“My childhood seems like a ghost town. . . . When I look back, I know my memory is hopelessly flawed, tangled with my imagination.” Bette Gordon’s Luminous Motion opens with these words, spoken by a boy with a high, earnest voice better suited to pitching breakfast cereal than narrating a film as subtle and complicated as this one.
Adapted from Scott Bradfield’s much lauded first-person novel, The History of Luminous Motion, Gordon’s film attempts the difficult task of projecting the inner world of an emotionally disturbed child onto the screen. Luminous Motion is shaped entirely from the point of view of Phillip (Eric Lloyd), a 10-year-old locked in a symbiotic relationship with his boozy, beautiful, narcissistic mom (Deborah Kara Unger). The boy is a case study in arrested development, fixated at the oedipal stage. His vision of Mom is intensely eroticized; she is for him the source of all pleasure, all life. Gordon expresses this essentially preverbal experience in images that are at once lush and intangible, as in a dream. When son and Mom take to the road in a big old sedan as cluttered as the bathroom in Eyes Wide Shut, Luminous Motion fully lives up to its title.
But as the Kubrick film proved, it’s difficult for contemporary audiences to accept that what they’re seeing on the screen might have as tenuous a connection to so-called reality as their own fantasies. I suspect that Luminous Motion will meet just as much resistance as Eyes Wide Shut; despite differences of size and style, they inhabit a similar psychosexual landscape. Like Tom Cruise’s journey into his traumatized unconscious, Phillip’s attempts to keep his mother all to himself—by bumping off her boyfriend and trying to poison his own father—are a teasing mixture of memory, desire, and actuality. That said, there’s nothing in Lloyd’s screen presence, not to mention his dutiful, stilted performance, to suggest that this child has any imaginative life whatsoever.
If Lloyd’s performance is the film’s near-fatal flaw, Unger’s is its saving grace. As she revealed in Cronenberg’s Crash, Unger is most electric when she’s most somnolent, most magnetic when she’s most self-absorbed. Actors are, by definition, narcissistic, but Unger’s self-absorption is so pure and extreme it’s a revelation. We watch her suck on a pear, teeth gently piercing the skin—her blue-painted nails and blue-tinted sunglasses in perfect color-balance with the yellow-brown fruit—and we perceive why the child wants this moment to last forever and why he will look for her in all his future lovers. He can’t separate from her because she can’t admit the existence of anyone outside herself; he can capture her attention only by staying wrapped in her narcissistic cocoon. There’s a painful psychological truth in this relationship, and the film lets us understand more about it than the boy does, even though we see it only through his eyes. Luminous Motion has more problems than Lloyd’s performance (the narration is too literary, the ghost-effects clunky), but in its evocation of the pleasures and dangers of the maternal bond, Gordon’s film is utterly fascinating and convincing.