Don’t judge a DVD by its cover

The Dying Gaul: poster

So, spouse brought home a collection of movies from the library for us to watch. I hardly bothered to consider The Dying Gaul, as I was not in the mood for something that sounded so (a) historical, and (b) depressing, and the image I found online (it turned out to be the movie poster) looked very bleak. Actually, once I saw the cover of the DVD itself, it looked more like the kind of entertainment I was in the mood for: drama, maybe with a mystery element. Marketing books and movies is a fascinating art/science and I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when the choice of imagery for the various collateral paraphernalia was discussed.

When we finally got around to watching it after all the others, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a contemporary drama about a recently bereaved screenwriter who, when the movie opens, is talking to a Hollywood studio executive who wants to buy his script (“The Dying Gaul”).

The Dying Gaul: DVD

The screenwriter, Robert, is played by Peter Sarsgaard. The executive, Jeffrey, is played by Campbell Scott. The opening scene at first reminded me of “The Player,” the great 1992 Robert Altman comedy with Tim Robbins and Greta Scaachi heading up an excellent cast. But this movie is not a comedy: we quickly understand that we are watching something a little closer to reality. The executive will promise anything to get his hands on the script and we understand that, in his version of reality, he is only doing his job. The screenwriter wants to preserve the integrity of the script: he is initially principled, but is tempted, of course, by the offer of a million dollars for the script — that money will allow him to do good things in future if he can just compromise this one time — and so he wants to believe the assurances that ring false to us. It is a triumph of the movie that both executive and screenwriter are complex people.

The script, as initially written, is based on the death from AIDS of Robert’s lover. One of the first and biggest changes that Jeffrey persuades Robert to make is to change the sex of the protagonist: with one global change on a document, “Maurice” becomes “Maggie.” (Jeffrey says “Americans hate gays.”) We can see the progress of the act on the dialogue box on Robert’s screen: an apparently small word-processing change that has big consequences. Jeffrey also points out that people won’t go to a movie called “The Dying Gaul” — it sounds depressing and people don’t go to a movie to be depressed. We know he’s talking about the big picture here: it’s all about numbers and money (but, of course, it was meaningful to me that I initially rejected the DVD for its title).

The Dying Gaul is the name of a sculpture: in this movie, the Roman copy of the original Greek statue. It works in many ways to represent this movie within a movie and the characters within the characters we initially see.

The surprise of the film is that everyone turns out to have a hidden life and there are more plot twists ahead. Jeffrey is bisexual and soon seduces Robert. Jeffrey’s wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), a former screenwriter, is drawn to Robert emotionally and wants to learn more about him, so she creates an online persona and begins communicating with him in an internet chat room. She becomes the most fascinating character in this film, as we learn how far she will go in creating her own kind of screenplay that affects the lives of the three people involved.

The end of the movie is startling and ambiguous: it has, suitably, elements of Greek tragedy.

Postscript: Craig Lucas is both writer and director of this film. His career so far has been mainly as a writer.

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