The beginning of Thomas in Love, the new Belgian feature from director Pierre-Paul Renders, is reminiscent of Wayne Wang’s underappreciated Center of the World. The movie screen becomes a computer screen and we, the viewers, are put in the perspective of eternally unseen protagonist Thomas Thomas (Benoit Verhaert) as he logs on to a porn site. As in Wang’s film, our hero is addicted to the Net and his computer screen, unable to deal with the world at large. Unlike in Wang’s film, the run-of-the-mill porn imagery gives way to a giant cartoon babe, who offers a variety of scenarios from a menu, including “poker game,” “princess of Egypt,” “the zoo,” and Thomas’ ultimate choice, “experiment in zero gravity.” As a computer-animated world materializes, this CG sex-bomb, who isn’t quite Final Fantasy Aki Ross level but closer to an XXX-rated 3-D Jessica Rabbit, proceeds to dissolve her clothes and straddle Thomas (and by extension, us) as a narrator utters dry, play-by-play comments like “Careful, bestial phase engaged.” For a moment, we’re in a giddy, uncensored world where anything can happen, free from American constraints of propriety and test marketing.
Alas, this isn’t the way things continue. It soon becomes clear that the computer screen we’re watching (and that we remain watching throughout the film — it’s the only perspective we get) multitasks as computer, video phone, and security camera. We’re in the future, but it’s the future from a Gallic perspective, with painfully bright colors, facial tattoos both permanent and temporary, and the oddest hairstyles this side of a George Lucas movie (imagine The Fifth Element on a Blair Witch budget, and you’re halfway there).
And Thomas is an intense agoraphobe, unable to even look at images of the outdoors without panicking, but thanks to technological advancements and a rich pension attained from a previous job, he never has to try to leave his apartment, which we’re told has a hydroponic garden and an aquarium. Avoiding his mother’s phone calls (one of which interrupts the cybersex that kicks things off), Thomas’ only human contact is via video-conferencing with his psychologist (Frederic Topart), a bald, goateed man with a large Arabic letter imprinted on his forehead.
The psychologist’s latest idea is that Thomas needs to get some action, so he signs him up with both a dating agency and a government service that provides prostitutes to severely handicapped individuals (opponents of health care, take note!). The dating service is even more moronic than such things tend to be in our time, with a questionnaire that consists of showing the participant fractal images and asking if they look like the Brussels-Strasbourg transport, a dog, or a child’s sexual organ, and so forth. Based upon only five such questions, Thomas is matched up with several unsuitable mates, most of whom tune out when they realize they’ll never be allowed into his apartment, nor get him to leave.
Only one female seems somewhat compatible — Melodie (Magali Pinglaut), a hippie-dippy youngster who makes video poems about her feet. She accepts that everyone has problems, and even ventures into the world of cybersex, with not-quite-satisfactory results. Thomas being the multitasker that he is, he also pursues Eva (Aylin Yay), the only government prostitute who looks to be more than a mere sex object.
There are certainly some ambitious conceptual ideas at work here, especially the notion of a main character whose eyes we see through, albeit only when they’re on his personal viewscreen. It’s an idea that hasn’t been used very much since Lady in the Lake, Robert Montgomery’s 1947 experiment with the Raymond Chandler novel, and as it turns out there’s a good reason for that: It’s really hard to relate to a protagonist we never see, especially one as tight-lipped as Thomas. He never gives us any hint, for instance, of how he came down with agoraphobia eight years previously, nor of what makes him so ready to fall in love now to the point where, once rejected, he can immediately transfer that love onto someone else. The script, by Philippe Blasband (he wrote the vastly superior yet equally mundanely titled An Affair of Love — both films might have put off prospective viewers who feared they were leaden Miramax-y romances), forces plot points to accelerate the story, condensing relationships that would take weeks to unfold into a couple of phone calls.
The symbolism is obvious — people put up barriers and have trouble connecting in this modern world. And — guess what — some folks spend more time than is healthy on the computer instead of making human contact! Message received. Now show us some people who actually react in a manner that resembles recognizable people, and maybe we’ll be hooked. In the meantime, Center of the World portrays a much more believable example of what happens when a computer nerd realizes that his erotic fantasies aren’t the same thing as love.