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Rose Troche offers many bedrooms

By Scott Heller

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  Bedrooms and Hallways is a subversive take on modern sexual politics wrapped in bright colors and disguised as a slick romp. A light romantic comedy was the last thing you'd expect as director Rose Troche's follow-up to Go Fish, let alone a comedy about men -- British men -- with nary a lesbian in sight. The film may disappoint the director's core audience, but it shouldn't. In every way, Bedrooms and Hallways signals her growth as an artist, a choreographer of comedy, and a provocateur.

Adapting Robert Farrar's clever script with a budget that dwarfs that of her debut, Troche confirms her flair with an ensemble, coaxing utterly charming performances out of a cast of rising British stars and a handful of old reliables. Leo (Kevin McKidd) is gay, nearing 30, and single again. For comfort he turns to his loyal flatmate Angie (Julie Graham); for advice, to his fellow woodworker, Adam (Chris Fulford); for distraction, to the outrageous Darren (Tom Hollander). If Darren had his druthers, Leo would be with him cavorting on the club circuit, or trying a threesome with his own boyfriend, Jeremy (Hugo Weaving). Then again, Jeremy and Darren have a good thing going. Jeremy's a ritzy real-estate agent, and he and Darren meet for daytime trysts in the empty homes he's trying to sell.

Restless for change, Leo reluctantly agrees to attend Adam's men's group, which is led by Keith (Simon Callow), a man who never met a new-age platitude he didn't like. The group intrigues Keith's wife, Sybil (Harriet Walter), when she should be busy helping women raise their own consciousnesses -- usually one room down in the couple's home. Troche and production designer Richard Bridgland have a field day with their one-fad-fits-all abode, decorating rooms in Eskimo chic or wanna-be warrior. And Walter and Callow make a hilariously droll guru duo.

"Pass Terry the harpoon, please," Keith somberly intones during one Eskimo-influenced truth-telling session. In another, Leo blurts out his attraction to a brooding Irishman named Brendan (James Purefoy). Brendan is straight, just winding up a long relationship with a woman. But he's flattered by the interest, and maybe more. This upsets the group's delicate balance, turning their "Wildman Weekend" into a round robin of jealousy and mistaken affections.

Bedrooms and Hallways has its fun with the men's movement, but Troche respects the way everyone struggles these days with the vagaries of sex and gender identities. Brendan is comfortably masculine and open to Leo's affections. Darren doesn't have such a problem -- one look at his Day-Glo outfits and you know where he sits on the Kinsey scale. But Leo's a little less sure. "You give out complicated vibrations," Darren reminds him. Leo's greatest fear, which seems to be coming true, is that he'll fall in love with a straight man.

As it turns out, Brendan can't be summed up that easily. He hasn't really pulled away from his girlfriend, Sally (Jennifer Ehle). Yet she has an old boyfriend who stirs her heart when they meet unexpectedly -- and his name is Leo. The sexual geometry becomes too complex to contemplate, but Troche's comic hand remains sure and light. Her camera prowls and glides. The bedroom antics of Jeremy and Darren punctuate the heavier stuff. And fantasy sequences are adroitly used to express Leo's anxieties. Trying to take his mind off Brendan, he imagines the most boring book in the world. (Margaret Thatcher's biography used to do the trick, but he's finished that one.) He settles on Jane Austen, only to find that Brendan has infiltrated his drawing-room reverie -- dressed in leather and wielding a riding crop.

Working within the supposedly "safe" confines of comedy, a filmmaker can smuggle in daring material that might feel preachy or contrived in another setting. So it is with Bedrooms and Hallways. How many films have featured a straight character challenging a gay friend about his own stereotypes? Or listened in as a straight man described the pleasures of passivity in sex? Some have accused Troche of selling out her gay audience by hinting that Leo may switch back to the "other" team at the end of Bedrooms and Hallways. That's not how I read the film, but so what? A good home has many bedrooms. And many hallways that can take you up or down, in or out, to the bed of your choosing.

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