IMBUED (Rob Nilsson)
commentary Tony McRae
"Imbued: To inspire, permeate, or pervade."
American Heritage Dictionary
One of the virtues of a Rob Nilsson film is its ability to take a Hollywood formula, in this case the chance meeting of a bookmaker and a prostitute, and turn it into a complex and riveting balancing act of pleasure and pain. No easy answers here, no nicely worked-out ending.
A bookmaker/gambler Donatello (played by the versatile Stacy Keach), and prostitute Lydia (newcomer Liz Sklar who's a dead-ringer for Jennifer Jones) meet by chance in an upscale high-rise in San Francisco. Donatello is using the place for his bookmaking. He likes being alone, prefers doing his business on the telephone. A doorbell rings. Who could this be? A languid knockout of a woman is looking for Bryan. No Bryan here, Donatello tells her. That's okay, this older guy will do, as long as she gets her money. The trouble is Donatello's not into sex; he's adamant about that.
"I don't want sex. I've had sex.
"I don't believe you."
"You don't know me."
"What's there to know? What makes you so different?"
He has no answer. Could be he has a daughter about her age?
Both Donatello and Lydia are in the business of giving service: he's a bookmaker, she's a prostitute. Donatello's contacts are over the phone, never in person. Lydia, on the other hand, offers her body, gives johns what they want, just as Donatello gives his customers what they want.
Donatello considers himself self-sufficient, especially when he's by himself running his business. But there are chinks in his armor. For one thing, he finds himself in a high-rise apartment overlooking the city. The trouble is he has acrophobia, a fear of heights. Since he plans to spend the night by himself, this should not present a problem. The arrival of the prostitute changes that.
In many of his works, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre often talks about "bad faith," which means that people ignore the consequences of their actions. In Donatello's case, he claims to have no personal interest in his customers. He insists he is not a cheat. He never gives advice. "They make the bets. It's up to them, not up to me." Lydia, who does the same thing -- gives her customers what they want -- sees right through him. She's been telling herself the same thing for a long time: "It's up to them, not up to me." The irony is that while each can see the other's flaw, they do not admit their own situation, that they are in fact in a hell of their own making.
Sartre's famous phrase "Hell is other people" ("l'enfer, c'est les autres") has often been misconstrued. Yes, in Sartre's play "No Exit" (Huis Clos), the four protagonists do degrade one another, but what Sartre is saying is that hell is of one's own making.
What makes "Imbued" so intriguing -- and satisfying -- is director Nilsson's ability to show us that individuals, whether they are outcasts, criminals, or prostitutes and bookmakers, all have the drive to enjoy life, even to the point of denying their own faults. In "Imbued" we get only a few hints of Donatello's and Lydia's past, but each is trying to do some good. In Donatello's case, when his daughter calls, he asks if she needs money. "Promise me you won't spend it on drugs," he tells her. She's a junkie and can't do that. But he will still give her the money. He tells Lydia he's been married four times, that he cooks and cleans up.
"A one man rescue party," he jokes, though he means it. "I service my women."
"You must really hate women."
"I do. I don't want to owe a woman anything. I don't want to be obligated. When a woman walks away, I've done my part, I'm clean."
That's Sartre's "bad faith" in a nutshell.
But there is chemistry between the two. They bond, like two sinners who need each others' forgiveness. Donatello's last words to Lydia are: "I am imbued with you." This does not imply happiness; rather each has given the other an opening, a way out of their own hell, a chance to take responsibility.
I like to think of the ending of "Imbued" in the same context as the ending of "Casablanca," where the audience is left with several possibilities to mull over: Did Rick and Ilsa make love before Rick concocts the plan to have Ilsa and her husband depart for America while he and Louie march off to win the war? Does Rick still love Ilsa? And she him? It doesn't much matter really; we take pleasure thinking about these things. Same with "Imbued." What will happen to Donatello and Lydia? Earlier Lydia had said to Donatello, "I'm like you, I don't want to know (about myself)." Let's hope that's about to change. As Sartre puts it: ""Life begins on the other side of despair."
Though "Imbued" looks down on the city from an upscale high-rise, the two protagonists are still confined to their own hells. Nilsson's screenplay has been working to get them out. The rest is up to them.
Observation: Actress Liz Sklar is a dead ringer for Jennifer Jones, not the Jennifer Jones in "The Song of Bernadette" but Jennifer Jones in "Dual in the Sun" [see photo].
Sklar and Keach
Jennifer Jones in "Duel in the Sun"