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DVD Review: Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Conceiving Ada and Teknolust

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Lately, Tilda Swinton’s mainstream profile has risen due to her involvement in projects like The Chronicles of Narnia series and Michael Clayton, for which she won an Oscar. But there’s really no argument that Swinton is primarily an art house actress — and one of the best in that nebulous category.

Still, not all non-mainstream Swinton films are created equal, and her ongoing collaboration with Lynn Hershman Leeson so far hasn’t delivered a film as memorable or striking as Orlando or Julia.

Microcinema has released the first two parts of a planned sci-fi feminist trilogy from Leeson (the third part, Gene to the Fourth, is currently in development) with Conceiving Ada and Teknolust. Both were previously available on now-OOP (though not prohibitively expensive) DVDs.

1997’s Conceiving Ada is, simply put, a mess. Swinton is not even in any place to salvage the proceedings as her character is relegated to a merely symbolic state. The real focus of the film is computer scientist Emmy Coer (the painfully histrionic Francesca Faridany, in her only film role to date), who is working on a project that connects artificial life with real life.

In the process, she discovers she can communicate with the 19th Century’s Ada Lovelace (Swinton), a mathematical genius who wrote a computer language 100 years before computers were even invented. Hers is a fascinating tale, but it’s hardly the one this film is telling. Instead, we get lots of sci-fi mumbo jumbo that allows Emmy to compress time to view Ada’s past as if it were happening in real time and to talk directly to her. And these are the tolerable parts of the film.

Elsewhere, Emmy moans about being misunderstood by her boyfriend and worries about the child she is about to have. It all results in a muddled, unconvincing portrait that wants to say something about the struggles that women who are ahead of their time face.

It doesn’t help matters that Microcinema’s DVD has to be one of the worst uses of the format in some time. The letterboxed, non-anamorphic image is hideous and appears to have been ported directly from the VHS. There are even VHS tracking lines that appear on the image occasionally.

2002’s Teknolust is a much better film that reveals Leeson’s capabilities as a filmmaker had certainly improved in the five years between. The camerawork is far more assured, the writing is far more intelligible and the message is more on-point.

The film does struggle with establishing a consistent tone — is it aiming for campy silliness, pointed satire or romantic comedy? — but it’s entertaining in a rather awkward fashion, with Swinton doing some solid work as four characters.

The only human of the four is Rosetta Stone, a frumpy caricature of a scientist who has secretly cloned herself into three much more glamorous replicants — Ruby, Marinne and Olive, each distinguished by the color of her hair.

In a plot that seems lifted right out of a porno, the three clones (or self-replicating automatons, as the film brands them) need frequent doses of the male Y chromosome to live. And where can they find it? You got it — sperm. The most confident of the three, Ruby, seduces random men in public places, blows their mind and then proceeds to take the used condom and its contents back to feed herself and her sister-clones.

Fortunately, the film doesn’t focus on the mechanics of this process in any great detail, but instead turns it into dual love stories as Ruby falls for the shy and awkward Sandy (Jeremy Davies, doing the just-past-adolescent version of his character on Lost) and Rosetta begins to grow attracted to Agent Hopper (the always-wry James Urbaniak), who’s investigating the recent spate of viruses men have picked up because of their liaisons with the clones.

Teknolust is almost too idiosyncratic for its own good, and one gets the feeling that Leeson still isn’t quite sure how to make the point she wants to cinematically, but the film somehow works — thanks in large part to Swinton’s ability to create four distinct characters. The anamorphic widescreen image on this DVD is also much more watchable.

Both DVDs include the same discussion with Swinton and Leeson that occurred after a 2009 screening of Teknolust at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. Teknolust also includes a short featurette on an artificial intelligence robot that inspired the film.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.