Richard Longman (Peter Sarsgaard) is a young programming guru surrounded by e-holes. (That’s an “a*****e” in the internet world.) Addicted to computers often working on several at once — playing games, surfing the web, programming — Richard finds it difficult to connect with a real woman. His only escape comes in the form of strip clubs where he meets the alluring Florence played by Molly Parker. Richard quickly becomes a regular customer and offers Florence an opportunity: come to Las Vegas for the weekend and he’ll pay her $10,000. Florence is a stripper, not a prostitute but the money is almost too good to pass up. She sets ground rules — no penetration, no talk of feelings, separate hotel rooms and she’ll provide a private strip show that begins promptly at 10 PM and ends at 2 AM. After much negotiation, Richard agrees with the rules and the two are off to Vegas. But something happens, Florence (not her real name, but her stripper name) begins to fall for Richard. He is caring and considerate and she doesn’t just notice these qualities, she is touched by them. Florence visits a distraught friend and Richard offers to help by giving her money. In fact, he transfers the cash into her account with his computer and solves her problem in minutes. Flo is captivated by Richard’s sensitivity to her friend’s situation.
The relationship quickly becomes dangerous for both of them since it is clearly leading to a passionate affair. On advice from a friend, Flo actually fakes having a period so that they will abstain from intercourse. It’s the only way she can stop herself. It’s a great visual moment filled with passion – Florence purposely wears a bone white latex outfit and the red “blood” concoction nearly screams from the dress. Soon, Florence finds herself so attracted to Richard that the two can no longer control themselves and the two finally consummate their longing. Of course, it does not end well for either.
If the highly-charged sexual tension in the film were not enough, director Wayne Wang (“Anywhere But Here,” “Joy Luck Club,” “Smoke”) has made it even more jarring by shooting digital making the sex scenes seem that much more real. It plays less like a drama and more like a real hidden video. Most of the film takes place in the hotel room making it raw, uncomfortable and simultaneously, erotic. The actors, Parker and Sarsgaard didn’t just act, they laid their souls out for audiences. The emotional roller coaster ride these actors put themselves through to deliver such an authentic portrayal of this kind of sexual relationship on screen is rare. Artisan should be applauded for bypassing the MPAA rating system and releasing the film unrated. I’m not quite sure if it is Molly Parker, because there is a very careful cut, but she seems to insert a lollipop in her most private of areas and then proceeds to feed the sucker to a patron at the strip club. Among other things that would require even more careful wording on my part in order to avoid having this review read like a dirty letter from the pages of Penthouse. Parker is no stranger to films of a bizarre sexual nature. She starred in the 1996 Canadian film “Kissed” in which she had sex with the recently deceased, so lollipops might actually seem kind of tame for her.
I haven’t seen a film of this type that was this powerful since the original “Last Tango in Paris” with Marlon Brando. (I first saw “Tango” on video in the 80s as it was originally released with an “X” rating in 1972 when I was just a kid.) “Center” is one of those films that will leave audiences inside themselves with their own thoughts about sex and intimacy. I left the screening in stunned silence and it took me several days to process my own feelings. But I’m not an actor and bearing my soul on issues of sex is not something I’m going to start doing here, I think I’d rather keep them to myself. I will say that having been involved in several monogamous sexual relationships before settling into marriage, that this film demonstrates how difficult it is to separate feelings for another person from the intimate act of sex.