See this film and have a very bad, very worthwhile time

“The Dying Gaul’ gives death, grief and adultery a gorgeous backdrop and a sharp edge

Jenna Ross

In a very basic way, “The Dying Gaul” is a film about a film. Initially, the discussion revolves around an autobiographical script by struggling screenwriter Robert (Peter Sarsgaard).

It’s a dense screenplay. It’s touching. It’s tough. But that’s not why it won’t get made. The film won’t make it to the theater because it’s 1995. And Robert’s film is about two gay men (one of whom has AIDS) who struggle and love.

In the words of Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), who buys the script only after Roberts changes it to be about a heterosexual couple, “No one goes to the movies to have a bad time or to learn anything.”

And suddenly, the film about a film becomes a film about itself. “The Dying Gaul” is indeed a bad time. It indeed teaches.

The lessons are difficult. Soon after buying the script, Jeffrey, though married, seduces Robert. Jeffrey’s wife finds out through some impressive online detective work. The three’s relationships with one another are terrible, abhorrent, vile … and extremely real.

Craig Lucas’ incisive screenplay deserves a great deal of the credit. Much of the dialogue takes place on the Web. And though this chat room back-and-forth often falls flat in film, Lucas makes it a strength rather than a liability.

The actors read in voiceover what they are typing, making the conversations live. Robert stares (sometimes directly) into his computer, giving the camera the opportunity to confront ” literally and figuratively ” his emotions head-on. Judging from his looks of insanity and terror, this virtual world can wound.

In these moments and others, Sarsgaard slowly and painfully tears himself open and plasters his wounded skin upon the camera. It is terrifying and terrible ” never tender or lovely or anything else we’re supposed to believe grief is.

As Robert, Sarsgaard has an orgasm with his new lover, Jeffrey. As he comes, he cries. The camera, which begins the scene focused on his face, never moves. It’s hard to remember as disturbing a moment in a film, and much of its effectiveness stems from Sarsgaard.

Throughout, these terrible times contrast with a vivid, rich, colorful cinematography. It’s a beautiful film. But it never lets that beauty lessen the pain the script and actors create. It never smoothes over the inherent roughness. If anything, the saturated splendor heightens the distress.