Eye For Film >> Movies >> Love The Beast (2009) Film Review
"I enjoy having sex, I just don't want to be a porn star."
This is the telling analogy employed by chat show host Jay Leno to explain why he spends so much time and money building high-spec cars for his private collection, but never actually races them. His eroticised language is echoed not only in the title of Love The Beast, but also in the words of several other contributors to the documentary ("it's like his heart", "love is love, mate, love is never wrong") – for Eric Bana's directorial debut concerns his committed love affair with a Ford GT Falcon Coupe that he purchased second-hand in his teen years and has worked and reworked ever since. And, unlike Leno, Bana definitely wants to be a porn star, not only fiddling under the beast's bonnet, when he is not sharing her with his three childhood friends, but also riding her in the dangerous five-day Targa Tasmania Rally.
This is the love that dare not speak its name, a strange modernist infatuation of man with metal that was perhaps taken to its logical conclusion in Marco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe (where Marcello Mastroianni has sex with his sportscar) or David Cronenberg's Crash (whose characters get their orgasmic kicks from vehicular collisions).
Bana is not interested in such cinematic extremes, even if his enthusiasm for 'muscle cars' was first fired by seeing Mad Max when he was nine – but nonetheless, he does want to probe the pathological underpinnings of his love for the beast, even consulting popular day-time TV counsellor Dr Phil McGraw for a psychologist's perspective. There seems little doubting that Bana's love is real (he is reduced to tears at one point by a particularly good stretch of driving), but whether the love that he seeks to explain is ever really understood by the viewer is another question entirely.
It is a point perhaps made most succinctly by Jeremy Clarkson, the host of BBC TV's Top Gear, who complains in conversation with Bana: "You can develop a real relationship with a car, and that's just what non-car people don't get." He is right, of course, which is why non-car people will find themselves forced into the position of disengaged anthropologist, observing all the vehicular bump and grind without gaining any real insight or emotional connection from the experience. If Clarkson himself thinks "all muscle cars are crap", what hope is there for the rest of us to appreciate Bana's obsessive bond?
Instead of inviting the uninitiated into his ecstatic cult of tarmac racing, Bana's film keeps the profane at the gate. To know what drives Bana, evidently you have to be one of his close friends – but we are never made to feel like one, what with Bana revealing so little of his personality, let alone charisma, here. Part of the near universal appeal of Top Gear is its sly humour, so that those who do not share the rev-head dream can at least laugh at its inherent puerility – but despite Bana's one-time status as a stand-up comedian, Love the Beast is almost entirely devoid of jokes or even wit. Instead, this is an over-sentimental journey, taken in a classic car whose fuel is pure nostalgia, back to Bana's idealised childhood.
Love The Beast feels at times like a desperate bid to prove that, for all Bana's red carpet celebrity, he is still a normal guy, with good mates, a solid family, and passions that go beyond cinema. This is all no doubt true, but some might be left wondering whether cinema is itself the right medium to convey such a message.
Even as Bana is shown scorning his megastardom and trying to return to his roots, he still sees fit to call upon the likes of Clarkson, Leno and Dr Phil – as indeed he must in order to elevate this documentary from mere home-movie status. If Bana were not a Hollywood player, were not able to command such high-profile interviewees, he simply would not be in a position to hire someone else to customise his original car beyond all recognition – and frankly, without Bana's name recognition attached to it, this mawkish, rather dull film would never have been exhibited on a big screen.
It is not that you can't go back – but rather that you can't go back until after you have already got somewhere. This is the paradox at this documentary's core. Loving the beast is easier, but somehow also less innocent, when you no longer have to worry about the cost of its upkeep. Bana's adoration of his first car is not the only kind of autoeroticism on offer in a film that seems as much a vanity project as the beloved Coupe has by the end become.Reviewed on: 13 Nov 2009