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'Thomas in Love'

Web of intrigue: 'Thomas in Love' logs into life of Internet-only agoraphobic

Friday, August 31, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

T.S. Eliot called television "a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome." What, then, would he think of the Internet?

 
    'Thomas in Love'

Rating: Unrated; contains animated nudity and depiction of virtual sex. Subtitled.

Starring: Benoit Verhaert, Aylin Yay, Magalie Pinglault.

Director: Pierre-Paul Renders.

Critic's call:

 
 

We'll never know, but the ingenious Belgian movie "Thomas in Love," now at the Denis Theater, shares Eliot's discomfort with a technology that is supposed to foster communication but ends up isolating people from each other.

"Tomorrow is here today," the movie says, and while the film's setting is hardly Orwellian, a form of creeping corporate socialism controls many aspects of the characters' lives, enabled by the seductive yet ultimately stifling convenience of being able to do almost anything -- from ordering food to indulging in cybersex -- without leaving the comfort of your home.

The title character, in fact, has not gone out of his apartment in eight years. Neither has anyone visited him. Thomas suffers from acute agoraphobia. He manages his life entirely by use of a videophone device that allows him to get his vacuum cleaner fixed; speak with the agent from the Globale Insurance Company, which runs his life in more ways than one; talk to his mother (or, to be more accurate, prevent him from avoiding her calls); and have sex with a virtual partner who is, literally, a computer-generated animation.

We see all of them but, in perhaps the movie's most brilliant stroke, we never see Thomas. He has become that depersonalized. His full name is Thomas Thomas, which also suggests a certain redundancy. Actor Benoit Verhaert brings him to life entirely through his voice.

The movie consists largely of a series of conversations in which we see everything that happens only as Thomas does, over the videophone. But several factors keep the movie from being utterly static or altogether depressing. Screenwriter Phillippe Blasband makes Thomas' world not that much different from ours, manages to dramatize even the exposition and infuses the film with a puckish sense of humor.

Director Pierre-Paul Renders and cinematographer Virginie Saint Martin make the film's visual look consistently fascinating. Something inanimate always seems to be moving in the images Thomas sees, often in what look like framed video pictures hanging on everyone's walls. The characters all decorate their faces with symbols in an attempt to individualize themselves.

The visual contrasts are fascinating -- from the artificial and hilariously tacky cartoon sex goddess to the somewhat fuzzy and underlit transmission from the low-ceilinged bedroom of Melodie (Magali Pinglault), a woman Thomas "meets" after his psychologist (Frederic Topart), trying to shake his patient's complacency, signs him up for, incongruously enough, a dating service.

It doesn't work, but too well. Most of these women are as pathetically lonely as Thomas, which turns him off. And then there is Eva (Aylin Yay), who is as trapped as Thomas but in an entirely different way. She is sad, angry, defiant, desperate, resigned to her fate. How could she possibly help Thomas? How could he possibly help her?

Their fate -- and, by extension, ours -- lies in the answer. "Thomas in Love" poses all the right questions.

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