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In my view this is the film SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE should have been, a wildly uneven yet irresistibly demented indie about seduction and obsession among a quartet of thirtysomethings.  Funny, shocking and totally unpredictable, this is American filmmaking at its most inspired…although I’m still not sure exactly what the title is supposed to mean. 

The Package 
     CLEOPATRA’S SECOND HUSBAND (1998) was the first feature by filmmaker Jon Reiss, whose previous work included a number of promo films for San Francisco’s notorious Survival Research Laboratories, as well as the SRL-themed shorts BAITED TRAP and A BITTER MESSAGE OF HOPELESS GRIEF.  Subsequent to CSH Reiss made BETTER LIVING THROUGH CIRCUITRY, a well-received documentary on the rave scene.
     The underground sensibilities of those films carry through into CLEOPATRA’S SECOND HUSBAND, which includes a loving close-up of a crushed animal smeared all over a road.  Furthermore, the twisted “animal” photos of Catherine Chalmers (a frog eating a praying mantis, caterpillars devouring a tomato, etc.) are featured prominently.  The story was reportedly inspired by a trip Reiss took during which he unwisely left his house in the care of underground filmmaker Amos Poe, with results similar to those CSH’s protagonist confronts when he returns home from his vacation.  The budget was a scant $200 grand, which is evident throughout, seeing as how there’s really only one location: the interior of the protagonist’s house.  Included in the mostly no-name cast is onetime indie queen Radha Mitchell (from HIGH ART and EVERYTHING PUT TOGETHER, and now in high profilers like PHONE BOOTH and MAN ON FIRE) and if you look closely you’ll spot real-life drag queen Alexis Arquette (brother of Roseanna, Patricia and David and star of JACK BE NIMBLE) in a tiny role.  

The Story
     Robert and Hallie are a young couple who find their marriage isn’t what it used to be.  Actually, they were never much to begin with, as Robert is a passive-aggressive schmuck who only married the strong willed Hallie because she pressured him into it.  They decide to take a vacation and ask another couple, Zack and Sophie, to housesit.  When they return they find all of Robert’s fish dead and Hallie’s clothes in disarray.  Worse, Zack and Sophie are reluctant to leave, claiming they have no place else to go; against their better instincts, Robert and Hallie let them stay…with catastrophic results.
     In short order, the kinky Sophie seduces Robert and Hallie leaves.  Next Zack seduces Robert and Sophie takes off, leaving Robert and Zack to deal with their increasingly twisted relationship by themselves.  And twisted it definitely is, as Zack comes to control Robert much in the same way Hallie did, albeit in a far less healthy manner.  Zack invites a number of whores and transvestites to the house, with Robert powerless to do anything about it…until he finally decides to turn the tables.  He drugs Zack and shuts him up in a specially designed basement coffin, complete with an intravenous tube through which he gives Zack the minimum amount of water he’ll need to survive (which Robert has carefully researched beforehand)…and then things really get twisted!

The Direction
     In the manner of quite a few independent productions, this film is shot mostly in wide shots (to minimize costly camera set-ups), often seen from odd angles that annoy as often as not, particularly in the first half hour.  Things pick up, however, as the narrative grows increasingly perverse, with a claustrophobic ambiance that fondly recalls similarly themed classics like THE SERVANT and PERFORMANCE.  The performances could frankly be a little better, although Reiss’ relentlessly style-conscious direction frequently overpowers them, and anyway Paul Hipp is fairly good (if unexceptional) in the lead role.  Most striking of all is Reiss’ surprisingly subtle touch, particularly in the more outrageous bits (the abovementioned roadkill shot excepted), which are handled in an appropriately muted, non-explicit manner, thus emphasizing what’s going on beneath the surface. 

Vital Statistics 

Cucoloris Films

Director: Jon Reiss
Producers: Jill Goldman, David Scott Rubin, Jacqui de la Fontaine, Jon Reiss
Screenplay: Jon Reiss
Cinematography: Matt Faw
Editor: Toby Yates
Cast: Paul Hip, Boyd Kestner, Bitty Schram, Radha Mitchell, Alexis Arquette, Jonathan Penner, Nancye Ferguson, Maude Winchester, Jill Goldman, Peter Getty, Darryl Warren, Mookie Rubin

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