At a time when filmed eroticism between intelligent, complex adults is at something of a nadir, Wayne Wang comes along with the sexiest film in quite some time. The Center of the World deals with themes of loneliness and sexuality, and how the two are (or are not) intertwined.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Richard, a typical (almost stereotypical) techo-geek who made a million dollars the year prior and is about to make a lot more through an IPO. We are introduced to him and Florence (Molly Parker) as they check into a hotel suite in Las Vegas. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Richard recently met Florence, a freckled stunner, at the strip club where she works. Within five minutes, Wang sets the film's tone by having Parker perform an act that eliminates any chance for an R rating -- a shocking act for a lead actress in a mainstream film, and one that suggests that freedom of sexuality is a major issue here (and that Parker is an actress with few boundaries).
Richard is fascinated. He buys her time for a lap dance, tries to get to know her better, and ultimately offers her $10,000 to accompany him to Vegas for the weekend. All the while, we see them in Vegas -- her clearly bored, him thoroughly content just to be in her presence. They go shopping and barely speak. She has a separate room. Through the flashbacks, we learn that she has agreed to come on certain conditions -- no talking about feelings, no mouth kissing, no penetration, and party time is from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. He agrees without hesitation. It is apparent that money means nothing to him; $10,000 for three nights with a beautiful woman, even without completion, is a bargain.
Once nighttime arrives, the film's erotic charge takes hold. The Center of the World was shot on digital video, much of it hand-held, and the muted colors give Richard and Florence's universe the aura of a seedy strip joint -- which, for these characters at this moment, it is.
A few minutes before ten o'clock, Richard pulls up a chair to her closed door, just staring at it, passing time, a child with an adult's patience waiting for his present at Christmas. Meanwhile, she prepares, putting on makeup, curling her eyebrows, getting ready for work.
She emerges a few minutes after ten, and the fun begins. Wang takes his time; the experience for Richard is a rare erotic pleasure, and Wang spares the audience none of this emotion. Parker and Sarsgaard are beautifully cast. She's all steam and fire and he's all appreciation and glee. The film lingers on close-ups of Sarsgaard enjoying her breasts, she slowly removing his shirt, caressing his chest, letting their cheeks touch. She finishes him off by hand, but for him it's like a honeymoon or first love -- penetration is irrelevant.
Eventually the game gets shaken up. She's here for the money, but might other factors be in play? What happens if she lets herself be taken to another level? The answers are never made quite clear, nor are they taken as far as most Hollywood movies would go. Wang's film illustrates that everyone has different parameters of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior, what is degradation and what is just, and that the extent that these differences are even relevant is an individual matter.
Perhaps Wang's greatest achievement in this erotic wonderment is the avoidance of easy answers to complex personalities (and, for the matter, the avoidance of unnecessarily complicating simple ones). In a cinematic climate where most movie sex is being had by faux teens and inexperienced adults too young to master the moment, The Center of the World is a bold, aggressive, and intelligent erotic presence in an increasingly frightened and overcautious landscape.