the poor." The Center of the World seems built on that theme. It is sexually explicit, however, and to some, sex on the screen is always going to look silly, no matter how thoughtful the director or skilled the actors. Wayne Wang's new film is bound to turn off some part of the audience. I see, for instance, that the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle was outraged by a scene of a nude dancer brushing a Tootsie Pop against a part of herself and offering a man a lick. If that kind of disgusting behavior is too much for you, there's always Beautiful Creatures, which LaSalle loved. The threat of dog-rape in that film is much more salubrious, apparently.

The title refers to The Origin of the World, a mid-1850s painting by Gustav Courbet, a portrait of a nude torso giving--as best it can--all due reverence to a woman's vulva. The Center of the World is an erotic stalemate between Richard (Peter Sarsgaard), a numb Silicon Valley dotcommer about to make his fortune, and a lap dancer/rock drummer named Flo (Molly Parker). Flo agrees to accompany Richard to Las Vegas, with some rules: no penetration, she'll have her own room, no talk of his feelings, and she'll only be on call four hours a day. The artifice of Vegas matches the elaborate, but emotionally necessary, charade the dancer puts on during the three days. An encounter with Flo's troubled friend (Carla Guigino of Spy Kids) changes the tryst from a business arrangement to an affair.

As we've seen in the past, co-scriptwriter Paul Auster could easily have inflicted this lap dancer with golden arteriosclerosis. Auster, who collaborated with Wang on Blue in the Face and Smoke, is part of the collective screenwriting pseudonym Ellen Benjamin Wong, which includes Wang, and Auster's wife, Siri Hustvedt (though the performance artist and ex-stripper Miranda July also contributed). The first third, apparently done as an extended improvisation, seems to leave Sarsgaard grasping his part out of thin air. Eventually, The Center of the World becomes powerful and emotionally charged erotica--the sexual tension matching the conflict of their different wills. It's not as full of regret and complexity as Last Tango in Paris, an inspiration for Wang. Still, since Wang's a more well-adjusted kind of director, there's more sense of the woman's side of the story than in the Bernardo Bertolucci classic. Flo keeps her independence, distilling some of the selfishness out of her client. No teacher can instruct an inexperienced young man that the people of this world aren't there for his amusement. Only a lover can do it, and Flo has the last word. Even if this seems like nothing more than erotica (and it might to some viewers), hasn't it been a while since a hard-working girl in that profession had the last word in a movie?

The Center of the World (R; 86 min.), directed by Wayne Wang, screenplay by Ellen Benjamin Wong, photographed by Mauro Fiore and starring Molly Parker and Peter Sarsgaard, plays at Camera One in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the May 3-9, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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