Still from Splendor

'splendor' is gregg araki's forgotten ode to polyamory

The film is deeply radical in its own quiet way – a salute to the fun and unpredictability of sexual fluidity, alternative lifestyles, and existing on the fringes.

by Adam White
23 January 2019, 9:24pm

Still from Splendor

“Love is a mysterious and baffling thing,” says a disembodied voice at the beginning of Splendor, the 1999 polyamory rom-com from Gregg Araki that’s noteworthy for never, ever being talked about. The words are are heard over lush close-ups of lips, teeth, and groping hands, all bathed in bisexual lighting and soundtracked, like so much of Araki’s filmography, by Slowdive. It’s an airy fantasy of an opening, but as the colors blur, congealing into a shot of the intertwined, nude bodies of two guys and a girl lying in bed, the voice returns to clarify something: “No, this is not a dream sequence.”

Within just one or two minutes, Splendor marks itself as dissimilar to Araki’s better known work, from The Doom Generation to Mysterious Skin: queer cinema that has always danced between the real and the hyperreal. Araki paints worlds where juxtapositions are embraced; places where earnest sexual discovery and surreal violence can co-exist at once; where extra-terrestrial visitors can operate as both testaments to LA vapidity, and a heartbreaking means to repress your own sexual abuse. But while Araki’s other films so often sway between both worlds, never getting too comfortable in either, Splendor’s early clarification declares that for all its sumptuous aesthetics and utopian pansexuality, the film is entirely, whole-heartedly earthbound.

And that might explain why, in comparison to the years of Araki work so beloved by queer kids, punks and stoners (or combinations of all three), Splendor has been largely forgotten. On the surface, it’s clear to see why. Splendor isn’t a foreboding anthem for the end of the world, like Araki’s 2010 mystery Kaboom or his upcoming STARZ show Now Apocalypse, and it isn’t as richly anarchic as Nowhere, his Robert Altman-on-a-ket-binge Hollywood odyssey from 1997. There’s none of the palpable anger of 1992’s The Living End or 1995’s The Doom Generation, either, both movies indebted to the horrors of AIDS, with every act of sexual expression dovetailing with death and violence. It’s also far and away the least GIF-able of a body of work saturated with gasp-worthy imagery. Instead Splendor is a bottle pop of a comedy, as candy-colored as a jawbreaker, and just as powdery. But describing it as Gregg Araki at his most “neutered” does a disservice to how transgressive it truly is.

Splendor is the story of Kathleen Robertson’s Veronica, an aspiring actress living in Los Angeles and immersed in a cycle of late-night raves, glow sticks and auditions for bad TV movies. But her sexual politics betray her small-town upbringing, as Veronica embodies a steadfast devotion to heteronormative niceties and old-fashioned romance. That is until she meets two very different men: a sensitive music journalist named Abel (Johnathon Schaech; every bit the polar opposite of his role as sociopathic drifter Xavier in The Doom Generation), and Zed (Matt Keeslar), a dim but pretty drummer with a voracious sexual appetite.

Very much in Carrie Bradshaw mode at first, Veronica attempts to casually date both men, with every intention of breaking it off with one of them eventually. But amid recognizing how Abel and Zed both satisfy different parts of herself in different ways, she suddenly doesn’t. Instead she ponders whether such a choice even needs to be made, proposing a subtle queering of what was once a tense and very straight love triangle. So they begin dating as a trio, sharing a bed, having group sex, and eventually moving in together.

Splendor was the third Araki film to explore this territory. His 1987 student film Three Bewildered People in the Night, currently only available as a low-quality rip from a bootleg VHS, is driven by the budding sexual tension between a heterosexual couple and their gay best friend, while The Doom Generation pitches itself like a deranged bisexual road movie, with an uber-glam pair of outcasts seduced by a hyper-sexual psychopath. But while the former is a talky and scattered work-in-progress and Doom an acidic, disaffected black comedy, Splendor is Araki shooting through a lens of boundless optimism. In many respects it is The Doom Generation’s sunny inverse – where sex can lead to hedonism and primal ecstasy, as opposed to graphic horror.

Which isn’t to say that Araki is usually steeped in nihilism. If anything, it’s a common misreading of his work, even when at its most violent. Throughout Araki’s “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy”, comprised of Totally Fucked Up, Doom and Nowhere, James Duval is cast as a sensitive dreamer, a teenager slowly coming to terms with his body and his urges, something that ultimately manifests in everything from brutal tragedy to tender love with a boy who thinks he’s been abducted by aliens. It’s puberty through an Arakian funhouse mirror — often gonzo, but always at least vaguely recognizable.

Splendor, then, is Araki’s take on early adulthood, a time when decisions come easier than they used to, problems are more clearly defined, and sex is less of a headfuck. It’s also the first Araki film to feature an ensemble with total agency when it comes to their lives, individuals not chained to parental figures or school dynamics or social expectation. So somewhat still a fantasy, but one that feels euphoric rather than terrifying.

Doing press for Kaboom in 2010, Araki often talked about how his work has long proposed a sexual freedom that has only begun to manifest in reality in recent years – swaths of modern teens choosing to withdraw from the historic “rules” of gender and sex, and instead exploring a kind of pansexuality, along with all its variables. “My earlier movies are sort of about that idea of sexuality as beyond categories and labels, a thing that is flexible and not black and white,” he told the AV Club. “It’s much more common and much more prevalent than when I went to college. It’s always sort of been there, but I think people are becoming more comfortable with themselves and more aware of these alternatives.”

With that in mind, Splendor is arguably the most unapologetic of Araki’s work in its suggestion of a new era of sexual exploration. Early on, there is a kinky charge to the trio’s first sexual interaction, with Veronica asking Abel and Zed if either has had sex with another man before, and she in particular appearing to become excited by the idea of venturing into sexual corners previously unexplored, particularly once the men kiss one another. But Splendor quickly decides to no longer eroticize its premise, the trio falling into a blissful if atypical domesticity, free of anxiety, drama or sexual dysfunction.

And it doesn’t analyze the specifics of the trio’s sexual activity, either. Veronica tells her curious friend Mike (Trainspotting’s Kelly Macdonald) that she doesn’t actually know if Zed and Abel have had sex with one another independently from her, but doesn’t appear bothered either way. And later, when the trio’s relationship does become strained, it’s down to sitcom-y “three’s a crowd” growing pains, Abel even explicitly saying that he has no problem with the trio dating and having sex with each other, but finds the unemployed, chronically vacant Zed insufferable as a roommate.

In depicting Veronica, Abel and Zed as three adults merely living and loving atypically, Splendor marked an arresting departure for an era of cinema in which any depiction of polyamory was inherently sexual or salacious in nature. Look no further than Wild Things, released one year earlier, and a sleazy Matt Dillon physically pushing Denise Richards and Neve Campbell’s heads together until they make out. As iconic a movie three-way as that was, it’s undeniably the straightest thing in the world. Splendor, on the other hand, bathes in its alternative normalcy, and is all the more groundbreaking for it.

Upon its release in 1999, Splendor earned negative reviews, the film criticized for its apparent lack of dramatic stakes (“A sitcom trying to be a movie,” cried one outlet) and, in the view of the New York Times, its lack of overt sex. Such a dismissive reaction wasn’t anything new for Araki, a man who spent his 90s ascent endlessly described as an “enfants terrible” of the era responsible for movies that Roger Ebert infamously labelled “disgusting.” Other outlets were more distracted by Araki’s real-life relationship with Robertson, a little-known coupling that exposes how often the media has misidentified Araki’s sexual fluidity, and a story broke with trademark ignorance by the New York Post under the headline “Strange Bedfellows: Gay Director Falls for 90210 Babe”.

In hindsight, it’s funny how often mainstream critics struggled to “get” Araki’s work and the messaging he regularly conveyed at the time, his importance as a figure of 90s filmmaking only truly recognized by those in power in the wake of Mysterious Skin – arguably his most formal and downbeat work, and his first adaptation of somebody else’s material. Over 25 years since The Living End, it’s a pop culture justice that a man responsible for so many pioneering, inherently progressive and unapologetically queer movies is now treated like a punk deity worshipped by a generation of misfits who came of age watching his work.

But Splendor warrants a spot in that masterful canon, too. It isn’t Araki’s most striking movie, nor his most visually or aesthetically ambitious, but it’s deeply radical in its own quiet way – a salute to the fun and unpredictability of sexual fluidity, alternative lifestyles and existing on the fringes. And, mirroring Veronica’s awed voiceover at the very start of the film, that it paints its central scenario not as a fantastical, otherworldly dream but rather something achievable and valid, only affirms how important it remains.

queer cinema
Gregg araki