Scottish director David Mackenzie is a major artist, but he’s seriously neglected in the U.S. He won strong reviews for his unsettling literary adaptations Young Adam (2003) and Asylum (2005), but since the limited release of the latter, his work has gone unnoticed, despite the fact he’s gotten more adventurous with each film. Hallam Foe (2007), starring Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as a Holden Caulfield-like sociopath, was an exhilarating coming-of-age movie with an adult, sometimes frightening tone; it opened here to scant press under the unhelpful new title Mister Foe. After that Mackenzie moved to Los Angeles briefly and made the Balzacian moral tale Spread (2009), with Ashton Kutcher brilliantly cast as a shallow Beverly Hills gigolo on his way down the social ladder. Its most complex emotional transactions are staged in extended, meticulously choreographed crane shots evoking Max Ophuls (La Ronde, Lola Montes), yet most American reviewers, if they bothered to write about it at all, dismissed it as a failed Kutcher sex comedy.
Tonight You’re Mine—titled You Instead in the UK—is an earthy romantic comedy shot in just five days during Scotland’s T in the Park music festival. As formally ambitious as anything Mackenzie’s done, the movie has turned up in Chicago at Red Box DVD rental kiosks, which advertise it as a teenpic along the lines of From Justin to Kelly. The story (which echoes both It Happened One Night and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) begins as two feuding rock singers (Luke Treadaway and Natalia Tena) are handcuffed together at the festival by a prankster, then follows them over the next day and a half as they fall in love. Mackenzie counters the predictable story with the unpredictable reality of the event itself, shooting much of the movie guerilla-style among the festivalgoers (estimated at 85,000 in the final credits) and setting major scenes in public campgrounds and recreation areas. Yet what really distinguishes the movie—and may account for how Mackenzie has been marginalized in the U.S.—is his uncommon seriousness about sensual pleasure.
Plenty of contemporary filmmakers trade in explicit sex—think of Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), Steve McQueen (Shame), or Lars Von Trier (The Idiots). But these artists tend to reduce sex to a clue in a psychological puzzle, whereas Mackenzie’s movies are frank about sexuality without being “about” sex; for him eroticism is only one of many forces that shape human experience. For instance, when a psychologist’s posh wife allows her lover to go down on her in Asylum, the act is presented as the culmination of an arching camera movement whose aesthetic pleasure merges with the wife’s physical pleasure. When the title character of Hallam Foe peers through a window to spy on the woman of his dreams, who’s having rough sex with her lover, Mackenzie cuts between graceful mobile shots that intertwine both Hallam’s and her feelings of fascination and self-disgust. In his films an experience might be sexy, frightening, and exhilarating all at once.
Mackenzie draws on the energy of the festival so resourcefully that the story seems impossible without it. He introduces Adam (Treadaway) as he and his bandmate perform an acoustic number in the back of a car as it glides into the festival’s backstage area. Their performance, shot mostly in one take and with direct sound (all the actors perform their own numbers), establishes an intimacy with the characters right away, giving weight to the song’s romantic longing (“I don’t want that, I want you instead”). Morello (Tena) and her bandmates interrupt the performance by rocking the car back and forth, and Adam steps out to confront her. After a little Hepburn-Tracy banter, they’re handcuffed together by a cheerful stranger (Joseph Mydell, in a role screenwriter Thomas Leveritt intended for Al Green). He reminds them that musicians need to come together, then takes off with the keys to the cuffs.
In a pleasant reversal of genre convention, Adam and Morello don’t spend the rest of the movie bickering before they realize they love each other, nor do they have much trouble dissuading the suspicions of their significant others. In fact the two couples soon become friendly, and after Morello’s band performs (with Adam as a de facto fifth member), the four explore the festival as one. It’s the film’s most audacious sequence, presenting familiar date activities (dancing, going on amusement park rides) as euphoric communal experiences. Mackenzie can’t resist making an allusion to group sex, though it proves nothing more than a sly innuendo: the four wind up sharing a bed, but only to sleep.
The cutaway shots to real festivalgoers are uniformly upbeat and mostly concerned with physical activity—dancing, embracing, sliding around in mud pits. Such images are familiar from pretty much every depiction of an outdoor music festival since Woodstock, yet the story reinforces their impact and vice versa. After Advam and Morello break up with their respective partners (neither relationship was that stable to begin with), the handcuffed pair act on their mutual attraction almost immediately. Given the good cheer all around them, their romance feels not arbitrary but inevitable; it dramatizes in personal terms the utopian quality of the festival.
Of course one of the greatest sensual pleasures is music, and Mackenzie weaves it into the lovers’ relationship. They confirm their bond by improvising a silly blues song on guitar (Adam strums with his right hand, while Morello works the frets with her left), and after an argument the following day (when the handcuffs are removed), they reconcile when Adam invites Morello onstage to sing with him. In the most inspired musical moment, the lovers gather with some other people and listen to a woman playing guitar in a tent. Meanwhile Mackenzie cuts between the other major characters as they get it on: Adam’s ex finds solace with a guy she knew in rehab, Morello’s ex hits it off with a hip lobbyist, and Adam’s callow bandmate stops by a groupie’s sleeping bag. There’s no condescension in the way Mackenzie presents the couplings; each conveys a spontaneous enthusiasm. Yet the woman’s song, which plays over this montage, is full of melancholy, reminding us that physical pleasure is fleeting (Mackenzie never suggests that any of the lovers will stay together). The sequence concludes with a shot of Adam and Morello kissing at sunrise, as seagulls take off behind them from a trash-strewn field.