“Permanent Green Light”
Roman isn’t interested in sports or drugs, girls or boys so we might say that he is unlike teens. He’s not a nihilist, not religious, not depressive or suicidal. His goal is to just disappear and dying is unimportant but he does care about the effect his death will have on others. “Permanent Green Light” has appeared several “best” lists probably because the effect this film has on the viewer who is not interested in death except for spectacular effect that it has on others. This is second collaboration between cult novelist Dennis Cooper and filmmaker Zac Farley after bringing us their controversial first film, “Like Cattle Towards Glow”, a brilliant, disturbing and darkly rewarding experience. This is the story of a French youth who decides to blow himself up, hoping to disappear completely in a beautiful fashion.
Dennis Cooper has been actively writing since the 70s. He focuses on “sexual fantasy, existentialism, death, troubled teenagers, drug use, the inadequacy of language” and his prose is transgressive in nature and reflects a queer sensibility.
“Permanent Green Light” was originally inspired by the news story of an Australian youth who joined ISIS in Syria and blew himself up, but here, the handsome youth, Roman (Benjamin Sulpice), who lives in an unspecified French suburb of stark walls and blank spaces, has no political alliance or much discernible emotion or clear sexual orientation. The style is slow, austere and intimate. Cooper does. Not see himself a visual person and therefore he collaborates with Farley. The film while austere and elegant rewards us each time we see it and each time with a different reward. It both fascinates me and offends me. In this way it is like Roman who is attractive with dimples, sensuous lips, and beautiful eyes and a bit of a tease. He sends his best friend Ollie (Julien Fayeulle) to a fair alone, and we next see Ollie at the fair with his face streaming with tears. Another friend suggests they get high together and Roman asks just to take the drugs home to use by himself. We have scenes that involve a collapsed building, a piñata, a suicide vest, and a purveyor of explosives and they gradually lead to Roman’s radical self-annihilation. Along the way, three other young people do away with themselves, who Roman is aware of. Roman enlists a group of friends to help him blow himself up but not as an act of terrorism, nor out of suicidal despair, but simply because he wants to die in a large spectacle that leaves no trace of himself behind.
This is an extraordinarily quiet and thoughtful movie filled with the culture and feeling of childhood and adolescence, as well as a highly successful collaboration. “Permanent Green Light” is as subversive as Cooper’s most dangerous works of fiction, though it lacks any of the overtly shocking Cooper staples such as killing sprees, cannibalism, necrophilia or extreme fetishists. Cooper’s brutally honest, eerily erotic prose tends to portray pretty, troubled young guys and the predators who want to inflict merciless harm onto their bodies. Cooper, as a teen, was inspired by the work of the Marquis de Sade, and wanted to tap into the dysfunctional family dynamics, reckless drug taking and rampant horniness that consumed his life. He admits that he began writing with an absolute “purity of intent
The premise for Cooper and Farley’s film introduces a notion perhaps much more fearful than an unlikely Western recruit to ISIS terror: a person who wants to explode but doesn’t want to die, and above all doesn’t want anyone thinking he has died when he blows himself up… in public.
Unlike most of the young men Cooper has constructed in his transgressive fiction, none of these characters are objectified or preyed on by older, predatory types. In fact, none appear to even remotely think about sex, except for one sad guy pining for Roman. Where the film does fit into Cooper’s larger body of work is in its deep respect for the complexities and desires that are part and parcel of the teenage experience. Teenagers are just seen as being this mess. If Roman was 35 years old, the audience would go: ‘that guy has mental problems’. Because as soon as you get past adolescence, there’s this ‘you have to be an adult now’ expectation. Tangentially come the political aspects of the film. When Roman meets a girl, León, who collects suicide vests, he initially rejects the option of using something from her collection to obliterate himself — it would be, he says, “too famous.” León herself is not a terrorist, outspokenly claiming that her interest is merely in stockpiling the vests, not detonating them.
Shot largely in close-ups, Permanent Green Light is told through the faces of its teenagers. The way they look at one another, at their phones, at the walls of a club while they dance, express both an emotion and a confusion that Farley-Cooper capture in dialogue at several key moments, when their young subjects seem capable of opening up. The film painstakingly avoids condescending to its adolescent characters: we are as incapable of understanding them as they are of understanding themselves.