Scorsese sets the scene with a rocking soundtrack lead by ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and puts us in the mood to stay up late, drink lots of whisky and smoke until our fingers turn yellow. Welcome to the paint-splattered world of Life Lessons.
One of three short stories told in the 1989 film ‘New York Stories’, Life Lessons immerses us in the world of an artist riding high on the adrenalin of the eleventh hour with just three weeks to go until his exhibition opens.
Nick Nolte is superbly cast as Lionel Dobie, a tortured if successful, middle-aged painter. Rosanna Arquette plays Paulette – a precocious, 22 year old, aspiring artist who looks for her future in Lionel’s bed and his warehouse loft. The two fight to lead the sexual agenda against a backdrop of 1980’s New York, a landscape of shoulder pads, cocktails in martini glasses and performance art spaces in disused railway tunnels.
Fans of Steve Buscemi will find it a treat to see the bug-eyed, buck-toothed actor playing a floppy-haired cad who makes a game of Paulette’s affections and enrages Dobie.
The drama centres around a power play. Lionel tells Paulette “I indulge in love and I indulge in my stuff and they feed off each other”. He unapologetically uses his angst-ridden and frustrated relationship with her as fuel for his messy and Pollock-inspired masterpieces. She uses him for free rent and, hopefully, lessons in art. She begs for his advice, mewling ‘Am I any good? Will I ever be any good?’ but she never picks up a paintbrush in the time this drama plays out. Paulette wallows in self-doubt while Lionel ploughs through it.
Lionel persists with equal vigour in both his quest for Paulette and his creative work. At one point Scorsese focuses on Nolte looking up at an object, a potent, unwavering gaze, filled with lust and a calm, formidable energy. We don’t know whether he’s looking at his artwork or his muse.
In one of his ‘life lesson’ lectures, Lionel tells Paulette that he is a lion – a metaphor also suggested by his rough, greying beard and mane of silvering blonde hair. His behaviour echoes that of the savannah cat – capable of gentleness, or cunning and in equal turns fiercely territorial and utterly vicious. He holds his prey in his gaze and the future of the frolicking, long-legged Paulette is as unclear to the audience as it is to her.
Scorsese captures the panic and confusion of the young Paulette as she tries to make sense of her situation and Lionel's life lessons. We feel empathy for her search for truth, but also frustration that she can’t see what the audience can.
The story is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. The femme fatales in both stories challenge their heroes to childish and potentially dangerous dares in order to prove their love. The Gambler story also extends into the plot of Life Lessons – both pieces follow a hero’s quest to secure the object of his affections. Both stories unfold amongst the upper class of society – the New York art scene no less depraved than the Russian aristocracy.
The influence of The Gambler in Life Lessons is not only evident in the driving themes of sex and compulsive gambling, but also in key scenes which serve to drive the narrative forward. Paulette dares Lionel to kiss a policeman, Dostoyevsky’s Polina asks Alexei to insult a baroness. The Russian protagonist fixates inappropriately on his lover’s foot, Lionel fetishises the gold-chained ankle of his modern-day muse – tilting the power balance even further out of his control. Screenwriter Richard Price drew inspiration not only from the 1972 translation of the original Dostoyevsky text, but also from the accompanying diary of Dostoyevsky’s lover, Polina Suslova that included a short story ‘The Stranger and her Lover’. It was this edition of the Russian classic that compelled Scorsese to interpret the friction between the lovers.
In signature Scorsese-style the music soundtrack is another character within the film. Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ accompanies Dobie’s energetic painting sessions. Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ opens, closes and plays at intervals in Life Lessons, while ‘Conquistador’ is the hidden narrator to pivotal scenes of sexual conquest and macho showdowns. The choice of songs by artists who were at their most popular in the year that Paulette was born places the ownership of the narrative unequivocally in Dobie’s court.
It’s not clear until the closing scene whether Lionel is the teacher or the student, but in telling his story Scorsese reminds the audience that the game of love and passion are always a gamble.