Editor’s note: 3 Needles opened in a small number of U.S. theaters on 1 December; it is also airing on Showtime, starting tonight at 9pm ET.
There are any number of striking images in 3 Needles, a mostly earnest, often outraged film about the continuing spread of HIV and AIDS around the world. A nun is raped, a three-year-old child is raped, a mother licks her HIV-infected son’s blood in a deliberate effort to contract the disease. Canadian porn film actor, Denys (Shawn Ashmore), stands over his kneeling partner (Wentahawi Dionne-Elijah): he’s dressed in a Pilgrim’s costume, she wears that of movie-style Native American, with beads, tan-colored miniskirt, and feathered headband. “In the end,” he says, “It’s not about how different we are, it’s not the color of our skin. It’s not what faith we believe in. It’s about how hard I could fuck you.” “Coupe,” yells the director. Indeed.
Surely, 3 Needles means well. Making serious points about serious issues, it underscores repeatedly the need for personal and official vigilance concerning “the virus,” as everyone in the film calls it. Structured as three sections — set in rural China, Montreal, and a plantation in South Africa — the movie makes something of a sprawling case, that the numbers of cases increase for multiple reasons, and that most of these reasons can be reduced to money.
Denys, who appears in the second section, titled “The Christians,” is alarmingly ignorant and in denial about his own infection, stealing his ailing father’s blood to pass the monthly porn actors’ test (just how he’s able to pass this brought-from-home tube off as his own is unclear: the health care worker [Isabelle Cyr] who conducts the tests appears reasonably intelligent and quite aware of the rules). Ashamed enough of his career to keep it from his mother Olive (the great Stockard Channing, here affecting a stilted French-Canadian accent), Denys does watch his movies with his dad, who appreciates that his son is earning a decent living, and daily demonstrating his manhood to boot. “This is some of your best stuff,” he smiles, propped up in a chair with oxygen mask and tv table, “It has plot, characters. It’s funny.” When Denys winces during a groaning-moaning scene, dad blames it on Olive: “Ah, I told your mother not to raise you Catholic.”
While this reference to religion appears to be somewhat comic, 3 Needles also uses such references to characterize responses to the virus. Denys lives inside his own shame and guilt, until at last he’s found out, as he must be, and his father dies. This leaves his mother free, finally, to explore her own desires, manifested in sex at a strip/sex club (with Gary Farmer as her hedonistic one-off — and where has he been hiding?), leading to conspicuous consumption (she devises a life-insurance scam that grants her a new sports car, new outfits, and a vavoomy new attitude), none of which indicates her especial affinity for Catholic ritual or straight living.
The tone throughout this sections is odd, from Olive’s smug-faced rage at the world to Denys’ efforts to like himself as much as she does: he appears performing his self-love in a scene where he does push-ups in his bedroom over a mirror on eh floor, professing, “You have beautiful eyes, you know” (this as his tighty-whitied butt appears in the upper corner of the frame). “Do you really love me? Of course you do.” From its use of disconcerting circus-sounding music on the background soundtrack to Denys’ ambiguous sexuality, the film never seems to figure out how it means to indict his ignorance or his mother’s. When, at the section’s beginning, Denys appears on set dressed as a fireman about to hump a bored looking “hot chick” Marie (Simone-Elise Girard), she asks for a condom. You know, given the film’s thematic focus, that this will end badly for her when the director insists on the “perfectly safe” no-condom policy. By the time Marie comes back around to accuse Denys — “You killed me for $800?” — the film has made abundantly clear its judgment of Denys and Olive’s extremely short term focus. The porn industry is only an occasion, not even a symptom, of their utter absorption of such a crass, self-destructive, and normative worldview.
The first section, “The Buddhists,” is no less obvious, though the rewards for self-interest are considerably reduced. The very pregnant Jin Ping (Lucy Liu) travels from village to village in southern China, involved in a scam where she instructs potential donors regarding the necessity of “blood products” (with an impressive slide show), pays each $5, then sells them for a profit. The lack of oversight of such products means that contaminated blood is circulated throughout populations, and Jin Ping leaves a trail of infections behind her.
She certainly has reason to be cynical: almost as soon as she appears on screen, a cadre of police pulls her VW van over, destroys her packets of red product, and gang rapes her. “In the shadow of the Burmese mountains, life and death met briefly on the dusty road,” intones the film’s “wise lady” voiceover (Olympia Dukakis, who plays a nun in the final section, called “The Pagans”). “St. Christopher, patron of travelers, must not have been paying attention that day.” Just what this voiceover is adding to your understanding of what’s happening here is unclear: mostly, it seems silly, an add-on that only underlines what’s obvious. The saint’s lack of attention here leads to awful brutality, rendered in extreme long shot, watching the men stomp the packets in a kind of frenzy while the van rocks violently. When the scene does cut inside the van, Jin Ping, her huge belly hidden discretely beneath a blanket, looks weary as the last cop enters and, rather than assault her, begins to question her. He, apparently, has a sense of the destruction she’s wreaking in order to provide for her family, but doesn’t act to stop her.
It is a father, Tong Sam (Tanabadee Chokpikultong), who eventually learns the truth and tries to stop the circuit of blood, when his wife and child are infected. Here again, the film leans heavily on broad stereotypes — a scene of the father and daughter frolicking in a sunny field gives way to ailing mother rocking the unconscious girl, both their faces marked with lesions as Sam looks on, horrified and helpless. Government officials, paid off and busy with their own schemes, only look the other way, turning back all Sam’s efforts to stop the spread. After all, Jin Ping is only one of many running similar businesses, afflicting the poor, the ignorant, and the desperate.
A similar apathy and corruption shape the story of “The Pagans,” in which Sister Clara (Chloë Sevigny), Sister Hilde (Dukakis), and Sister Mary (Sandra Oh) arrive in an African village expecting to fulfill their mission, to save the souls of the dying. When Clara, moved by majestic plains, graceful giraffes, and hardworking locals, decides she wants to help the living to keep on, and not only to usher them into the next life, she’s advised against such overreaching. She is unremittingly beatific — appearing in filtered light that makes her resemble a portrait by Vermeer — and also determined. When she learns that a child has been raped by Bongile (Siv Mbelu), who believes he will be cured of his infection (this intoned by the over-helpful voiceover just after a girl has explained it), Clara takes action: she whips the rapist vehemently (“You fucking bastard!”) and seeks “punishment by his employer, the plantation representative Hallyday (Ian Roberts). He chides her (“You missionaries only want to change people; I like them the way they are”) and insists he has no legal dominion. She knows better: “You’re bigger than the law,” Clara declares. “You’re the money.”
He is that. And so Clara will be dealing with him in all kinds of ugly ways in order to fund medical and educational projects for the village. She’s unable to stop — or even imagine, until she confronts them — basic levels of corruption and scheming, such as the reuse of unsterilized needles to save money. The sheer helplessness she feels is captured repeatedly in close-ups of Sevigny’s endlessly remarkable face. But in the end, despite the voiceover’s suggestion that her efforts are “saintly,” it’s not Clara’s moral or spiritual dilemmas with which the film is most concerned. It is, instead, the ineffectiveness of her and others’ efforts, which calls for collective outrage and organization. The point is well taken, even if the melodrama is underwhelming.