For he has sinned: Like all confessions, John Haslett Cuff's new film is part boast as well
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 April 2004)

John Haslett Cuff's film about adultery, Crimes of the Heart, may be only a minor event in the history of egomania, but it has some interesting stories to tell, not all of them explicit or intentional. The one-time TV critic of The Globe and Mail, Cuff sets out to analyze a rich and always fertile subject, sexual infidelity. He deals with it by explaining adultery's central place in his personal history. Often speaking directly to the camera, he castigates himself for his treatment of women while letting us know that he's had a vivid if turbulent sex life.

TVOntario will give Crimes of the Heart its first televised showing tomorrow night at 11, the hour presumably chosen in hopes of shielding the innocent eyes of children. So little promotion has been done that the broadcast is almost secret; obviously, as an educational network, TVOntario feels nervous about the way Cuff treats this subject. (W Network and the Documentary Channel are committed to broadcasting the film later.)

Now 55 years old, Cuff comes across as a very young man, with the rambling, confessional style of a gabby college student. As a self-analyst he's locked into a primitive version of Freud. In all seriousness he lays his problems squarely at the feet of his old mom, as if events that happened 45 years ago had determined everything. "The fact that my mother was adulterous," he says, has left him unable to trust women, and that's sabotaged many of his relationships with women. His distrust of women sometimes becomes what he calls a "sick obsession"; he seems to be saying that because he can't trust women he can't be faithful to them either.

So he goes from Toronto to British Columbia to interview his 78-year-old mother, Camilla Cuff, who doesn't deny that she long ago stepped outside conventional morality. As she turns a shrewd and knowing expression on her son, the camera tells us something that Cuff may or may not know: She doesn't take him (or for that matter his problems) nearly as seriously as he takes himself.

He's obviously an exhibitionist, but he appears to believe that just understanding this fact somehow makes it acceptable, perhaps even laudable. Rarely has self-intoxication been so luxuriantly displayed on TV. A widespread theory holds that (as Mason Cooley, an American author, phrased it) "self-blame usually has an undertone of self-congratulation."

There's a boast hidden somewhere in every confession. Samuel Richardson, in his novel Pamela, says lavish self-accusations are usually attempts at winning "acquittal with applause." People who testify at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are said to describe their drinking days in such excessive detail that their listeners sometimes can't tell whether they're confessing or bragging.

Cuff includes a few old pieces of film that establish his stature as a journalist; we see him insulted by Ken Finkleman in a cameo on The Newsroom and interviewed by Mike Bullard on CTV. Brief pornographic scenes are inserted here and there, as illustrations of lust in action, but when it's all over the effect is dispiriting and anti-erotic.

Five unnamed women appear on camera to tell stories about committing adultery -- why they do it, where it leads, etc. One of them, a dead-eyed and sullen character who talks in an Atwoodian drone, could easily convert some viewers, male or female, to celibacy. Sometimes their talk about sex sounds like discussions of real estate among lawyers. One woman says she doesn't want "exclusive physical access" to any man, and doesn't want a man who expects it from her. She might be talking about a mutual driveway. (Sun-Kyung Yi, executive producer of this film and Cuff's fourth wife, wisely remains off-screen.)

As he talks, Cuff consumes so many cigarettes that Crimes of the Heart looks like an instructional film for actors on smoking as a dramatic device. At least half of old Hollywood movies used cigarettes as props, and Cuff obviously saw all of them. One minute he's doing the David Niven Insouciant Wave, next it's the Intense Bogart Suck.

Cuff borrows his title from the 1979 Beth Henley play that became, in 1986, a charming Bruce Beresford movie with Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek. The two films share a bit more than their title. Adultery was part of Henley's story, and both films exist (as Roger Ebert said of Beresford's) "somewhere between parody and melodrama, between the tragic and the goofy."

A cultural subtext hums along beneath Cuff's narrative. We're watching yet another manifestation of the attitude to life that the English poets began preaching some 230 years ago. The Romantic movement they created is not an event in history (as literary critics claim) but a still-vital part of life, its role growing steadily larger.

Glorying in self-consciousness, the Romantics argued for the unfettered display of emotion. (Keats: "O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts.") Ever since, literature, painting and mass culture have lived in their shadow. Cuff, like the other 10,000 or so public confessors now among us, embraces the Romantic artist's motto: To discover and express yourself is a supreme accomplishment.

The once-revolutionary axioms of the Romantics are now the commonplaces of acting schools, comedy clubs, daytime TV and documentary films. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions promises to "set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man myself. Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart ..." Cuff, likewise, deals with what he calls "my favourite subject, myself."

What Rousseau imagined as a strategy for uncovering philosophic truth has become part of the entertainment world, and even politics -- Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have all been public confessors. In our time adultery has become the favourite infraction of the old rules; even the heir to the throne has been revealed, in painful detail, as a habitual practitioner.

Perhaps Crimes of the Heart plays back some of the lessons Cuff absorbed, consciously or not, in the course of his newspaper career. He was the Globe TV critic from 1986 to 1997, when the fashion for self-revelation was picking up steam. In that context it's natural for him to turn to his private life when he looks about for themes to explore in films. The result may be as much a symptom as a documentary.

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